Last week, many took to Twitter to discuss the differences between young adults in YA and young adults in RL (a.k.a. real life). Let me tell you, it was awesome! I loved talking to current high schoolers as well as discussing my situation when I was in high school. Even more so, it was great to see what current readers want to see more of in fiction. Below, I wanted to cover a few topics we discussed, both from my perspective and theirs. And, of course, I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below. Let’s begin:
High Schools and How They Function: This is a tricky one. When I was in high school—only ten years ago—it was SUPER easy to skip school and classes. In fact, I was a known skipper, as was my older brother. I got in trouble once in four years and skipped many more times than I can count. But now, it’s much harder. At the exact school I went to, less than a year after I graduated, they implemented automatic calls to parents and double locked doors at all the exits…with cameras. Sounds like a jail to me, but… 😉 Soda pop and candy machines were also readily available, and teachers often had students get things for them too. Now, apparently, those aren’t allowed in many schools. I loved seeing all the modern high schoolers coming out and explaining things in books they see that are different now, like skipping and soda machines. How does this affect literature? Well, for one, when I wrote The Timely Death Trilogy, skipping was EASY. But when I published it, I knew things had changed, but there is a lot of skipping in the book, so I had to adjust how and why. It’s honestly revealed in the last book, so I don’t want to spoil it, but it comes down to knowing people in the office. Other topics that were different included homeroom, AP classes, lockers, and more. A main subject brought up was grades as well. How are all these kids passing classes when they are saving the world? It’s okay to have your main character fail at something. I mean, who remembers when Cassandra Clare pulled Clary out of school once she got involved with Shadowhunters? I do! And I loved it!
Teachers: I wanted to separate this one from high school because I think a “teacher” can be in the classroom but also out of the classroom. One thing I thought was important was the discussion that not all teachers are good teachers and not all teachers are nice teachers either. We see a lot of encouraging and helpful mentors in teaching roles in YA – think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower as an example – but it’s not as common to show an educator actually discouraging a child. (Unless it’s the cliché football team coach.) My personal example? I had a teacher in my high school tell me to stop trying to write because (and I quote) “You will never get published.” Yep. That happened. My older brother, who was an artist, had an art teacher tell him he’d never be great because he couldn’t’ take it seriously. Then, one year later, she hung up his artwork in the hallway. It’s still there, too. Teachers aren’t always kind or helpful or encouraging—and for a variety of reasons. Maybe they think tough love will push you. Maybe they are jealous. Maybe they are trying to stop you from “wasting your time” by failing at a dream they also failed at. Who knows? They are human too, after all.
As an extra…a peek into SAT’s HS life.
From left to right: The day my first novel released in 2007, Homecoming (That’s my dad. Which, here’s another topic covered: kids actually getting along with their parents. I did! My dad is still my best friend!), my work uniform at 810 Zone, my tennis uniform, and graduation day in 2009.
Part-time Jobs: I don’t know about you all, but I did a lot when I was high school. Looking back, I’m not sure HOW I did either. I took AP and Honors classes, played tennis, participated in Goal 0 and yearbook, and I worked as a nanny…AND worked a part-time job at a sports bar as a hostess (See photos above). I even managed to get my book published between all that. (God, I wish I had that kind of energy now.) Despite all of this, my situation wasn’t rare. I worked with four others kids I went to high school with, and many others I knew worked too. But part-time jobs—jobs outside of babysitting your own siblings—aren’t seen in many YA novels. Perhaps this is because of time restraints. I mean, how does a kid save the world when they’re going to school, let alone when they are working a job too? Still, it’d be nice to see more part-time jobs covered. I have jobs covered in November Rain…BUT the characters don’t go to school, so it doesn’t really count.
And last but not least, I HAD to talk about this one: (Warning. Rant ahead.)
