Reluctant reader? So was I!

Author and Creative Writing PhD student Ashley Hickson-Lovence with ten book suggestions to get you reading. 

In October 2018, I started my PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. Getting accepted – with full funding, was probably my greatest achievement last year, possibly in my entire twenty-seven-year life. The Creative Writing courses at UEA are famous for producing such names as Ian McEwen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Louise Doughty, Joe Dunthorne, Diana Evans and a wealth of others, so acceptance was a huge surprise considering I was rejected by the same university for undergraduate study some nine years earlier. Considering now I obviously have to read quite a lot to achieve my doctorate, you might find it hard to believe that while in secondary school – like most of the other boys in my Catholic single-sex North London school, I found reading boring and difficult. My daily life at this time was centred around playing football and messing about with my friends, there was no time for books.

It wasn’t until Year 11 that I started to take some joy in reading finally in a deliberate effort to make myself feel smart and impress girls before I started sixth form and hopefully university. I found out that my English teacher at the time – Bo Fowler, was also a published author after I stumbled across his novel, Scepticism, Inc – told from the perspective of a talking shopping trolley, one day in a second-hand bookshop in Ealing. He was amazed I had found it when I quizzed him the following Monday, but something about that relationship of Mr. Fowler being both an English teacher and a published novelist really spoke to me as an impressionable adolescent. I have since learned that he too studied for his PhD at UEA, doing the very same course I am doing now. More than just being my secret internet password answer to the question ‘Most memorable teacher?’, Mr. Fowler’s success was (and still is) hugely influential for me.

As an avid Manchester United fan growing up, at around aged sixteen, I became engrossed by the autobiographies of the likes of Roy Keane, Lee Sharpe and Rio Ferdinand which my family were happy to buy for me – despite not having a great deal of disposable cash to hand, to curb time I spent playing on my Game Boy or PlayStation. My mum read, but not regularly I recall: I remember her reading Memoirs of a Geisha, Constance Briscoe’s Ugly and some Stephen King now and then but not much in the way of fashionable literary fiction and certainty nothing from the canon. To be fair, there weren’t huge amounts of room for a vast library of books in our small two-bedroom Hackney council flat. 

I chose to study English at A-Level. I was fortunate enough to have been taught by three fantastic teachers during my two-year spell at sixth form and between them, they coaxed me into joining the weekly after-school book club which unknowingly became a hugely influential period in my reading journey. I look back at those moments reading and discussing seminal texts like Shelley’s Frankenstein and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for the first time with such achingly-warm fondness. 

In my most recent role as an English teacher and Key Stage 3 coordinator in charge of reshaping the curriculum to be more engaging and rigorous, I was always on the lookout for texts that would appeal to the ever-growing group of boys who clearly just didn’t enjoy reading. Evidently, my list of ten book suggestions below are shaped from my experience as a secondary school teacher trying to engage reluctant readers in my classroom, but hopefully apply to anybody who’s hoping to ignite, or reignite, a desire for reading for pleasure. Admittedly, many of the works are personal favourites but bias aside I hope you will engage with these incredibly compelling, sometimes funny, sometimes bleak, often gritty and voice-driven texts that in their various and intuitive ways helped myself or others around me quench that indescribable thirst for good literature. Yes, unashamedly, I am passionate about getting more teenage black boys reading literary fiction (so please do share this list with any that you know!), but in an ideal world, I want to see everybody reading, no matter your age, sex, colour or creed. The works below are just informed suggestions of course, fundamentally I am keen to stress, that whatever you read – whatever form or genre, it doesn’t matter, you are still a reader. It all counts. Reading is important, fun, healthy, sexy and everybody should be doing it all the time. 

  1. 1984 – George Orwell: Having grown up amidst the noughties Big Brother craze, I was fascinated by the fact that the concept for the show was based on this classic text. It might not be the easiest read on this list but it is a novel that makes you question topical issues around government policy and censorship. Winston Smith is an unlikely protagonist but one we’re rooting for till the bitter end.
  2. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D Salinger: The archetypal coming-of-age story: strange, frustrating, fantastic. Hugely accessible for a novice reader and a must read for all teenagers.
  3. The Lonely Londoners – Sam Selvon. This gritty voice-driven narrative of Trinidadian Moses negotiating life in bleak 1950s London is utterly compelling from start to finish. A succinct snapshot of life as a black man in a white world.
  4. The Outsiders – S.E Hinton: Published when she was just seventeen, S.E Hinton’s debut is an emotive tale of family, friendship, gang rivalry and always looking cool. Heart-wrenching and hugely memorable.
  5. Prisoner to the Streets – Robyn Travis: A raw and painfully honest memoir of life on London’s mean streets. To say that my students were totally captivated by it when added to the Year 9 curriculum at my last school, would be grossly underestimating just how impactful teaching it was.
  6. Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman: Poignant story of a young protagonist desperately keen to integrate into his scary new South London environment. Incredibly funny, incredibly sad.
  7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon: Hugely important, entertaining and inventive, always popular when read with secondary students.
  8. N.W – Zadie Smith: Books that are subsequently turned into films or television shows are helpful in understanding the cinematic qualities of particular written texts. I read N.W after watching the BBC adaptation a few years ago. The novel is a masterclass in writerly craft; an ingenious weaving of stories and seeing setting as an active aspect of novel writing, something that is just as important as character.
  9. In Our Mad and Furious City – Guy Gunaratne: Raw, uncensored, emotive portrayal of fractured lives in a gritty London estate. My favourite read of 2018, deservedly longlisted for the Man Booker last year.
  10. The 392 – Ashley Hickson-Lovence: A shameless plug, but I wrote The 392 with reluctant readers in mind. Relatable voices, real places, short chapters, I want everyone to enjoy this story of a London bus journey that goes wrong when released with OWN IT! on 25th April 2019.