‘Excuse me, where are the boys’ books? I’m looking to buy for a 16-year-old.’
I overheard this question while browsing in a bookshop recently. I felt insta-rage, and wanted to explode into a rant about gender-specific books and how there’s no such thing as “girl” books and “boy” books because books don’t have sex organs, for cryin’ out loud! But I reined in my uproar, and seeing as I was browsing in the same section, I offered to help this woman who was looking to buy a young adult book for her grandson.
And the encounter got me thinking about the tips I’d give someone in a similar situation, shopping for a book to give to a young person.
1. Ask the young person. Appreciate that young people know their own mind and tastes, and show them the courtesy of asking their opinion. So much of teenagers’ reading habits are prescribed to them – like the dreaded school reading list – so when you’re buying a book for them to read recreationally, offer them the chance to have a say in the selection. Also, avoid making the mistake of assuming you know what they like by basing your choice on the last book you can remember them liking (Andy Griffiths, while brilliant, probably won’t suit a 16-year-old even if he was their favourite author in primary school).
Admittedly, this tip only works if the young person you’re buying for is bookish and therefore has reading preferences. Even teens who are not especially keen readers will occasionally read books based on word-of-mouth recommendations from peers (that’s partly how The Fault in Our Stars got so darn big). So if the teenager you’re buying for isn’t a big reader (yet!) look to what others their age are loving right now.
2. Buy indie. If you can’t ask the recipient what sort of books or authors they like – and the prospect of browsing youth literature overwhelms you – then your next best bet is to ask someone who works in a bookstore… which means you want to shop in an actual bookstore. Local, independent bookstores will often have children’s book specialists who are chock-full of reading recommendations. Find your nearest indie at www.indies.com.au.
3. Browse Inside a Dog. If you want help knowing what young people are reading right now, then the Centre for Youth Literature is your online destination. It’s their job to promote youth literature in Australia, so they know what they’re talking about – and their Inside a Dog website is filled with reviews and recommendations from actual young people who love to read and discuss books.
4. Don’t buy the book that you want them to read. The woman looking for a book for her 16-year-old grandson told me he enjoyed Markus Zusak’s Fighting Ruben Wolfe – which means he’s likely to be interested in contemporary coming-of-age novels with a bit of grit. With that in mind I suggested author Ned Vizzini (she shook her head after reading the blurb, because books about kids with mental health issues are too dark). ‘No,’ to Friday Brown (because it’s about homeless kids… but I suspect she still had residual ‘girl’ book issues). Eventually, she accepted my suggestion of John Green’s Looking For Alaska (but only after I showed her Markus Zusak’s endorsement quote on another of Green’s books).
Here’s the thing: books for young adults are meant to push them out of their comfort zone. My dad is a driving instructor, so forgive this analogy, but in much the same way learner drivers have to practice driving in all conditions – sunshine, as well as rain and hail – the same goes for young people reading complex, dark and gritty books about uncomfortable topics. Comfort reads are great, but a book that pushes you to empathise and think outside the world you know is just as important. Young readers are good at self-censoring, so if a book is too dark for them, they’ll put it down and walk away. Please don’t disregard a book (or an entire topic or theme, like mental health or homelessness) because it’s not wholesome enough for your personal standards.
Furthermore, don’t become a gatekeeper to their reading maturation. There’sa fine line between ‘gatekeeping’ and ‘censorship’. Both are often done with the best of intentions – gatekeeping, for instance, can sometimes be about keeping books to their age-appropriate readerships (ensuring young kids don’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance). But a recent school in Delaware, USA encountered the slippery slope of literary gatekeeping, when they came under fire for removing Emily M Danforth’s novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post from their school’s recommended reading list (the book is about a gay teenager, although the school claimed the choice was made because of profanity). When people pointed out that many other YA novels on their recommended reading list also contained profanity, they realised their hypocricy was indefensible, and scrapped their entire summer reading list.
For more on the role of gatekeepers in youth literature, watch Keith Gray’s 2013 Reading Matters conference keynote ‘Gatekeepers – the good, the bad and my mother’.
5. Books are books are books. Just before the grandmother left the bookstore, I said to her, ‘There’s really no such thing as “boy” books and “girl” books. Books are books… besides, what would be so terrible about a boy reading a “girl” book anyway?’
I had to get a little rant in.