By on November 29, 2016

How to change the fabric of the future.

Put down your iphone, dearest teenager. We have a novel idea for you. (Photo: Andrew Munz)

Put down your iphone, dearest teenager. We have a novel idea for you. (Photo: Andrew Munz)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As a Valley Bookstore employee, I couldn’t have been happier with the success of our Black Friday event last week. Hundreds of newly purchased books walked out our doors in the arms of book lovers of all ages, and our little mom ‘n pop shop enjoyed a surge of generous support from the local community. (Amazon offered some great deals, yet many shoppers resisted the website’s imperial, corporate tractor beam.)

As genres slowly depleted their stock, by the end of the day I recognized that teen (or young adult) fiction was one of the least pillaged sections of the store. While there was one Teton County School District librarian who plucked around 15 titles to add to her school’s collection, the sales that followed were meager in quantity. There wasn’t a lot of movement on newly published teen fiction, which, while disappointing, makes sense. No one really knows which teen novels are worth reading. Then there’s that unanswerable question: How do we get teens to read? Not only read teen books, but just read? Anything!

This was a focus of mine when I was the teen program coordinator at the Teton County Library last summer. The Teen Summer Reading Program is designed to bribe kids to pour hours of their free time into reading books in exchange for sick prizes (1250-piece ninja LEGO set, anyone?), but ultimately I wanted kids to read because they wanted to. The trick is… they don’t really want to. Sure, there are plenty of teens who pick up books without any cattle prodding from teachers or parents, and actually love reading for the sake of reading, but I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that number is drastically dwindling.

One mother shopping at the bookstore came to me for some advice.

“I can’t seem to get the phone out of his hands,” she lamented, “and all he wants to do is game online with his friends.”

She told me her son was thirteen years old, and she was desperate to find books that were so good they would shock him into submission, make him do a complete 180 and change his life.

“Are you a reader?” I asked.

“Not really, but I want him to be.”

A lot of the younger teens of the current generation have experienced a completely tech-infused childhood, a time where hyper-connectivity to the rest of the world has made them disconnected to the tangibility of the present. And when you grow up with a tablet in your hands that produces a kaleidoscope of moving images, it becomes apparent that a book won’t be able to provide that level of stimulation.

I’m not an expert on childcare (I studied child development a bit in school), but I think if a parent wants their child to be a reader, they have to lead by example and start their sons and daughters off early. If parents consistently give their kids tablets and phones to distract them, their kids are going to develop bad habits and won’t have the attention capacity to sit down quietly for an hour and turn one page at a time.

Coming to you as a reader of teen fiction, I can promise that there are some really incredible books out there, especially the books that aren’t made into movies directed by Tim Burton or staring a waify, high-profile brunette. Being a teen sucks. There’s no doubt about it. But that’s what’s so great about teen literature—it pinpoints all the crap teens have to deal with, and makes it all relatable and exciting and tragic.

We’ve come so far from Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. Teens have sex! They say fuck! They experiment with a variety of things from alcohol to outfits to bad electronic music. And most importantly, they are so, absolutely, absurdly, desperately anxious to know who they are. They hate being forced into things, but look to us for guidance. Rather than asking a teenager, “What do you like to read?” try “What do you hate to read?” and browse through the negative space for something awesome.

The current technological age is dangerous, not just for books, but for readers. The reason Harry Potter was such a success, and remains a nostalgic safety blanket, is that it came out right before social media became our obsession (the seventh book was published in 2007). We were still reading, then. Teens were still reading. We can’t let electricity trump literacy.

Next time you’re seeking out a new book from the bookstore or the library, I urge you to give teen fiction a try. And if you find something that you love, thrust it into the hands of a teenager you know, gush over it, and lead by example. They’ll listen. PJH

About Andrew Munz

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