It took two gins and an overstuffed cigarette, but this afternoon I pushed the doorbell at my mother’s next door neighbours’ and took a deep breath, followed by a hacking cough. I was due an audience with the two teenage girls who live there, and who have read the manuscript of my first novel. It was written for a young readership, probably 11-13, and they are slightly too old for it, but they had agreed to give me feedback and I was, to be honest, terrified.
They are my first young readers, and I have been shored up by positive reviews from grown-ups who have all been either related to me or good friends, so this was the novel’s first real test. A big thank you, then, to Isabel and Eleanor, for intelligent comments, the odd highlighted typo and also recommended reads for next year.
I have to admit I was slightly spoiled by having these two as readers. They are both avid devourers of books, picking from their parents’ bookshelves at random to see what’s between mysterious covers. One is reading Jane Eyre, having been set it before for school course work. They are divided over Harry Potter.
Not surprisingly, they both felt the book was slightly younger than something they would choose themselves. However, they judged the age of the teenage protagonist exactly as I’d imagined him, and despite my reservations didn’t find him naïve for his years.
I’ve been waiting ages to get some opinions from teenagers regarding the very concept of a teenage book market. Interestingly, they weren’t directly opposed, but both said they would simply choose books they liked, regardless of intended audience. Eleanor (the younger of the two) in particular noted that the teenage book market seems to assume that all people of a certain age want to read the same kind of thing, which obviously is no more true of teenagers than it is of adults.
The best part for me was Isabel’s avowal that she really enjoyed the descriptions in the book. These lines and phrases are the ones closest to my heart, plotting and narrative being for me the greatest challenge, and I was so happy to hear someone pick them out as something she liked, over character or events. I’ve done a lot of cutting in that department, not enough according to some, so now I feel a small amount of vindication for leaving in the extra words that mattered to me.
I have left the manuscript in the hands of their ten year old brother; both his sisters assure me he won’t get the drug references, but he’s clearly at a reading level where he will have an opinion. Before I left, while we were discussing A level and university topics, he asked me what Philosophy is. I elaborated on my favourite answer (‘it’s thinking about thinking’) by giving him a taster of
“Imagine that everything around you is imaginary, but carries on seeming exactly the same way as it does now. Is that better, or worse? Does it have any funny consequences for how you have to think about the world?”
“It’s worse,” he replied immediately. His mother explained. “He’s imagining a world without sugar, aren’t you? Imagine a world where my store cupboard doesn’t exist, but the fridge drawer does. Only leeks and cabbage.” He nodded and grimaced.
One of the major preoccupations of philosophers – i.e. what’s for dinner – nailed down already at the age of ten. I await his comments with interest.