by Ben Dixon
Published by Austin Macauley Publishers
The current GCSE English Language papers are demanding and possibly the hardest English examinations that teenagers have ever faced. The two papers require candidates to analyse language, form, and structure. The passages used are often long and rather laborious to work through. Yet, what can really make an immense difference in how competent candidates are, is if they read on a regular basis. They do not need to plough through those immense tomes of Harry Potter. Reading can be in all forms, online articles, comic books, annuals, non-fiction, and magazines and even audio books. I always say that parents and teachers need to find the hook, which can open up a life long love of reading for pleasure, rather than forcing a student or child to read.
The hook for one of my children was Dr Who. I shall always be grateful for the return of the Doctor in 2005. It came at the crucial time when my child was just starting to read. My child went from reading comics to reading Dr Who facts, and then moved onto more complex stories. History played a big part too. For my other child, who loved performing, it was karaoke that sparked the fire of enthusiasm. Nowadays, both my children are rarely seen without a book in hand, and it is thus no surprise that they have always attained excellent results in English. It helps that I am rarely without a book too because leading by example often has a significant impact on our offspring.
A couple of weeks ago, I reconnected with someone on Facebook who I used to work with in a large independent boarding school in Surrey between 2002 and 2004, Ben Dixon. I thought it was rather a happy coincidence that he had also had a book published, The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel, and we spoke about our shared love of writing. I often think that the best writers are those who write fiction. There is no harder aspect of writing than producing a compelling story, which people enjoy reading. I am often in awe of those who go down this route. Yet what was even more impressive was that Ben had chosen to write a book for the tricky age range of 11+ with a view to sparking an interest in books from reluctant readers.
As an English teacher, who is always encouraging students to read and looking for the hook to spark a joy of reading, I was interested in reading the book to see if it was something I would be able to recommend. In keeping with the ethos of this blog which is that I never permit advertisements or paid for editorials, I purchased the book myself from Amazon. I read it within a short period even though it is quite a chunky book at 161 pages. I rarely read fiction, let alone teenage fiction, but within a short time I was hooked, and I found it easy to enjoy the company of Neil Peel. Although I know the author, I would not have posted an #honestreview unless I had enjoyed the book.
I remember when I was a teenager, a book came out entitled The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend. The book was an instant hit because for once teenagers could identify with a character, who spoke as teenagers did, who acted as teenagers did and was able to express the same emotions and anxieties experienced by just about every teenager on the planet. Readers loved Adrian Mole since he was a flawed character. He never got what he wanted. The book was a perfect mix of comedy and pathos. Readers cried with Adrian, they felt his frustration with his family and friends but more than anything, they laughed with Adrian. As the years passed, Sue Townsend would update Adrian’s life so that readers could grow up with him. When Sue died in 2014, we mourned not just the passing of an outstanding writer, but also the fact that there would never be another glimpse into Adrian’s life.
Reading The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel reminded me of my experience of reading Adrian Mole. Like Adrian, Neil is far from perfect, yet he is relatable and has an authenticity that will attract readers of all ages. Neil has an incredible knack of putting his foot in things and being a little too honest. He has neuroses like everyone and is constantly tormented by his evil older sister, Lemony. He has two good friends, Stephen and Grub, who attempt to help him navigate his way through the first year at his new secondary school, Titfield. Neil also has to deal with some worrying bullying incidents and there is a serious message here, which will undoubtedly help other young people going through a similar experience. All the characters are realistic and memorable, and the dialogue is particularly astute. The snippets of family life are pure genius. I feel that the main strength is the comedy, a cheeky and relatable comedy, which runs throughout the entire book, with much of it leading to laughs-out-loud. This aspect is something that secondary school students will absolutely love. You can really tell that it is written by a teacher and a teacher who is an adept observer of school life, as well as the relationships between teachers and pupils and pupils and their peers.
In-keeping with the short attention span of most 11+ students, the action flows swiftly with short chapters and the language is appropriate for the age group since it does not patronise or confuse. Reviews on Amazon frequently relate how reluctant readers have finally found a book that they cannot put down and I think this is one of the key strengths of the book. It is good enough to encourage the most unwilling student to read. Although, an initial read of the book’s blurb might suggest that it is more appropriate for boy rather than girl readers, I have to say that I think girls will be able to identify with many aspects of the book, especially the comedic element. My daughter is 14 and usually sticks to High School teen dramas or thrillers. She was reluctant to read the book at first, until she discovered how funny it was.
I would thoroughly recommend this to any reader over the age of 11 whether still at school or a school leaver from thirty years ago. I don’t think it will be long before we have an entire generation hooked on Neil Peel’s adventures. I am already looking forward to the sequel.
You can buy The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel by Ben Dixon here.
Elisabeth Basford is the author of Princess Mary The First Modern Princess. Available here.