Coming of age novels are very important; they are maps for young people to pick and choose their routes. The trouble is too many of them are one dimensional and heteronormative. ‘Read me like a book’, by Liz Kessler is 3 dimensional and offers routes to different destinies. It is a charming story well told and the plot drives you through the read. The main character Ash tells her story with verve and at times humour and we warm to her hoping she will be able to cope with all the problems life seems to be throwing at her.
My problem is that I know the book has been updated since the eighties and though we have the current technology; mobiles etc., I am not sure the story line has been as appropriately updated. The relationship between Ash and her teacher is deftly drawn and totally convincing on Ash’s side. I, as an out teacher in the late 60’s, when there was no legal protection, feel Ms Murray to be more than a little coy. If, as I suspect, we are in the book post2003 then we have had the law making it illegal to sack someone for their sexual orientation. If post-2011 we are in the era of the Equality Act and the Public Duty, where schools must be inclusive of all sexual orientations. Miss Murray seems an excellent teacher; passionately caring about her pupil’s future, so it is problematic that she leaves them just before their exams. Did she jump or was she pushed and why? If she leaves because of the failure of her relationship that is difficult to understand. How does she get out of her contract? Why would she prioritise that over the students’ exams? If she is pushed on what grounds?
The decision to keep her in the closet is an interesting one. The college is not portrayed as particularly homophobic and the fact they have a debate on gay rights indicates it is appropriately accepting. So why?
I fear it is the left over bit of plot from the eighties. Now we can have and do have out and proud teachers who challenge the homophobia and heteronormative cultures in schools. However, we do still have plenty of teachers who choose – for a variety of reasons – not to come out. I know I have said in articles that teachers are still way behind other professions in being out to their service users i.e. students. So perhaps it would be useful to signal that some out LGBT teachers not only exist but thrive.
The parents’ reactions to the children’s revelations are true to type and useful. Setting the story outside London in a provincial place was wise, giving us a chance to identify and having more ethnic and class diversity might have helped that more.
However, I quibble. It is a delightful, well told story that will no doubt broaden horizons, inform and facilitate discussions. I hope to see it in schools and college libraries and on teachers’ and parents’ recommendations list if that does not mean young people would avoid it!