Teen classics

I was talking to someone the other day who said she couldn’t get her son to read ‘the classics’. Can’t say I blame him, the only reason I ever read them was because there was so little else on offer, plus we had to read them for school. But if I’d had the range of books  teenagers can choose from these days, I’d never have gone near them. Then someone else  was muttering that her son only ever read books with quite a high body count… Again, I’ve read a lot of killing books, but there are ones that are well written and others which aren’t. So there must be some kind of crossover here – call it teen classics? I’ll make a list, because I’m a boy, and that’s what we do…

The commitments – Roddy Doyle


May not be what purists would call a classic, but it’s funny, it’s well written, its got great characters, and it’s genuinely about adolescents. Boys in Dublin form a band, with all the tribulations, romantic entanglements, betrayals and so on that go with it – Without The Commitments, Bryan Elsley would never have written the Channel 4 Youth drama SkinsRoddy Doyle has written others I really liked (The Van, the Snapper etc) but I think this is his best, and it’s certainly the most accessible for a teenager. There are no deaths, it’s very funny and the only thing missing is to actually be able to hear the music!

It’s also a fantastic film, which not only helps as you can buy both for a present, but also encourages readers/viewers to see the different requirements of the two different forms. I’ve banged on about this before but film and fiction are two utterly different mediums, it’s really hard to make a film of a book, it almost never works – Alex Rider, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hunger Games, One Day,  – all in their own way very good books, but rubbish films. Maybe it’s because Studios see a popular book and think kerching! Obviously directors are told not to mess things up by taking risks, so they don’t and you end up with little more than the book with added pictures.  101 dalmations, Silence of the Lambs are both a pretty straight adaptations and both very good, so it can work, but as a rule it tends to be things like The Godfather, James Bond, Babe, Dr Strangelove which do it best – films which take books and use them as jumping off points. How to train your dragon is a perfect example – fun world that is lifted straight from the books but then a whole new story is found which absolutely comes from within the world and fits it perfectly, but has all the necessary characteristics of a film story rather than a novelistic one.  Anyway, The Commitments  also works as both – haven’t seen the  musical yet. Let me know. And I don’t think any of the Harry Potters are good films. Great stories, but not great films.

Day of the Jackal – Frederick Forsyth


I would say this is a great read for any age from 14 up. It’s about an assassin, so what’s not to like? it’s based on real events so it’s got a degree of historical accuracy, and it’s really exciting. It’s not linguistically challenging or semantically complex, it’s just a great thriller, and even though you know what’s going to happen, it’s still extremely exciting.  And while we’re on him, Frederick Forsyth is also responsible for The Dogs of War, which may not be Jane Austen, but it’s darn exciting and the writing style is clear, elegant and lucid. When I was growing up there weren’t many books aimed at the teen market so we had to grab what we could and just deal with the sexier elements…

Anything by John Green

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Well I say  anything – I’ve read three of them, these three in fact, and I loved all of them. They’re quite samey, but there’s nothing wrong with that when they’re this good. Again it’s the writing that’s key. It’s simple elegant prose, but the difference from the other things on this list is that these are super-contemporary. They actually feel written for contemporary YA readers without being patronising or irritatingly self-conscious and that’s rare.

Maybe American classics is another way to go. Pick books which don’t have the depressing font and feel of a penguin? Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Old Man and the Sea, Death in the Afternoon, Of Mice and Men – these are all classics, but my heart doesn’t sink when I pick them up. East of Eden, the Great Gatsby, Tender is the night, The pearl, the grapes of Wrath – there’s loads of them, and most of them tend to be a wee bit more accessible than British Classics (or maybe they’re just newer?)  Anyway, they would all feature on my list.

