They say people are inherently selfish. As an optimist, I try not to believe that. But then I go to a talk about teenagers and think there couldn’t be anything more enthralling than people who, like me, are struck in the middle of their second decade. The best laid plans…
In my defence, some pretty high-level folk appear to agree with me. Meg Rosoff, author of ‘How I Live Now’ and other masterpieces, and Bernard Kops, whose tenth novel is on the cusp of release, spent an hour at Jewish Book Week talking about precisely my kind. Both their new works have brilliant teenage protagonists – in Kops’s case, a fatherless, time-travelling boy called Samuel Glass, and, for Rosoff, the indolent 19-year-old version of God, Bob. If those sound like recipes for fun, believe me, they are.
What, though, is so enticing to these authors about the sullen, the morose and the monosyllabic? Kops calls the teenage years ‘an age of change’, and, with its alluring oblique rhyme, the title hits home. He also seems enthused by the contrasting characteristics found among his own family’s second-decaders: he lights up when describing his virtually wordless undergraduate grandson, but sets him off against his granddaughter, 13, who is obsessed with Justin Bieber.
Rosoff, meanwhile, puts my mind at ease on the selfishness. She’s not writing about current teens, she confesses, but herself, along with an adolescence which apparently lasted from the age of 15 ‘until two or three weeks ago’. (A note on that: over the summer I interviewed Rosoff for Penguin’s Spinebreakers website, and her adolescence had come to a similarly recent end then. I can only assume something set it off again…) Whatever the exact dates, it’s at this age that we start to fret over three great questions – Who we are, What we will do and Who we will love. For that reason, Rosoff says, adolescence is a fascinating time.
With what’s to love about teenagers out of the way, the talk turned specifically to Jewish juveniles. Kops spoke of the weight of history in Jewish households, where children grow up with the Holocaust to be explained to them as a matter of cultural necessity as well as historical significance. Rosoff, meanwhile, talked about her own childhood. Remembered discussions of who bore fault for which family embarrassment – family embarrassments with which, as good Jews, everyone was intimately and encyclopaedically acquainted – apparently formed part of the inspiration for Bob’s titanic fights with his divine mother. The audience seemed to know what she meant when she described how, after an unsuccessful party, she was shocked and delighted to find that her future husband made no comment. There existed, as she put it, a race of people who didn’t need to talk about things.
Which brings us neatly back to teenagers. Both speakers held forth beautifully on what makes us such an interesting bunch. I left King’s Place happy in the knowledge that, even if we don’t always want to express ourselves, there are some impressive people willing to do it for us. Although, as Meg Rosoff pointed out, I have a few fairly weighty life questions to ponder.
It’s no surprise we’re an unresponsive lot.
Cameron Henderson-Begg is 18 and studying for his A Levels. He reviews books for spinebreakers.co.uk, Penguin’s online community for teenagers.