Getting teens to read books for pleasure can have huge benefits to their mental health, but are we letting literary snobbery get in the way?

There is a special place in the chokey for anyone who judges a young person’s reading habits. There is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reading – there is only reading. Snobbery about teen literature, and what kinds of books are worthy or unworthy, will only put them off reading.

As a teen author, I regularly visit secondary schools to talk about books and my writing. Even though I’m more interesting than double-maths, most sessions start exactly the same. I stare out at a sea of vaguely-bored faces. You can feel that at least eighty per cent of the audience are thinking…. yawn. Oh, books? They’re not for me.

Until I ask them this…

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

In a small group, I make them all answer individually. In large assemblies, I put up a slide of common favourites – like Harry Potter, or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or even I Want My Potty. The atmosphere in the room changes instantly. The teenagers start laughing, their faces transform, they start turning and chatting to their friends. They remember that they do love stories. They love reading them and talking about them. And, as I stand and watch this dramatic change, I can’t help but think – what have we done to them to make them think they don’t?

I believe it’s because we’ve forgotten what stories are – stories. A way of escaping into another place and time, a way of going on a journey without leaving your room. It’s magic. Teens need to be reminded of that. How? By never judging them for what they’re reading – whether it’s vampires, or comic books, books with short sentences, or funny stories that just make them laugh. They should never feel like they should be reading better. If you nurture their love of stories, I promise you, in time, they will read better. Whatever ‘better’ means anyway. The more stories they enjoy reading, the more they’ll want to read. They’ll go on their own journeys of literary discovery.

And, most importantly, why? Why is it so important teens remember to enjoy stories again? Because reading is one of the most healthy things anyone can do. Research from the University of Sussex showed that reading can reduce stress by sixty-eight per cent – that’s more than listening to music or going for a walk. We’re currently in a the midst of a teen mental health epidemic, with rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers increasing by 70% in the past 25 years. By encouraging young people to read for pleasure, you’re encouraging them to improve their wellbeing. Reading is a healthy way of processing – or just plain escaping – what they’re going through. Nurturing a love of stories isn’t just good for the world of literature, but for the inner worlds of every single teenager who can fall into the simple, healthy, pleasure of devouring a ‘good’ book.

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Holly Bourne is the bestselling author of the Spinster Club series for young adults, and winner of the inaugural What Kids Are Reading Quiz Writers Choice Award. Her latest book is It Only Happens in the Movies.