Last Wednesday was my night to be workshopped at my writing group. I love my writing group, because they are smart and funny and nice and they’re ALL writers, which means that they’re all completely interested in talking about things like characterization and POV and how setting impacts plot and flat versus round characters and lots of other topics that make people who aren’t English teachers or writers roll their eyes.
I especially love my writing group this week, because they said nice things about my new novel. Not only did they READ it all the way through, but they also liked it AND gave me constructive feedback on it. This is a very big deal, given that I spent the last two years begging my friends to read my first novel and give me feedback, and most of them read it (or SAID they did) and just said, “I liked it! It’s good!” which is very nice but not particularly helpful when I’m so completely entrenched in my novel that I don’t even know what it’s about and could really use someone to say, “Here’s where it falls apart and here’s how you can fix it.” (Very recently I had four angels who did give me fantastic feedback & I love them all: Jennie, Carly, Megan, and my agent Becca. Now if one of them would go back and actually FIX the manuscript for me, I would be eternally grateful.)
Anyway. One thing that a lot of people in my writing group said about my new novel went something like: I liked it because it gave you a sense of the teenage voice without saying “like” every other word! And then others chimed in with: like, yeah! I like, liked that, like, too! (Which reminded me of a pet peeve I had as a teenager, which involved adults – making fun of teenagers -- putting “like” in places that teenagers WOULDN’T, because there was a very specific grammatical structure to where “like” would or would not go in a sentence. )
I thought: is this all we know about teenagers? That they say “like” a lot?
Then I thought: is this all we know about writing for teenagers? That it’s hard to create an authentic teenage voice without saying “like” all the time?
Then I had a moment where I was internally chiding myself for being the kind of person who writes for teenagers, particularly considering the fact that it’s apparently as easy as writing “like” a lot. And then I realized that I spend a LOT of time trying to justify this – writing for teenagers – to other people, but mainly to myself. Maybe it’s because of that moment in sixth grade where my mother and teacher sat me down and announced, “You’re too old to be reading Babysitter Club books! Time to grow up!” (Which – in retrospect – probably had more to do with the reading level of the BSC books than with the subject matter. After all, the BSC girls were mostly in eighth graders, so one could argue that I wouldn’t have been too old for those books until the day after eighth grade ended. But the reading level of those books is probably third or fourth grade, and in no way challenging for a sixth grader reading at a tenth or eleventh grade level. Which of course is one of the central problems I had as a middle school teacher, navigating between challenging reading levels and appropriate subject matter – so many of my students who read at higher levels had to, as I had to, go to adult books to find something remotely challenging. But – as someone whose seventh grade English teacher recommended THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR series, which is basically soft core porn about cave people, and CRY TO HEAVEN, which is about little boys being castrated so they can be better singers – I know that the fact that you can read the words doesn’t mean you should.)
As a teenager, I was almost always embarrassed about reading books written for teenagers, because I was always aware that they were “too easy” for me. I never considered the fact that one of the great pleasures of reading lies in finding a narrator with whom you can identify, someone whose story validates your own experience. (I want to go back to Young Molly and tell her that while it’s great that she’s working through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, she has my blessing to read Tiger Eyes right alongside it.)
Additionally, so many books that are written at a lower reading level or that seem simple are deceptively complex: Hesse’s Siddhartha (10th grade reading level) comes to mind, or Camus’s The Stranger (8th grade reading level), or even Lois Lowry’s The Giver (7th grade reading level). I didn’t understand The Giver the first time I read it, and I was 22. Don’t even get me started on L’Etranger.
Of course there are a lot of crap books for teenagers as well. As a young teen, I somehow acquired what I believe to be one of the worst books ever written for teenage girls, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type book called – and I’m not making this up – Boys! Boys! Boys!, in which you could turn to page 23 if you wanted to get an ice cream with Greg, or to 27 if you wanted to go for a ride with Steven, or to 48 if you wanted to try to juggle them both.
Thank god Boys! Boys! Boys! is not and never was the gold standard for YA literature, or I would be embarrassed, and justifiably so, for wanting to contribute to the genre. There were some amazing books for teenagers in my youth, from authors like Madeline L’Engle (still one of my favorites) and Lois Lowry and – of course – Judy Blume, but the genre is a million times better today. Authors like John Green and Markus Zusak and Laurie Halse Anderson have helped to raise the bar for YA Literature far beyond the best intentions of the girls in the BSC. Authors with whom I would be honored to be compared. (Authors who might one day be my BFF. A girl can dream.) Today’s best YA books are challenging and complex and interesting, with engaging and thoughtful teenage narrators who do so much more than say “like” a lot. Like, thank god.