Today, all of my part of Virginia is holding its breath as we wait for The Snowstorm to End All Snowstorms to arrive. The net effect, so far, is that everyone now owns a snow shovel and the sky is petulantly gray. I’m still waiting for the snow that was supposed to have started two hours ago.
Meanwhile, my March deadline is starting to eyeball me in that funny way that grocery store cashiers do when they see that you’re writing a check instead of just swiping your card. But I think I’m going to take a momentary breather to wait for the snow and blog about something that’s been annoying me lately. It’s about the narrators in YA. I get most of my reading suggestions from reviews on blogs and Goodreads, and I’ve seen something crop up a few times that I strongly amazingly incredibly disagree with and here it is:
There are several different versions of this complaint that I’ve seen in reviews, but they generally go like this: “I really didn’t think that the main characters talked like real teens. They sounded like adults to me. Real teens don’t speak like that. Wow, what’s up with the SAT words in their vocabulary? Dude.”
This bothers me on about three different levels. No, four. Let me see if I have a bulleted list in me. Oh, I do. Here it is:
1 - Teens are not a foreign species of alien. It always makes me really itchy to make broad assumptions and generalizations about teens, because they are people, and people are wildly different. So when someone says: “They don’t sound like teens” I want to immediately shout “that’s like saying ‘Maggie doesn’t sound like a Virginian.’ “ I am a Virginian, whether Virginia likes it or not, and while there is a Virginian accent, I don’t have one. Does that make me a . . . Marylander instead?
2 - I know you’re going to say “but there is teenspeak.” Oh, am I ever aware. Thank you, cellphones, for making the abbreviated chatspeak fanmails in my inbox possible. I know that there is hooking up and getting up in grills and things that are tight and OH EM GEE. For every teen that says those things, though, I can point you to a teen that doesn’t. I was never a slang sort of girl growing up, and only one of my friends was. Were you?
(oh! snow! it’s snowing!)
3 - Date me, baby! You want to give a book a shelf life (pun so not intended)? Seems to me a great way to date a book is by using teen speak and teen slang. Today’s “teen speak” will sound as strange to readers down the road as characters nowadays busting out “radical!” or “what a bohunk” or “tubular!!!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve got my eye on my books being somewhat relevant five or ten years down the road.
4 - On behalf of all teens, I am phenomenally insulted by adult readers doubting teen vocabulary. Again, maybe not all teens out there know the meaning of words like “piscatorial.” But there are a lot of teens that have great vocabularies too. I, for instance, knew what piscatorial meant when I was 11, because that was when I read my parents’ Encyclopedia Brittanica in alphabetical order.
I think what it comes down to is this: are we writing about teens in general or one teen character in specific? Are characters supposed to be averages, the entire teen experience rolled up into one person, or are can they be quirky individuals you wouldn’t run into every day? From my clever loading of that question, I think you know what my answer is.
I never used slang growing up. I loved big words. I had weird and quirky habits that most teens didn’t, and my friends were the same, with their own weird, quirky habits. None of us were “normal.” And I happen to think it’s okay to write about that teen who is not normal. Because there are as many not normal teens as “normal” ones -- the difference is that because the unusual are all different, they don’t make such a coherent focus group as the slang teens. I also happen to pretty much hate reading YA novels that feel too much like those teens I avoided growing up -- the ones that “sounded like teens.”
I think that concludes my rant. Are you convinced? Or does a “non-teen” voice pull you out of a book?