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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Teen Experience

Seeing as that I’m old as dirt, it gets harder and harder to remember what it was like to be a teen ager. This is unfortunate when you are a YA author. But I’m not the only one who’s forgotten the fundamentals of teen life. I’ve noticed in a lot of YA books that they gloss over the awkwardly beautiful stages of adolescence and magnify the more superficial parts; like prom, pep rallies, and cafeteria drama. Granted, these things are a part of it, but what about the teenage experience? Sadly, this feature is lacking with female authors than male authors. It’s a rare thing to read a book that captures the physical and mental zeitgeist of teenagers. So here’s a few to help you guys along in your writing.

Seriously, why don’t characters have to deal with the following:

acne, painful back-ne, braces, split ends, glasses, experiments with hair dye, menstrual cramps, embarrassing bathroom accidents, borrowing tampons, growing hair in weird places, change in voice, mono, stuffing bras to look bigger, the early bloomer and the male attention it creates, dirty jokes, curfew, allowances, the Ramen/ Hot Pockets/ Pizza bagel snack right after school, embarrassing relatives, the trauma of seeing your parents naked, summer jobs, fake IDs.

School:

Drivers Ed, parking passes, detention, sex Ed in health class, the special Ed class, paper football, that one cool teacher, guidance counselors’ useless advice, the ineptitude of assistant principals, boring school assemblies, anti-drug rallies, band, flag squad, picture day, half-day, fire drills, bomb threats, infamous make-out spots, holiday decorations in the hall, stealing food from the lunch line, free lunch, school fights, rent-a-cop security, the shame of taking the bus, carpools, smoking in the bathroom, comparing body parts in the locker room, sweaty gym mats, sports other than football and basketball, home Ec., parenting class and that electronic baby you have to carry around all day, lewd drawings in old textbooks, brown paper book covers, cheat sheets, take-home quizzes, dirty clothes and old food in lockers, back pain and overflowing book bags.

Jansport, Eastpack, Northface, LL Bean with initials on the back, key chains with more decorative tags than keys, kids going to the nurses office when they have to go number two, back-to-school shopping, the school supply store, broken vending machines, year book signing, spirit week, after school programs and the cool feeling of being in empty halls after hours, volunteer work in the front office, the mystique of the faculty lounge, drama club, substitute teachers and the respect they never get, the weirdness of seeing a teacher in the grocery store, class trips out of state, and the weird foreign exchange student.

These are only a few of the many odd memories that come to mind. These are all events that every high school goer can relate to and it can help make your story that more genuine. Little touches here and there will make the story pop and not make it so damn generic. Dig deep and find the root of the teen experience—nothing big, but encounters that you might have overlooked. If you have any more cool benchmarks of high school, feel free to share them in the comment box. I’d love to hear them.

7 comments:

  1. Great post--I just hope that the advice I give to my students isn't useless. :) In fact, I steer clear from dishing out advice--I just try to guide my students to make the right the decisions on their own. I wouldn't want any of my future writers to base a flighty guidance counselor character on me!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think my school's the only school not to have driver's ed. That sucker costs around $300 (if not more) in Ohio, or rather, in my area.

    I mean, it's had driver's ed before, when my oldest sister was in school. But then they got rid of it, so my school never had it when I was there (two years ago). :p

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is such a great post, Jaime. The thing older writers have to worry about is that so many things have changed, so unless you're around teens regularly or do some investigative research (Riley Redgate is doing a series called "undercover YA" where she (a 17yo) polls 10 of her friends regarding things YA writers want to know about), you're at risk for seriously dating your story. However, many of the experiences you mentioned are timeless--you'd just have to make sure you know how kids are dealing with them these days (ug. I. Feel. SO. Old.)

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's been my impression that the teen experience starts even before the end of 5th grade and is only getting pushed younger.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hey Sarah,

    I try to keep the experiences universal--no fads or overnight tends. I'd love to know what Riley finds out. It's almost like esionage, but with teens. But yes, as YA writers we have to stay current with our audience and that requires research.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have noticed a lot more YA authors are putting in the effort to utilize technology in their writing, which is especially important to today's youth. (And then, I feel super lucky to have just missed the cyber-bullying generation. Holy smokes.) My high school totally had biological warfare drills. If you were outside when the "attack" took place, then you were quarantined from the rest of the school. And we used to ship the teachers. Or the Secret Santa, which turned into Secret Snowflake (because we're all unique snowflakes and want to be politically correct) right before winter breaks, and the pressure of selecting an awesome gift for under ten bucks that no one would feel slighted if they picked it. I once got giant blue hoop earrings, which were lovely and all...except my ears aren't pierced.

    Oh! New book that embraces talking about puberty and how completely awkward and horrific the body changes is Stupid Fast! ...Except that falls into the male author category.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Beautiful!

    I've saved this as a Word Doc: YA Issues Checklist by Jaime Reed. I hope that's alright.

    Honestly, I feel like the only issue tv and book teens have this dealing with the cliques. And my sitch was not like that at all.

    ReplyDelete

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