It’s really easy to pinpoint the blame for declining teenage literacy on a famous vlogger, but one of the underlying problems is this: adults try to dictate what teens should be reading, and in turn teenagers just don’t read at all.
We need to address the stigma that is attached to children’s books and young adult fiction. As a literature student who no longer belongs in the young adult age group, I feel pressured whenever I’m asked about my favourite book. Because a lit student’s favourite book should obviously be a classic. Surely it’s Wuthering Heights? Nope, I’ve never read it. Pride and Prejudice then? I haven’t read that one either. It has to be Great Expectations? Now that one I’ve read, but I don’t get along with Dickens.
So, what is your favourite book? My go to in this context is A Thousand Splendid Suns which isn’t necessarily a classic (I do love Rebecca) but it’s not a young adult book so it’s a safe choice, and it’s also pretty incredible. That being said, if I know we have similar reading interests I’m more likely to say a young adult book, although I can never choose between my favourites so I always alternate depending on how I’m feeling.
I guess young adult fiction has become a guilty pleasure of sorts. But I constantly have to ask myself, “Why should I feel guilty for reading these books?” After all, they are far more tuned to current world affairs than the classics and they are becoming increasingly diverse, which is definitely a good thing.
Not all young adult books are boyband fanfictions or ghost-written by YouTubers, but they are books written for teens so it’s understandable that adults usually frown upon them. The point is teenagers want to read books written for them and about them. Whether it’s written as a fanfiction, by a vlogger or bestselling author shouldn’t matter. Teenagers read these books, and trying to pinpoint the blame for declining literacy on these books because they’re not “challenging” enough is skirting the real problem.
Rather than looking at what kids are reading, we need to think about whether they are reading at all. How do they access books? What is the value of reading in their homes and cultures? How often are they encouraged to read by their teachers and librarians?
March 2nd was World Book Day; a celebration of authors, illustrators, books and mostly importantly reading. WBD encourages children to explore the pleasures of reading, engaging with their favourite books, by dressing up as their favourite characters, and taking part in a range of activities provided by schools and libraries nationwide. WBD also aims to make books more accessible by providing book tokens to every child so they can buy a book of their own. Yet, one day out of the whole year is not nearly enough.
As a child, books weren’t something to be found at home, not only because our low income made them unaffordable but because reading isn’t something that is encouraged in my culture. I was first exposed to books when I started school, but even then the only thing I remember reading were those Biff, Chip and Kipper books.
When I got to high school, books still weren’t so readily available to me. We read one book, as a whole class, during English and every fortnight we had a library lesson where we were encouraged to take books home and return them after two weeks. I think I realised then how much I enjoyed reading, but my school library didn’t have much to offer and definitely not anything considered “challenging” enough to improve my literacy.
How can we expect teenage literacy levels to excel when we don’t make books accessible in the first place? And how can we expect teens to want to read when we’re constantly telling them that the books targeted at their age group aren’t good enough? There are clearly problems here, but Zoella isn’t one of them.