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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Teen Culture and YA Books

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children’s books have characters that curse and have sex and know people who engage in destructive behavior, many unpublished manuscripts have naive characters that look like they stepped out of the 1960s.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?
 photo credit: Shavar Ross via photopin cc
The ABC couplet contest brought in several stellar entries. It had to go a tie-breaking judge. The final decision was a hard one but in the end...
Marti Pieper,
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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.


  1. Great post! I was going to add the philosophical underpinnings of much of there behavioral changes, but you included it towards the end: no absolutes. Basically the kids today are living in world that does not believe in an authoritative standard of right and wrong. Unless they've been taught otherwise at home or in their church--in which case, they are living as revolutionaries--they believe people should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as they don't bring harm to others. And "harm" is defined primarily as bodily harm, unless of course the body is a fetus.

    Well, that highlights the next point--a great inconsistency, an illogical approach that divorces what actually is from the cultural dictates they parrot. OK, I'd better stop.

    But you asked, how do we engage teens today? Through story! But what kind of story? I don't think the characters can be naive or weak. I think they need to show a different kind of strength, though--standing by their principles, even when those aren't popular, for example. Readers may not understand it, but they'll notice, and they even might find such a character engaging.


    1. I could have said more about the reasons for their changing worldview, just as I could have remarked on more on the literature instead of stopping with the so visible kick-ass heroine thing going on. There are a hundred ways that teens worldview today affect the books being published. The post was already too long, though. :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I do think we need characters willing to stand up for what they believe. And I think we need more modern characters who live in the real world, but who look at things a little differently, maybe, than their peers.

  2. Yes! I think YA books can be written that show realistic teens, without being filled with junky worldviews. I'd love to write one myself...but I'm more burdened for writing about married couples. Still. Teens appreciate and recognize honesty, and I think if we write books that are honest about the repercussions of these faulty worldviews (revealing the end results through the characters), they might just listen.

    I remember a college scene from PIERCING THE DARKNESS that stuck with me...a deep, philosophical guy who was probably possessed, and determined to lead the pure girl astray. Peretti knew of which he wrote--there are guys like that out there, and we'd do well to warn girls about them.

  3. I think Jill Williamson did a great job in her newest release--The New Recruit--in portraying realistic teen characters. No easy-believism, and the Christian characters are realistically inappropriate at times in the way they share their faith. It's a challenging book.

  4. I was late to see this post because I was at a weekend retreat sponsored by my critique group, Word Weavers. While there, I had a chapter in a nonfiction YA book critiqued. One of the critiquers, admittedly unfamiliar with the YA market, was surprised to find it so hard-hitting and, as she put it, "not full of fluff."

    One of the things I've noticed about today's YAs is that they want meat rather than pablum. Yes, they deal with all the aspects of society you mentioned above. But they also long to grow up. They long to be treated like the emerging adults they are. They don't want to be written down to anymore than children do. They want to think. They want to engage. Rebecca (prior comment) used the word "challenging." I think today's YAs want to be challenged.

    When we can do that--whether in nonfiction or fiction--I think we'll capture the heart and the interest of the YA reader.

    Thanks to you and the tiebreaker judge for my prize. I'd forgotten all about that little poetic venture. ; )


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