From the Mouths of Teens

Wednesday, December 21, 2016
As winter break approaches, and the juniors in my English classroom are less inclined to focus on work, I find myself talking to them about issues unrelated to AP Language and Composition. Today, I asked them to write down advice to give to authors of young adult fiction, or to writers of fiction who are portraying teenagers in their novels.

Unsurprisingly, they had a lot to say.

Teenagers on Being Children

“Try not to portray us as children, because we don’t see ourselves that way.” This comment was the first one I read, and it is one I often have to be careful not to do in my writing. I work with teenagers every day and, while they are still children in many ways, they are also partly adults. Many students chimed in on this issue, asking they not be portrayed as younger than they are. As one so aptly put it, “We’re not naïve. We’re smarter than that.”  As a teacher, I learned early on that teenagers want respect. That holds true in our writing as well.

Teenagers on Stereotypes

The most popular piece of advice my students offered was for authors to avoid stereotyping teenagers. “Don’t be cliché,” they said over and over. Don’t portray girls as “desperate” or “over-dramatic.” One student begged authors to give them “strong minds.” Many said that authors try to make some students out to be exceptionally “cool” or “hip” when, in reality, all of them have incredible insecurities, and even well-liked students don’t feel as amazing as they are sometimes portrayed. “Just give them normal personalities,” another said, “because teens are always changing. And we don’t outwardly care about social status as much as books make it seem to be.” It’s safe to say that as authors, we should certainly avoid alienating them with preconceived notions.

Teenagers on Realism

I couldn’t believe how many students begged for more realistic books. As a lover of fantasy and dystopian stories, I sometimes forget how much they want to find someone just like them. Even the students who love science-fiction said they wanted “real” characters. In any genre, my students asked that writers not, “make it cheesy or unrealistic.” They want “plausible motives” with “relatable” characters. “Add diversity,” several added. “Not everyone is white.” My favorite line was probably, “They always make teenagers mainstream and hormonal. They hate their parents. Blah, blah. But most of us aren’t like that. And it’s okay to deal with actual issues – especially those dealing with young women.”

Teenagers on Love

This is where they drastically split. Some begged for more love stories. One girl wrote, “Romance! Even if it isn’t a story about romance, just a little bit is always needed.” Another begged for authors to bring an end to love triangles. A third said, “Chill with the romance. Not everyone, actually very few teenagers, have a love life. And not all of us want one, either.” So, when it comes to love, it looks like anything is fair game.

Teenagers on the Unconventional

There were, of course, many random suggestions that I loved. “Every book should not end happy,” one boy said. Another wants authors to, “Be sarcastic! Using irony and creatively poking fun at the society that teens live in is great!” Along these same lines, my students asked for authors to give them something unconventional. “Not all teenagers are rebellious,” mentioned one, while another said, “Just because we were raised with advanced technology doesn’t make us stupid.” Many, in fact, mentioned this, feeling resentful, as if their generation has been stigmatized because technology is at their fingertips.

And lastly, my favorite piece of student advice: “When writing about teenagers, think about Carl in The Walking Dead. Teenagers, and kids in general, adapt to situations quicker than adults.”

Hopefully some of their advice will help you in your writing adventures. I encourage you to spend some time listening to teenagers. They have some great advice, and might help move your YA book in the right direction!

Bethany Masone Harar is an author, teacher, and blogger, who does her best to turn reluctant readers into voracious book-reading nerds. She hopes you’ll join her in this lofty endeavor.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Beth--What a great idea, asking your students for advice to writers. I wonder what my 8th graders would say? (I shudder to think.)

Beth said...

Sioux - my students always surprise me with their insight. I bet you'd get some great ideas from your 8th graders!

Marcia Peterson said...

I'm going to show my teens this post when they get home from finals today, I think they (especially my sophomore who loves writing/books) will have some input. She's also a Walking Dead fan. ;)

Margo Dill said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing your students' insight with us. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

MP: My son has me watching Walking Dead with him but he refuses to sit next to me. Apparently, I jump. A lot.

Beth: My son would add that just because a book is written by a man, it might not be a "man" book. Translation, if they angst around about love and emotions, don't give it to him. Just. Don't.


Renee Roberson said...

So we probably shouldn't give a man a NIcholas Sparks book to read? :-)

Beth, this is a great post. I enjoyed reading what your students had to say. I have a future post idea for you, too, or you can answer in these comments. I'd love to hear your thoughts on using slang in young adult literature. I know some experts say we should shy away from it and not use it to much because it can date a book, but I feel there should be some sprinkled throughout certain types of YA books to help set the mood. I'd love to hear your take on that, and maybe some of the interesting slang you've heard from your students? I have a 13-year-old and occasionally she'll throw some out that I pick up on but I'd love to know more.

Beth said...

Renee - I love that idea! I'll bring it up with my students after break and get their thoughts (along with the most recent slang to emerge after break). I can tell you that "it's lit" (meaning it's great or awesome) is one of the most common I've heard. Also "taking the L" (a loss) is a big one. :)

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