When you work with teenagers in a library setting you come across all sorts of readers. It is a tough gig sometimes; we have to compete with a whole lot of other entertainment, and reading is sometimes way way down on their list of best ways to spend their free time. So finding the right book for the right child can be a real challenge, and lots of readers (not just boys) love the instant gratification that funny and visual books such as Wimpy Kid offer, even if some (not so) well-intentioned adults who criticize their reading choices (see here, under “the less good news” as an example, and here for information on free voluntary reading). While I don’t agree that reading these books is detrimental to any reader, it is nice to have something else a bit more meaty to offer them, something new to move on to. And with my own son, that something was the first book in Ben Davis’ series The Private Blog of Joe Cowley (Oxford University Press) which is illustrated by Mike Lowery. He raced through it last summer, and the second one too, in quick succession. It was just perfect for him at that time. At nearly thirteen, he was ready was something a little bit more grown-up yet retaining the kind of format that he really loved. And that’s what is the great thing about the Joe Cowley series: it is a little bit more meaty text-wise, it has more mature humour, more age-specific narrative and setting and the illustrations and graphics are more teen-friendly (Joe’s sparse stubble for example). It is a bit more edgy, and quite a bit more coarse in the language used and the situations Joe finds himself into, and because it is an online diary, it is rather self-involved , which teenagers can really relate to. It is perfect as a teenage series and fills a huge gaping hole in the market.
The third installment in the series, Welcome to Cringefest, has just been released. Joe finds himself on a limb post girlfriend split, is having band trouble and overall asa result is not particularly being Mr Nice Guy. In fact, he is not always a likable character, he can be selfish and inconsiderate, which show him to be human and he does have to do a little bit of growing-up in this installment, navigating social groups and at 16, facing up to his future too . This, again, makes Joe relatable, and his usual dry wit and uncanny knack for messing up does provide enough funny moments to balance things out and ensure it is also a really enjoyable read.
I was interested to find out what Ben Davis thought about his series’ appeal to teen readers, and I was delighted he agreed to write a little bit about it.
Getting reluctant readers on board
by Ben Davis
When you’re a writer, there’s something a bit special about getting an email. Seeing that little red (1) appear on the corner of the envelope always brings a little jolt of excitement. What lies inside is a mystery. Has your book sold to a publisher somewhere really far away? It happens. I mean, I’m pretty big in Japan.
Maybe your book has been shortlisted for an award, or a festival is contacting you to offer you a place in their programme?
For me, more often than not, it’s absolutely nothing to get excited about – usually it’s a gym begging me to rejoin or Pizza Hut trying to get me to order the Meat Supreme for the third consecutive week. Sometimes, though, I’m pleasantly surprised.
The best type of email I receive, better than any award nomination, better than any accolade at all, is an email from a reader or the parent of a reader, telling me that one of my books got them into reading.
It really does make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I mean, I know it’s lovely for your work to have the admiration of hardcore book lovers like myself, but to know that you’ve won people over to our team is a wonderful feeling.
It’s not easy for kids to get into reading these days, I get that. There are so many things jostling for their attention – On Demand TV, Netflix, spending eight hours crafting a five word Whatsapp message to someone they fancy.
Plus, have you seen computer games these days? Incredible. I mean, yes, we had computer games when I was a kid, but somehow they didn’t have the same appeal.
So what can I do to get even more reluctant readers on board? I think we know dissecting Jane Austen ad nauseam in classrooms isn’t going to cut it, but then what is? And before anyone suggests it, yes, I’ve already tried inflicting a cyber attack on Xbox Live but it’s only a temporary fix.
This is what I’ve come up with so far.
- Keep writing books that will hopefully draw reluctant readers in. This means books they can relate to. My 1000 page dystopian space odyssey will have to wait.
- Do as many school visits as I can. Often, the realisation that an author is just an ordinary person with hopes, dreams and body odour all of their own, gets kids more invested in their books.
- Oppose library cuts. This is something I need to do more. Sadly, our country is governed by people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Without my local library growing up, there is no way I would be a published author today.
- Make myself more available on social media. I already have a website, Facebook page and Twitter account, but I could always do better. I mean, there’s that Instagram doohickey I never go on, for starters.
- Why are there no TV shows for kids’ books anymore? I remember discovering loads of books through Jackanory when I was younger. Why not create a show that will appeal to young people and have someone cool and happening host it, like Noel Edmonds or Richard Madeley?
You might think it would be too hard to create something like that, but remember, one of the most successful kids’ shows of recent years was called Rastamouse. They can do anything.
And that’s all I’ve got. Well, besides standing on the street and aggressively forcing youngsters into the nearest Waterstones, but that approach gets you nowhere.
I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this. You can get me at my website , my Facebook page or my Twitter account . Best not to go through my Instagram, though. I’ll probably never see it.
 Compared to the average person.
 I would imagine.
 In my day, it was MSN Messenger.
 OK, not Jane Austen herself. That would be more Biology than English.
 For legal reasons, I should point out that this is definitely a joke.
 I am joking – do not let Madeley anywhere near kids’ books.
Thank you so much for this fantastic thought-provoking, very funny guest post, Ben. And thank you for creating Joe Cowley!
Ben’s latest book, The Private Blog of Joe Cowley: Welcome to Cringefest is published by OUP and is out now. Buy a copy here.