Unless it’s Tweets or Facebook posts, kids just don’t do a lot of reading these days. Why should they, when they can entertain themselves with social media sites, games consoles and mobile phones, all of which require less effort than the old fashioned book?
As a high school English teacher, the most common question I get asked at Parents’ Evening is: how can I help improve my child’s literacy? There are several answers to this question. Firstly, checking their exercise books regularly – all subjects, not just English – to identify common mistakes in punctuation and key spellings. Secondly, accessing a wealth of materials online; there are tonnes of literacy games and worksheets.
But the most effective way of improving your child’s literacy levels is by encouraging them to read as much as possible. Whether it’s newspapers, teen magazines, factual books or fiction, it simply doesn’t matter. It’s no accident or coincidence that the pupils who do best in English at high school are those who read avidly.
However, when it comes to teenagers and the technological distractions of the modern world, it’s natural that reading may have taken a bit of a back seat.
And the only way to remedy this is with some damn good books.
There’s no way you can miraculously turn your child into a true bookworm who makes reading their passion and preferred form of entertainment, but you can give them a great book every now and again and try to provide them with a bit of a break from their computer.
So here’s my list of some of the best books that have been written for children of a secondary school age. I like to read a lot of books for Young Adults, and get tonnes of recommendations from the teens I teach.
1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Unless you have your head permanently stuck in a vat of sand for the last few years, you’ve probably heard of the Hunger Games trilogy from the blockbuster films starring Jennifer Lawrence. The backdrop for this film is a futuristic society in which the Capitol (the government) aggressively controls and oppresses society, not least through the invention of The Hunger Games; an annual event in which a male and female child from each of the 12 districts are selected randomly to fight and kill each other in an arena, leaving only one “victor”. Kids killing kids: a gruesome concept that’s sure to arouse the interest of many teens.
2. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
This novel is the most moving, emotionally draining and captivating story I’ve ever read. Teenager Hazel is coping with terminal cancer, and attends the Cancer Kid Support Group, meeting other teens struggling with the illness. Despite its serious, hard-hitting centre, this book is surprisingly funny; the teenage banter and witty one-liners are both hilarious and realistic.
This is a fantastic read for teenagers, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to adult readers as well – as long as you don’t mind combinations of tears, snot and dribble running down your face.
3. Junk by Melvin Burgess
If you want to get your teen hooked on a book, tell them about the controversy Junk caused when it was first released and won the Carnegie prize. Tell them about the drugs, homelessness, sex, prostitution and deaths the book contains. Tell them you’re worried it may be too gritty, harrowing and brutal for them. That will, at the very least, whet their appetite a little.
The book follows Gemma, a teen runaway, and explores how she adapts to and survives life on the streets. I love this book for its shocking honesty and, given that kids today know way more than you’d expect, I think it’s actually worth giving them to raise their awareness of the severity and cruel reality of drugs and the nightmarish spiral they can initiate.
4. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
The book just oozes mystery from start to finish. The main character, Thomas, awakens amongst a group of boys he doesn’t know, in a place he doesn’t recognise and with all his memories erased. The boys live in the centre of an ever-changing maze, a maze no-one has made it out of alive. Each day is simply a new chance for the boys to try to make it out of the maze. Until a girl arrives.
Want to read more? This book is gripping from its spooky start to its explosive end, and is a great one to try with boys. What’s more, if it is a success, Maze Runner is one of a series….
5. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
An incredibly disturbing book but totally unique and captivating from start to finish! Set in a futuristic society in which children up to the age of 18 can be “unwound”, harvested for their body parts, Unwind follows the lives of 3 teens whose paths become entwined as they struggle to fight against a society that wants them dead and their bodies cut apart. The book discreetly examines the needs and right of the individual versus the greater good for society in an eerie but fascinating way.
6. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Morbid but original, 13 Reasons Why explores the turmoil and emotional struggles suffered by teenager Hannah, which caused her, tragically, to commit suicide. The main character is Hannah’s classmate Clay, who is left by Hannah a set of tapes on which she has recorded the 13 reasons she took her own life. Clay discovers the role of many people in Hannah’s choice to take her own life, but what’s his own role in her death…? A harrowing read, but one I would highly recommend.
7. Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys
Absolutely NOT to be confused with 50 Shades of Grey, Ruta Sepetys’ novel for young adults follows the plight of a Lina, a fifteen year old Lithuanian girl, and her family and neighbours as they are dragged from their homes by Soviet forces and thrown into a life of abject misery, starvation and inhumane suffering. Under Stalin’s brutal regime, Lina and the others are forced to journey across the Arctic Circle to the outer realms of Siberia, and are then made to work in the most extreme, cruel conditions. This is an emotional, often disturbing but honest and real account of the suffering inflicted upon the innocent under Stalin, and one that had me hooked from start to finish.
8. The Host by Stephanie Meyer
Although she may be famous for the Twilight Saga, Stephanie Meyer’s done a cracking job with The Host as well. Taking a break from vampires in favour of aliens this time, Meyer creates a world in which most of the human race is taken over by parasitic aliens who live in the brains of humans, taking total control over their host’s body and gaining full access to their thoughts and memories. Central to the novel is the conflict and relationship between Melanie, a human, and Wanderer, the alien inside her head.
9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
A mature novel for older readers, the story is set in Nazi Germany and is narrated by Death. It follows the life of Liesel, a foster child who develops a habit of book-stealing against a backdrop of the Nazi’s rise to power and the impact this has on the people of Germany. This is a total tear-jerker, as you can probably guess, and presents heart-breaking scenes of loss and suffering.
10. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
A love story set within a society of racial prejudice and discrimination; a Romeo and Juliet tale with a contemporary twist. Sephy is a “Cross”, a member of the black ruling class, and Callum is a “Nought”, a member of the white class who were once slaves to Crosses and continue to be treated as inferior. Sephy and Callum’s childhood friendship develops into romance, but in a world where Noughts and Crosses can’t mix, their friendship, loyalty and love is continually tried and tested. This is a good book for developing a teenager’s awareness of racial discrimination and the dire consequences this can have on individuals.