Select one of the keywords
Editorial July 2003
Teen Reads Rule!
By Hilary Williamson

I just read Rowling's latest, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (with both my sons and my father anxiously awaiting their turns) and it reminded me of the excellence of so many books written for a teen audience. It's unfortunate that quite a few adults who would enjoy them don't give them a try.

One particular recipe has brewed up perfect potions for teen reading, from Cinderella to the wildly popular Potter. Take an outsider (usually from the lower rungs of society). Show them abused (or at least misunderstood) by adults and peers. Then empower them with magic, genius, strength, hypnotic ability, telepathy, or anything else that will let them rise above the crowd (literally in the case of the teen Superman of Smallville). But, whatever you do, don't make it too easy for them, 'cause then where's the story?

Lessa succeeds through her ability to communicate with dragonkind (as well as by an impressive focus on her goals) in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight. Orphaned Harry develops psychic abilities that allow her to wield Robin McKinley's Blue Sword in Damar. And James Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon, a genius with telepathic ability, is one of the best of early SF heroines. Of course young men can also be psychic. There's Ross Murdock, the young offender that Andre Norton morphs into a time cop in her exciting Time Traders. And one of my all time favorites is Mary Stewart's young Merlin in The Crystal Cave - unfortunately, his ability to foresee events doesn't usually work to his benefit.

Though many teen heroes and heroines get magical power-ups from their authors, others have to connive their way out of tight corners. The social and linguistic skills, and knowledge of Lahore street life, of Rudyard Kipling's Kim makes him a player in the Great Game. Roald Dahl's Matilda uses her brains to improve her sad situation, though not to the nefarious level that Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl reaches (and of course Colfer's fairy underworld adds a whole other dimension to his brilliant series.) Bean (and Ender before him) beat the system as child geniuses in Orson Scott Card's Ender stories, and Robert Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars also aims a very high IQ at bad guys.

More recent examples of empowered outsiders include S. D. Tower's Assassins of Tamurin, in which an abused orphan is trained as a kind of ninja assassin. Diana Wynne Jones' Merlin Conspiracy has magically talented teens traveling the Multiverse to fight a dangerous conspiracy. Darren Shan must learn to cope with a whole new society and test his vampiric abilities in the Cirque Du Freak series. Georgia Byng's Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism almost tells the story in its title alone - orphaned Molly learns to mesmerize assorted adults and peers who have bullied and ridiculed her. Of course there's a lot more to it than that as she hypnotizes herself into deeper and deeper trouble.

Which is one element of these super teen reads that I really like - though their authors empower young men and women, they also show limits and abuses of such powers and make their protagonists deal with consequences. For example, treatment of house elves affects what happens in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Artemis must accept his responsibility for Butler's injuries in The Eternity Code. Terry Pratchett does an especially fine job of reflecting right and wrong in his teen tale of Discworld, The Wee Free Men, in which he speaks of taking responsibility to do what is needed and what is right, and tells us that 'someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.'

What do these books have in common besides underdogs who fight back with genius IQs, magical abilities, or other potent skills? Their authors have all brewed up some pretty amazing reads. As well as giving us engaging characters and thrilling action sequences, they deal with using talents responsibly and dealing with consequences. Trust me, they are definitely not just for teens.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.