I fluffed up the cushions on the couch, made a cup of nuclear-strong tea, and settled down with my new novel. The blurb on the back cover was promising: it opens with a train crash; a screech of metal, cascades of sparks, screams, and the reviews were bubbling over with praise. But then, something happened which made me toss the book away, and I’ve not re-opened it since.
As I was leafing through the opening pages, I marvelled, ‘who is this author who’s so lauded? How come I’ve never heard of her?’ I got my laptop to google her name and that’s when the killer blow fell: I was reading a ‘young adult’ novel. Instantly, my anticipation of a good read folded flat.
Why? Plain old prejudice? Am I sneering at the book, convinced it’ll be weak, just because it was written for young ‘uns? Maybe, but there’s a sound reason my expectations were snuffed out. Not prejudice but because, as Thomas Wolfe said, You can’t go home again. Books which you read and adored as a child, or even ‘young adult’ should not be re-trodden when you’re older because it’ll be impossible to read them in the same light, with the same mind-set and the same innocence. They’ll necessarily be weaker because you lose a particular sense of wonder as you grow older and you can’t go home again. This is why ‘young adult’ fiction is a category apart. It’s not because they’re not clever enough, or don’t have the vocabulary or attention-span for ‘real’ fiction, but because younger people need, and take, different things from their reading. Those jaded and sour-tempered commuters who read Harry Potter on the train are fooling themselves. You can’t recapture what you got as a child. You can’t go home again.
When I was 11, I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and was almost knocked flat. It’s about a Jewish family who refugee Berlin just before Hitler takes power. It was my first encounter with the Nazis and the Holocaust, and it has never left me. I’d often like to slip back into the story, to flee through 1930s Berlin, Switzerland and Paris with Anna, but I can’t as I’m older and have a degree in History. I’ve read countless books – fiction and non – about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and each one is layered relentlessly on top of the innocent reading of the 11-year old who was astonished at Kerr’s book. The feeling I had is irretrievably lost, and I’d rather have the memory of the book, and the intention to pass it on to nieces, nephews and any children of my own, than stumble through it now, a bull in a china shop, grown and cynical. So I wouldn’t dare re-read it. I want to preserve it as it was.
Likewise with Mila 18 by Leon Uris. I read that when I was 17 and I can say, hand on heart, no other novel has ever affected me so strongly. I was working in Marks and Spencer at the time, and remember standing behind the till, stamping my feet in frustration that I was stuck here, selling vests to the middle-aged, whilst that book was lying on my desk at home. I stamped and huffed and scowled at the customers.
When I eventually finished it, I couldn’t even bear to look at the spine of the book, so I turned it back to front on the shelf.
Then, years later, at 25, I decided I was ready to read it again; to wade back into that horror. I pulled it off the shelf, took a deep breath, and began to read. Oh, it was rubbish! I laughed at myself for falling for it. What silly writing! What over-blown descriptions! What clichés! So, I’d ruined it for myself. I’d pulled on my clumsy adult boots and gone tramping through territory which should have been left alone.
I’ve still kept my copy of Mila 18. I will never re-read it, but it’s a reminder of the awesome power a novel can have.
So, you can’t go home again. The person who was knocked flat by Pink Rabbit or Mila 18 is now changed and so to tear through the childhood books again looking for the same experience is futile.
This is why I hate to see adults read Twilight or Harry Potter. Are they simply too cowed or dim to attempt a real novel? Or are they trying to escape back to the wonder they experienced when reading as a child?
If I re-read some of my teenage books now, they’d be pleasant and undemanding, but that’s all. There’d be no shock and awe. There’d be no imprint stamped on me forever. Is that was these weary commuters think as they leaf through their young adult reads? That books are a pleasant distraction, but nothing more? Then what a shame! Don’t they know there is equal wonder to be found in other novels? Move up to hearty, meaty, real literature and it’s all still there, waiting for you. Surely the ‘real’ version of Harry Potter is The Lord of the Rings? To the girls who sigh over the Twilight guy: he’s based on Heathcliff, so don’t accept a watered down version, read Wuthering Heights. If you want a real version of Pink Rabbit or Mila 18 then there’s Sophie’s Choice.
Don’t stagnate. Don’t read and re-read these ‘young adult’ books to re-capture something. You can’t go home again. But you can go somewhere else.