At a rcent children's writng conference, I did several critiques. I noticed that while many published children’s books have characters that curse and have sex and know people who engage in destructive behavior, many unpublished manuscripts have naive characters that look like they stepped out of the 1960s.
What Are Teens Like Today?
It’s not enough to give characters computers and video games. Children today look and sound different from children of the past. They are street wise. They see sex and violence on the TV every night. They’ve experienced the pain of divorce either in their immediate family or their extended families. They have gay friends and relatives. They don’t have the luxury of being naive.
I’ve long said that teens today want the same things that teens have always wanted: They want to love and be loved. They are sure they can do better than their hypocritical parents did, they're idealistic.
But today’s teens are also different from teens of the past. For one thing, the causes they champion are different. What kids consider to be unjust today is different. Today, the majority of young people in the world see pollution and bullying as terrible sins and they see homosexuality and abortion as good things.
What Kind of World Do They Live In?
· Abortion is acceptable even during and after birth
· Assisted suicide is legal and/or widely accepted
· Homosexuals and transgendered people are considered normal
· Alcoholism is seen as a disease
· Creationism is taught as fairy tale, while evolution is taught as proven fact
· Teachers cheat by changing test scores
· Teachers have affairs with students
· Gunmen, or students, go on shooting rampages
· Bombers blow up building and buses full of people
· Communication is immediate—no time to think before you speak
· Movies are available on the phones kids have in their pockets
· Video game addiction is a concern for their parents
· Teens are expected to be sexually active
· Porn is available from a very young age
· Billboards and the TV shows are full of sexual images
I’m not remarking on the rightness or wrongness of any of the things above. I’m not arguing that evolution is an unproven theory or that alcoholism is more sin than disease. I have my opinions on these things but they aren’t what this post is about.
This post is about the shift in worldviews that has occurred in the last three to five decades.
When I was a child all sex was kept in the closet, regardless of whether it was heterosexual or homosexual in nature. Even married folks, like Rob and Laura Petrie, had twin beds on TV.
True story: When I was eight or nine there was an ultra brite toothpaste commercial in which a pretty young woman blew a kiss at a handsome young man. Then a woman sang, “Ultra brite gives your mouth sex appeal.” I asked my dad what “sex appeal” meant and he said, “It’s a dirty word.” That same man, once a conservative, Bible-believing minister, went on to speak out in favor of homosexual rights. He came to believe the Old Testament and most of Paul’s epistles were bogus.
This is how much some people’s views changed in three short decades.
How Does This Shift Affect YA Books?
More and more we see kick-ass heroines and heroes out for revenge. We see assassin heroes—loveable hit men and wise-guys. We empathize with killers. No one wanted Katniss to lay down her life—to refuse to fight and kill. We believed she had to kill. She had no choice. Well…yeah, she did have a choice. She could have died instead, which would have been seen as the truly heroic thing, once upon a time.
Today we live in a world with more than fifty shades of gray. Everything is a shade of gray. No black and white. No absolutes. The god whom the people of the world believe in, is a god who just wants everyone to have a good time.
So how do we engage children and teens today? Can we give them a Katniss who leads a revolution without killing innocents? Can we give them street-smart characters that do the right thing? What do you think?
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Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of building a dynamite list of authors. She is also active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the American Christian Fiction Writers, and Toastmasters International.