[12 January 2009]
Do you remember what sort of books you enjoyed when you were a teenager? Or if you’re a teenager right now, what are you reading? Last week I started a youth services course and as an opening exercise we were asked to think about what our lives were like when we were 15 years old. (I won’t lie, some of us cringed.) The instructor brought in stacks of books and laid them out on tables; some familiar and some totally unknown. We were asked to pick a book, whether we knew it or not, and then explain what had drawn us to the particular volume. Obviously cover art or titles, and occasionally an author’s name, attracted many of us.
I picked up a book called An Earthly Knight (2004) by Janet McNaughton. The old style calligraphy font of the title reminded me of the historical fiction I started reading as a teenager. It always seemed preferable to spend time with my mind in another time and place than the all-too-real-and-scary present. After we’d discussed why we were drawn to the books we’d chosen, we were invited to take them home and read them. Why not?
There is some wonderful historical detail in this book; the author has clearly done her research. At its heart this is a love story of a slightly immature young woman doing a lot of growing up in a short period of time, and learning to recognize the motivations people have for their actions. Caught up in the possibility of someday becoming the Queen of Scotland, Lady Jeannette (Jenny) allows her behavior toward family servants to become petty, as she stamps her feet and shouts when she doesn’t get what she wants. She immediately realizes she’s behaving badly, but believes such behavior is expected from those who are privileged. Though status is all-important to her father, Jenny finds herself intrigued by a young man who lives apart from society. He is always gentle and kind, and Jenny feels herself around him—calm, peaceful.
Teens, particularly young women, are likely to identify with Jenny’s rapid changes of temper and emotion, as well as her desire to be her own person and yet cultivate the approval of the more powerful figures in her life, especially the men. She behaves badly, then realizes that in her heart it is more important to have friendship and love than power and pretty clothes. McNaughton points out aspects of language and culture, at this intersection where local Scottish culture interacted with the English Church and Norman tradition. (There are even a few of the wee folk present and working their mischief.) Without overwhelming her audience with too much historical detail, McNaughton tells a good story, while educating her reader a bit at the same time.
What were you reading at age 15?