Sam Mills’s first novel, A Nicer Way to Die, is a dark thriller about a group of 30 pupils who travel to France on a school-trip. A horrific coach crash kills 28 of them, leaving two boys behind: Henry and James, two stepbrothers who share a troubled relationship.
“When I was growing up, there seemed to be two main types of teenage fiction around. The first was fluffy (Sweet Valley High et al) and portrayed growing up as a hunky-dory experience, where beautiful boys met beautiful girls, the greatest trauma in life was not being selected for the cheerleading squad, and all lived happily ever after. The second type, which I feasted on with glee, explored reality. They captured just what a difficult and jagged experience growing up can be. Some teen books can be terribly depressing; they focus too heavily on ‘issues’ (drugs, teen pregnancy etc) and become unrealistic in their bleakness. The most interesting books about teenagers are not afraid to explore the darker side of adolescence, but with humour, insight or humanity. As a result, they become classics because their readership is universal; their protagonists may be teenagers but anyone aged 13 to 80 can enjoy them. Hence, the list I have chosen is a blend of books that have been either published as teen or adult fiction…”
1. Lord of The Flies by William Golding
Lord Of the Flies was published in 1954 but is still utterly relevant today. It centres on a group of boys who, following a plane crash, are stranded on a desert island. At first they work together, building shelters and gathering food. But soon group tensions split the group as Ralph tries to maintain reason, order and structured discipline, opposed by Jack and his band of painted savages. Primal instincts take over and civilisation crumbles into animal savagery and violence. Golding uses the playing field of adolescence to explore the roots of evil, tracing the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral of the story is that the backbone of a society depends on the ethical nature of the individuals who founded it, and not any government, or politics.
2. The Outsiders by SE Hinton
SE Hinton wrote The Outsiders while she was still a high school student, inspired by her determination to change the negative stereotype of teenagers who were labelled ‘greasers.’ She tells the story of two groups of teenagers whose bitter rivalry stems from socioeconomic differences: the greasers, the lower-class hoods, who continually clash with the Socs, the rich kids in town. The novel is narrated by the 16-year-old Greaser Ponyboy and, like many of the finest teen novels, Hinton pins down her hero’s colloquial voice perfectly. Though it is a violent and at times bleak read, Hinton offers a spark of hope as Ponyboy begins to realise that the hardships that greasers and Socs face may take different practical forms, but that both groups share the same fundamental difficulties of growing up. Published in 1967, The Outsiders was a groundbreaking piece of fiction that set the precedent for the uncompromising, realistic fiction for young adults that soon followed it.
3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Burgess’s novel far excels Kubrick’s film. This is a novel which explores the very darkest side of adolescence. 15-year-old Alex and his friends set out on an orgy of robbery, rape, torture and murder. Alex relates his tale in an idiom called Nadsat, a glorious invention by Burgess: a kind of musical Russian-English slang. When Alex is arrested, the book takes on Orwellian overtones when he is used in a scientific experiment to regulate adolescent violence in a new and alarming way. The original American edition of the book (and hence the film) failed to include the final chapter of the book, where Alex grows up and gives up his violent ways. Burgess believed that all individuals, even those as violent as Alex, could reform, and that moral growth could come with age – but his US editor felt the last chapter was too ‘bland’ and forced him to omit it. Later Burgess got the chapter reinstated, arguing that he objected to his work being used to send a message that some humans are simply evil by nature.
4. Boy Kills Man by Matt Whyman
Many of the best teen books highlight real problems happening in the world today and Boys Kills Man is a perfect example. Inspired by the true story of child assassins in Colombia, it tells the tale of Sonny, aka Shorty, who is hired by the crime lord El Fantasma to become a assassin on the streets of Medellin. It is a powerful and moving book that swings between tenderness and brutality. Whyman takes care not to moralise or offer easy answers – Sonny is a complex character who does the wrong things for what he believes are the right reasons.
5. The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
Many of the most interesting novels about adolescence explore the theme of children who are abandoned by their parents or find themselves in a situation where they are free from adult authority. Like Lord of the Flies, the four children in The Cement Garden, are left to their own devices when their parents die. Fearing adoption, they keep their mother’s death a secret by burying her in a cement locker in their basement. But, unlike Lord of the Flies, the children do not descend into animal savagery. Rather, they are torn between the impulses to progress and regress. Julie, the eldest of the siblings, takes on the role of a surrogate mother as the children attempt to carry on as normal a life as possible. But, as they seek to emulate their parent’s roles, an incestuous relationship develops between Julie and Jack…
6. Catcher In the Rye by JD Salinger
The Catcher in The Rye is narrated by 16-year-old Holden Caulfield. At the start of the story, Holden has just been expelled from school and stands poised on the cliff separating childhood and adulthood. Holden’s voice is superb: colloquial, savagely comic, and utterly persuasive, sucking you in so swiftly that it is hard not to read the book in one sitting. It is also captures the complexity of adolescence. Holden feels deeply cynical about the adult world; like the ‘catcher in the rye’ he wishes to wipe out corruption from the world and protect children from becoming a ‘phonie’ – an adult. Yet, at times, he behaves like a ‘phonie’ himself and is frustrated by his desire to fit into the adult world and be taken seriously by adults. You can guarantee that any brilliant and honest book for teens will be frequently banned in schools and The Catcher In the Rye has certainly suffered from this fate many a time.
7. The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce
Though Joyce’s novels are shelved in the fantasy sections in bookshops, his books are about as far away from Tolkien as you can get. The Tooth Fairy begins firmly in reality, exploring – with wonderfully deft observation – the adventures of a boy called Sam Southall growing up in England in the 1960s. At the age of seven, Sam loses a tooth and is visited by a Tooth Fairy. But this is no fluffy sprite: Joyce’s Tooth Fairy smells rank, peppers his language with swearwords and makes sinister threats. Joyce blends together fantasy and reality as the Tooth Fairy becomes a superb metaphor for his hero’s adolescence, metamorphosing as Sam shifts from boyhood to manhood.
8. A Kestrel For a Knave by Barry Hines
A teenage novel about a boy called Billy who is trying to survive his harsh existence in a small mining town in Yorkshire. His family are impoverished, his teachers mistreat him and he is entirely friendless – until he finds a form of love and redemption in a kestrel that he trains and rears from a chick. A profoundly touching novel, its greatest achievement is the depiction of Billy. He might have been an unsympathetic narrator – he is at times violent, ill-tempered and bad-mouthed – but Hines (like Whyman in Boy Kills Man) shows that his troubled adolescent behaviour is a result of the society he is brought up in rather than his true nature.
9. The Republic of Trees by Sam Taylor
A dark fable about four English children who run away to the French countryside to establish their own Utopian community. There, in the Republic of Trees, the children hunt, fall in love and educate themselves in the principles of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. The novel is narrated by Michael and the first half of the book explores his sexual awakening as he falls in love with Isobel and loses his virginity to her. But then a new member, Joy, joins the group, bringing new disciplines and the mood of the camp begins to alter. Gradually their utopian paradise descends into a dystopian nightmare as the novels powers towards a shocking, violent and terrifying conclusion. A fantastic novel with shades of Lord Of the Flies and 1984.
10. Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
Surely the best Booker prize-winner in recent years, Vernon God Little has been described by some critics as a modern day equivalent to Catcher In the Rye. It swings from savage satire to black comedy to sweet lyricism to poignant tragedy from one page to the next – all captured in the voice of 15-year-old Vernon, when he is wrongly accused of a high school massacre. Like many adolescent heroes, Vernon finds himself rebelling against a corrupt adult society.