While Raising Young Adults
On a recent road trip with my husband and two teenagers, I brought along the audio book of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. The first half was fantastic: insightfully funny, forthright, loving toward the father, theater geeks and other people who shaped Fey’s suburban Pennsylvania teenhood. My husband and I laughed a lot and ruefully “oh yeah-ed” almost as much. Somewhere in the middle of the book, however, something changed. Fey was still her intelligent, witty self but, as the book eased from high school and its affiliate, Saturday Night Live, into Thirty Rock and the Sarah Palin imitation season, the reading began to feel a touch shrill, the observations faintly defensive.
I admire Tina Fey’s comedy and, frankly, her whole persona. I didn’t want to see the insecure and cranky side of her that periodically emerged in the final chapters of her memoir. “I’m disappointed,” I said uncomfortably to my husband. “My idol has clay feet.”
“Nah,” replied this man who has never written so much as a short story and reads only non-fiction (plus my books, sort of). I should also add that he finds Tina Fey totally hot. “She just doesn’t have perspective on the recent stuff.”
And there it was: the answer I’d been seeking about why I write Young Adult Fiction. Why so many people are writing YA. Why so many people love reading YA. It isn’t the oft-reference “time of discovery” or “building identity” or “helping kids get through stuff” mumbo-jumbo that we YA authors mutter desperately when called out on this question. It’s that we have actual perspective on memories of our teen years. We have emerged (more or less successfully) from that hideous celebrity-imitating haircut and humiliating no-date-to-prom epoch and can now turn back and write something intelligent about it. I write stories inspired by things I want to say to my teens when they’re about to do something unwise but will be infuriated if I try to share insights from my own experience. Is there a nice way to put this? My teens inspire me!
As a twenty-something writer, I remember having pride in my ability to turn a phrase but feeling trapped by the sensation that I had nothing of value to actually say. I had craft but no voice. It took the birth of four babies before I finally found myself. I hope that’s not the case for everyone or the world is going to have a serious population problem because, let’s admit, this planet is also rife with people who aspire to one day write the Great American Novel. But I digress.
What is perspective? It is being able to take a look at a situation from outside your own point-of-view and get a grip on yourself. Even if your novel is written in first-person, present-tense, as is trendy in today’s YA, you, as author, can see the perspectives of the boyfriend, the mom, the obnoxious soccer coach and encouraging teacher. You can let the teen protagonist react in character while still offering readers a rounder view and a conclusion that offers some sort of insight or hopeful forward-moving suggestion. As a writer, stumbling around the middle of a manuscript with that icky feeling that it will never be a book, having a true understanding of your characters is a lifeline. It is also interesting to note here that many writers set novels in towns like those they grew up in—not towns they came to as adults. Hmmm. Perspective again? Yes. Writers feel confident writing about things they can see clearly enough to describe.
Who likes to read books with perspective? Well, teens because of the, you know, earlier “discovery” reasons but also because, in the books, the protagonists figure things out in ways they can’t. It’s not relatabiliy that teen readers are looking for, but exit strategies—reassurance that there is a way to see through that angsty, hormonal fog to a solution, even if they themselves still haven’t found the right lenses. Adults are likely reading about a perspective they have discovered and can delight in cheering for these teens who’ve sorted things out. Plus, it’s lovely to recall the intense heat of crushes or the drugless high of winning a big game artfully worded and conveniently on one's Kindle.
Yes, I am generalizing. Yes, there are phenoms like Divergent author Veronica Roth, who seemed to have been born with more perspective than others will gain in a lifetime and who can write best-sellers in their twenties. In the same vein there are prodigies in all artistic and scientific pursuits. Think Shirley Temple, Mozart, Pascal, Piaget. But I think most of us come to a sense of self, a world view, much later than we care to admit. Stir in some reasonable writing skills and you get yourself a middle-aged debut novelist in the YA category. (see a picture of me)
Truth be told, I’d like to write in more genres, including adult fiction. I’ll probably never try a picture book since I honestly don’t understand how anyone has the maturity to construct truly great one (how do you do it, Kevin Henkes?). But, given the pace of my maturation thus far, I suspect I won’t have perspective on being forty-something until I’m close to death, when the goal of writing the Great American Novel may be trumped by playing card games with grandchildren, filling prescriptions, or other currently unimaginable activities.
So, for today, I shall return to my YA work-in-progress, grateful for what I think I do know—for my shard of perspective on this scary, evolutionary thing we call life on Earth.