Thursday, September 17, 2015

What's in a Number?

Just an average day at work
I work in a mental health office for kids and their families, but my immediate surroundings are filled with people at least twice my age, and most of my correspondence is with people who could probably be my grandparents, let alone my parents.

I'm 23 and work as the file manager in an institution filled with kids with severe mental health issues, Talk about inspiration for writing, am I right? I've been in this position a few years and worked very hard to get where I am, and in the last year or so I've encountered some prejudice from some of the people I work with. These are some of the most caring people in the world, those who devote themselves to trying to help people, who work non-profit, and yet I still encounter what you would call "micro aggressions" from them. All because of my age.

It's nothing rude, mind you. Just talking over me, talking to my boss or coworkers on issues and departments that I not only approach them on, but that I am the sole person working on. It's frustrating to be treated in a way that undermines all the work I do, simply because of my age. It reminds me of my teenage years, fists clenched, eyes blazing, demanding to be treated like an equal and not an idiot.

Back in those days, I wrote furiously. Every free moment (and during the classes I skipped), were filled with furious typing. Even back then I was obsessed with having an authentic voice. I was determined that as I grew older, I would never allow myself to resent kids and look down on them. But more so, I never wanted to forget what it felt like to be a teenager. I didn't want to turn into an adult that didn't think teenagers had opinions or issues or dreams.

I never wanted to become what I hated.

As I grew into a young adult, graduated high school, dabbled around in university, it all seemed too easy. It felt like growing up was impossible, but even then I knew my voice had shifted. What I wrote was and is so affected by my life because those issues and ideas are what's writing from my heart. I let my voice shift and experimented with new things, But I also kept writing YA, right up to when I got my job at the mental health agency and began a shift of focus in my life.

I began volunteering with the kids at the agency, those who lived on the campus where I worked, some who had undergone unspeakable tragedies, abuse, had lost their parents, were parents themselves, and on and on. Yet at the heart of it these were still just kids, and I saw a lot of myself from just a few years ago in them. I'm close enough in age to some of them that a kid will play a song that's on my iPod and I can't help but bust out a jam. Yet despite how close in age I am, there is a world of difference between me and them, between who I was and who I am. And it made me realize something.

Adults cannot write young adult fiction without having some contact with kids and teens. Whether you're a parent, a teacher, work in child care, have friends who have kids, volunteer with kids-- you cannot create an authentic voice and story for kids and teenagers without actually talking to some.

Yes, yes, we were all kids once. And that experience is vital to creating fiction for teens. But you also have to accept that you're looking at it all through the lens of an adult. Your experiences since you were 16 have vastly changed you and how you view the world. There is plenty of adult fiction out there starring teenagers-- it's not considered YA because it is written with an adult audience in mind and so touches on thoughts and experiences that teenagers won't relate to as much.

What makes YA, YA? The target audience.

A "positive thought" left in my Positive Thoughts Bowl at work, written by a teenage client. Sorry it's crappy quality.

It's great that so many adults read young adult fiction these days. Hell, I'm an adult that reads YA. But I'm not who it's written for. The voices and experiences it needs to reflect are for those teenagers out there looking for something to relate to. They want a reading experience that speaks to them, and that is the entire point of young adult. It's to give a voice to teenagers and children. And the only way to successfully do that is to talk to teenagers, interact with them in some way or another. Consider it research, a very important kind.

Yeah, I hear you. Sometimes teenagers suck, Especially the ones that roll their eyes at you, or call you a little c**t, or get charged with assault. But just reading other YA novels as research into the "current" teenage experience isn't enough. That's a dangerous way to create a circle-jerk of outdated or false information. If you don't actually take the time to relate to those you're actually trying to market to, you run the risk of talking over your audience instead of giving them a voice.

What does that look like? It looks like creating a 'moral' for your readers to take away. It's purposefully forging characters to be perfect role models instead of creating true to life people. It's minimizing what might be 'offensive' or 'inappropriate' or  what you 'don't think kids/teens can handle.' It's assuming you know what's best for them and undermining their intelligence. It's inauthentic and kids can always tell.

If you really want to inspire a lifelong love of reading and literature in kids and teenagers, you have to create authentic experiences they can relate to, and touch on ideas and emotions that will leave lasting impressions on them. If you only focus on imposing a moral or lesson on them, on speaking over them, then it feels too much like work or school or the rules they're used to at home. If they sense the catch, they will drop your book in a heartbeat and probably drop reading not long after, if every other book they read is the same experience.

When you start to think you know what's best for young readers, you take away their autonomy, which is so vital in a world where young people seem to have so little of it. It's such an easy thing to do, and I'm certain I'm guilty of looking down my nose at those younger than me at times. In order for me to keep my promise to my younger self, to keep my voice authentic and true to the teenage experience, I will get to know my target audience and do my best to always be the conduit to their voice, and not its silencer.

I hop you will too.

1 comment:

  1. YES! This all over! I hated YA books as a teenager because I felt way too many of them were talking down to me...written by grownups that had forgotten what it was to be a kid, a teen, a transitional emotional object caught in the rules of a world it wasn't yet allowed to contribute to. I'm sorry to hear that you're facing these little griefs of working, but good on you for seeing the best in people and not letting these little things get you down. I hope the perspective is worth your trouble, someday when you write all about what you (and every other young person...) is feeling.