A tricky business, teenage literature. What topics are ok to cover? What topics are not? Is having teenage characters, that makes a book teenage? Books abound, locally and abroad, that are erroneously categorised as ‘young adult’ – the term of choice for teenage writing and reading – simply because the main characters are in the teenage bracket.
And yet, while we’re busy trying to find definitions for what ‘teenage literature’ is, as always it’s what readers want to read, that is the determining factor. Many young adult novels explore situations and realities that teenagers live daily, or that they would like to live or see others living. Even the supernatural, fantasy or vampire genres, so popular recently, are merely extraordinary events happening to people living their everyday lives. The (in)famous Twilight trilogy is, at its heart, a story about falling in love and the first heartbreaks of youth.
Last year, the National Book Council together with the Secretariat for Youth and Sports, launched a bold initiative: a competition for authors writing for teenagers. Would Malta deliver the goods? The Council reported an overwhelming response to the competition, so much so that a second edition of the competition has been held.
In the coming weeks, Inżul ix-Xemx by Rita Saliba, winner of this competition, is being published by Merlin Publishers.
Inżul ix-Xemx is a very different book. It is a story about friendships, about the lives that teenagers live and enjoy, and also about those who look at these friendships and lives from the outside – not sharing in them for their own reasons but yearning to be part of the cohort.
It is a story about budding responsibilities and the recklessness of youth. It is also a story about relationships with parents and how these affect teenagers and their behaviour.
Meet Thomas, a teenager not like many others, afflicted by a rare disease that causes early and fast aging and frailness. His hair is falling off, his face wrinkled and – well, different. His parents, as one would expect, are ultra-protective and seek to keep him in a bubble of sorts, cared for at home by a professional carer, and sheltered from the real world and its jolts.
The beauty of Inżul ix-Xemx, beyond the story and the adventure and the writing, is that the author didn’t opt for the easy way out, turning it into a pity story on Thomas’s affliction. Instead, Saliba chose to go beyond that, zooming in instead on the friendship that, against all odds, is created between Thomas and Josef’s clique. After the initial awkwardness, they move beyond the illness and the bonding process begins.
They empathise with Thomas’s pining for experience of the real world, for life beyond the cozy confines of home, tv, reading, comforts. It’s not fair, they say between themselves. It’s not “for his own good”, that tired cliché that adults like to wheel out at every opportunity. It’s adult egoism, a defence mechanism to stop themselves from worrying.
With the recklessness of youth, come not-so-well-thought-out (or perhaps not well thought-out to us cautious adults) schemes and plans. And these plans, as often happens, take on a life of their own. With the unexpected turns that this entails, the relative danger, the worry, the consequences.
Yes, Inżul ix-Xemx is a different novel. One that is worth reading for the purity of the sentiments, for a reaffirmation of the beauty of friendship and for the amazing world that is ‘young adult’ – before the commitments, cynicism and compromises of adulthood irrevocably take over.