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson


This is an incredible true story – the most amazingly dramatic events following a climb that goes wrong and then an extraordinary feat of survival. Once one man takes the decision to ‘cut the rope’ it just goes on from there. I’m not normally much of a one for non-fiction, but this blew me away. It’s actually an amazing Bafta winning film as well, a mix of reconstruction and live interview gets round the whole lack of dialogue (he’s on his own so he’s got nobody to talk to) thing. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) but definitely one to read before you watch.

Where Eagles Dare – Alastair Maclean


Sorry – more shooting, but even as a teenager it’s really important to want to keep reading, and well written thrillers do that like nothing else. Even the flipping Da Vinci Code is a great page-turner that neither I nor my 14 yr old daughter could put down. Plus you get all the great ‘so is that really true about the Last Supper and Jesus having a child?’ questions. Anyway, no apologies for plenty of thrillers in this list – they’re well written, exciting, and keep you coming back for more. Alastair Maclean is a source of many – Ice Station Zebra, Fear is the Key, the guns of Navarone, Force ten from Navarone are all genuinely exciting – some are less war-based than others if you prefer, and they’re all great reads.

Pretty much anything by George Orwell – 1984, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London etc. All really well written and I would say they constitute trad classics, but somehow not daunting or depressing ones. I went through a bit of a George Orwell phase when I was about 16 or 17 and hoovered them all up. Some of them can be a bit taxing (Keep the Aspidistra flying, the Clergyman’s daughter) but generally they’re great. Might be worth starting with 1984 which is prescient and fun. You could also have a bit of a dystopia-off?

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The Declaration by Gemma Malley is a fantastic trilogy set in the near future where they’ve created a pill which radically slows your ageing process. Effectively makes you immortal, which means there’s no room for any more children so nobody’s allowed them, but there are a few and they rebel and go on the run and then we’re into books 2 and 3. Anyway I will write about it more in another post about covers (my copy was pink and embossed which made it tricky for my 12 year old son to embrace until I took the dust jacket off – then he loved it – the edition pictured here is far more sensible) – it’s not a million miles away from The Hunger Games but does pre-date it and is equally as morally interesting. I had a winge at my children about the film of The Hunger Games which I thought was morally bankrupt (they had no issues with it at all) – I really liked the books and thought the film had sacrificed all the thinky stuff in favour of plot, plot, plot. So maybe then that’s enough dystopias to be going on with –  The Hunger Games and The Declaration are good trilogies, but both very easy reads – Brave new World and 1984 are the more demanding classics in this face off.

I’ve just read a fantastic book called Nothing by Janne Teller.


This is in other posts as well, but that’s because I like it so much – a truly chilling Lord of the Flies style novel translated from Danish. A teenager goes up a tree and won’t come down because he thinks nothing is of any value. His friends all club together and make a pile of things which are genuinely worth something – by the end it is truly troubling, frighteningly anarchic and you’re desperate for them to be discovered – it’s the same adult-free world of Lord of the Flies and equally as provocative. More contemporary though.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the Moon of Gomrath – Alan Garner.

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Both these are allegedly Children’s books, but only in the way that the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings are. They are spooky, exciting and historically fun because they touch on King Arthur but in a modern way. These two were written originally as the first two parts of a trilogy – the weirdstone was published in 1960, the moon of Gomrath followed not long after. Part 3 (Boneland) was published last year, and is very odd. The first two parts however, are fantastic. Alan Garner is often held up as our greatest living children’s novelist. The Owl Service is another of his – it’s a truly scary story that is quite hard to read, but a really good TV series.

Longbourn – Jo Baker


Pride and Prejudice – the servant’s story – I’m only adding this because it makes me laugh. It’s really good, and what better way to deal with the classics than rebooting them in this excellent fashion?

Boys don’t Cry – Malorie Blackman

Again, pretty much anything by her is excellent, but I’ve picked this one because it made a real impression on both my son and my daughter and that’s unusual… It’s also proper colour blind writing which is again unusual and makes it even more appealing. Funny, there’s a message but it doesn’t hit you over  the head, exciting and intelligent. Loved it.