I remember the reading material from my teens. I had outgrown the Grimm brothers and Enid Blytons. I found Nancy Drews stupid and just about tolerated the “ The three investigators”. I found comics silly, so "Archies" were out! I was introduced by a friend to Mills and Boon romances. I read them avidly trying my best to relate to those young women living in England, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Those tall, dark and handsome heroes in their thirties seemed geriatric ( lets face it folks, these guys were just about half a decade younger than our fathers at that time) and those girls working as governesses, nurses and secretaries seemed like doormats! But I read them all the same because … well there was nothing else to read! By the time I was fifteen, out of sheer exasperation, I switched to what can safely be called ‘adult” reading material- Sydney Sheldon, Irving Wallace etc!
As my daughter started reading, I wondered if she would also have to take the same path! But I was in for a pleasant surprise!
For starters, one does not have to restrict oneself to the western contexts- there are a lot of books today that are written for teenagers in different cultural settings. There are first person accounts of the lives of girls/ boys from India, Afghanistan, Benin and even Somalia. There are stories of children growing in different cultural contexts- the issue of being migrants in a foreign land, the prejudice they face etc! And the nicest part of all this is that these stories are all written from the teenage perspective. These books talk about problems with parents, crushes, drug abuse, sexual abuse and various other problems that are part of the teenage angst! The teen reader can relate to the characters and imbibe the well camouflaged message without it sounding preachy! While not denying the fact that today’s teens are more exposed to everything thanks to the electronic media, I must say that printed material has evolved since the last generation. These contemporary books treat the teen like the young adults that they are. They are not prudish. They acknowledge that teens have sexual feelings but that sex is not something that can be casually experimented with.
Being the mother of a daughter, I only have access to books preferred by girls. I must say that the stories are very empowering. Right from a fictitious first person account of Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra to Harsha’s sister Rajyashree to the story of Shameem a Pakistani girl born and brought up in the UK, these stories bring out the inner strength of the main characters. I particularly like the way the stories focus on how these girls fought restrictive social customs and emerged stronger. I remember her reading a book “Do they hear you when you cry” a first person account of a girl from Benin who ran away from home to escape Female Genital mutilation. My daughter was twelve when she read this book. She wanted to know what Female Genital mutilation was about. I used this opportunity to explain it to her – about how it was an violent act performed on a young girl so that she was denied sexual pleasure. It took some time for her to understand but I think she grasped the entire concept of Patriarchal control over female sexuality rather well. I cannot help but compare her comprehension to mine which came in much later – in my twenties when I had started to question the sugar coated romances that I used to read in my teenage – their warped value system where marriage was shown as the ultimate goal of any woman, however educated she may be!
Literature is a reflection of the society we live in. There has been a lot of social change since the time we were teens and that finds reflection in the writing. Besides, today’s world is less polarized in terms of east and west. It is not just the “American teenager” who is the symbol of rudeness and nonchalance. We have enough of that in our country too. Having boyfriends/ girlfriends is also more “tolerated” these days. So there are more reading vistas opening up for today’s teen. They can relate much better to the “To Sir with love” context than us, coming as we did from a restrictive background with segregation of the sexes.
But most of all, one must admire those who write for this age group! There are publications like "Scholastic" that specialize in children's and teen literature! Teen fiction, teen writing is emerging as the new literary space. It requires a lot of sensitivity and empathy to write for this group. Many parents tell me that their children have given up reading for television and the internet. It is therefore a challenge to retain the few who still read by writing books that they can relate to.