Dead parents: I actually get a little sad when I see people ask for authors to stop putting dead parents in novels. As someone who grew up in a situation where my mother died, I remember how hard it was for me to FIND a book like my situation. I honestly still haven’t. Here’s the thing. I don’t think the dead parents trope is the problem. I think it’s HOW it’s shown in books and other types of media. I also think there isn’t enough variety in families in general. I covered this in another article I wrote, Writing Tips: Family Variety.
What do I mean by variety? Well, we don’t see as many grandparents raising kids after parents were too young to raise them, or siblings dying, or combined families, or unusual living situations, like living with an uncle while the parents are traveling for work. But when you tackle the death of parents, I think the WAY parents die is almost always the same.
A. Parents are already removed from character. This can happen in the form of a parent dying before the kid was old enough to remember them or an extremely distant divorce or whatnot. (I still think these are important, don’t get me wrong.) In fact, The Timely Death Trilogy follows this. Jessica’s parents died in a car wreck when she was a baby, but she definitely still struggles with their deaths and what it means in regards to her identity. That being said, Eric’s mother’s death doesn’t follow this trope at all. (We’ll get to hers in the next section.)
B. If the parents are close, they die “innocent deaths.” I use the term “innocent” carefully – and not heartlessly. It’s just the easiest way to explain them. So, what do I mean by innocent? To me, these deaths aren’t judged by society. They are seen as completely out-of-control situations, like car wrecks or cancer. Again, these are important! Please don’t get me wrong. But there’s another type that is rarely shown, what I would call “blameful” deaths. I’m talking about suicide, addiction/drug overdoses, etc. The reason I call them “blameful” is because, in general, society is more likely to judge these deaths, which adds another level of coping for those left behind. There are a million ways I could explain this with my situation, so I’ll try to keep it short. My mother died from a drug overdose one room down from my bedroom when I was eleven. Instead of sympathy, many people asked why she didn’t get help. (Guess what, she tried.) Or why my father didn’t forcibly take the drugs away. (Guess what, he tried.) I could go on and on about how people insinuate blame without even meaning to. But if I put my real-life situation in a book, especially if I added details, most publishers would say it is “too much” for young readers, especially an eleven-year-old.
I reject the phrase of “too violent” or “too much” or “too dark” for young readers, because my eleven-year-old self didn’t get to look at the universe and say “Hey, my mom can’t die this way. That’s too much for me.” That’s not how life works. And it happens to many people. “Every day in the United States, 44 people die as a result of prescription opioid overdose.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) But god forbid, it’s in a novel. Which is why I love books that cover up-in-your-face parental deaths, like All Fall Down by Ally Carter. (I don’t want to spoil how her mother dies, but it’s a great example.) I’m not saying we need to bombard literature with violent deaths. There’s always a way to write it so it’s not overwhelming or inappropriate. I try to do this in my own novels. Example? Many of the children’s back-stories in November Rain includes a very violent and/or emotionally-removed parent. There’s a murder-suicide and a flat-out abandonment on the streets. Take Me Tomorrow involves drug-addicted or criminally-minded parents. In The Timely Death Trilogy, I cover suicide when Eric’s mother shoots herself.
Tropes or not a trope, to someone, it’s real, and I think the more “types” we cover, the better it can be. On a side note, I do think it would be great to see more parents directly involved with teens in YA, especially parents that get along with their kids. My dad and I almost always got along. I still call him every other day. He’s definitely one of my best friends! I actually based Sophia’s relationship with her father Dwayne in Take Me Tomorrow off of my life with my father when I was her age.
These were just four of the AMAZING topics I saw discussed. Victoria Aveyard even got involved, which I loved. Seriously. She’s the bee’s knees on Twitter. And I’m finding myself more and more involved in these conversations. What I learned was pretty simple. Sometimes, RL and tropes can mix, because well, tropes came from somewhere. But it’s important to stay up-to-date on RL. Listen to your readers. Learn about their lives. Know what matters to them. Challenge each other, and maybe, together, we can make YA the best YA ever seen.