Tracking a Moving Target: Staying Relevant for Today's Young Adult Readers
The concept behind those lyrics was that the advent of "Rock ’n Roll" had turned the younger generation into something completely alien to their parents. Those poor saps. The moms and dads of that bygone era had no idea how easy they had it. Fast forward half a century and, today, generational reinvention is in full swing. Not only do our kids listen to different music, they do it on entirely different technology platforms — platforms that, themselves, are in a near constant state of change. Today's "kids" are masters of mobile communications, social media and so much more. They not only try on new haircuts, and experiment with new drugs, but they explore completely new norms in sexual orientation! All the while, they’re growing up in a world that’s flatter, faster and scarier than ever before.
So imagine how fast, and agile, a moving target they have had to become: Our kids, the next generation, living on life’s razor-sharp, ever-bleeding, edge. How do you keep Young Adult fiction relevant under such circumstances?
That’s the question we’re bringing to a panel of three Young Adult fiction writers. Each author approaches his writing differently and, not surprisingly, employs a completely different strategy for staying "relevant."
All three authors are featured in "The Last Way Station Mega Book Tour,"a new concept in virtual book touring, in which authors take part in tag-team guest blogs, like this one. The tour, which I founded, is named in honor of my book, The Last Way Station. Click here to take your chance at winning a Kindle Fire in the tour’s official Sweepstakes and then here to learn more about our featured authors and their books.
And now, let’s get on with our discussion. First writer up is Andrew Cotto, author of the novel The Domino Effect.
"Relevancy, to Me, …is Capturing the Universal and Timeless Components of Their Adolescent Experience."Andrew quickly explains that Domino Effect is a coming-of-age story that’s a bit of a "cross-over" title, in that it appeals to young and not-so-young adults. Its protagonist, the charismatic Danny Rorro, formerly of Queens, is completing his adolescence as a student at Hamden Academy, where he finds himself cut off from his family, his old neighborhood and friends through a series of "painful defeats."
Cotto maintains creative relevance by keeping his eye on the Big Picture. "Relevancy, to me, when writing to a teen audience, is capturing the universal and timeless components of their adolescent experience," he says. "In writing Domino I didn't spend a lot of time worrying about ’today’s teens’ but focused, instead, on any teen, at any time, over the last 30 years or so."
Why does he think his type of "relevance" is so important? "It’s essential," Cotto says, "to capture the magic and the tragic of those unforgettable years, but I don’t think it’s important to be on top of current trends or even in the current time. (My novel is set in the early 1990’s)."
"Life is life. There’s more to be said about experiences that are universal and timeless than for those that only pertain to a particular moment in history. Look at the "YA" books that are most beloved (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, Catcher in the Rye, Stand by Me). These are classics, not bound by relevancy to teens during the time they were written, but to teens (and adults) who can relate to their experiences and themes generation after generation."
Excerpt from Domino Effect:
A famous writer once said that anybody who survives childhood has enough stories to tell for the rest of their lives. I survived, barely, and high school was the hardest part. Especially the last year. And to tell the story of my last year of high school, I have to start with the first year. Then the second. And the third. These first three parts will be quick and painful. I promise.
I had a lot of things going for me before high school started. I had friends, kids I’d grown up with, kids that met every morning on the sidewalk in front of my place. Everyday I’d take the lead by doing something nuts, like grabbing a watermelon from the fruit stand so the owner would chase me down the block. Or I’d have a seat at the sidewalk cafe and make like the big guys drinking little cups of coffee with their pinkies in the air. Once in a while, out of nowhere, I’d drop a pack of firecrackers in the gutter and let the morning explode for a minute. Stuff like that. Harmless stuff. But good stuff anyway, and the guys always laughed and followed me to the school yard where they didn’t mind when I picked the worst guy first.
We’d play all morning with just a stick and a ball and a strike zone spray-painted against the wall. The same wall that held our names. Up top, higher than the rest, was my name: Domino. Everybody called me that even though my real name was Danny. Danny Rorro. I’d lived in that Queens neighborhood my whole life. My mother grew up there, too. She’d come from Sicily with her parents when she was eight years old. Same house that we lived in. My father was from an Italian background, too, but from all over New York. His mother died when he was a kid, from Tuberculosis or something, and he spent his childhood being shipped off to different relatives and foster homes. He was into music, mostly drums, and at 18 he joined the service and spent the next four years touring the world with the Air Force band. After he got out, he met my mother at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, and she brought him home to Queens.
Everyone liked my father. He was funny and smart and what people around called a stand-up guy. He always talked to me about doing the right thing. About looking out for other people and helping them whenever I could. He talked a lot about his heroes, like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I listened. I always listened because Pop was my hero. And I wanted to be like him, talk like him, act like him, and everything. So that's why they called me Domino, because my father’s name was Dominick, and in Italian ’ino’ kind of means little, so “Little Dom” translated into Dom-ino. Everybody called me Domino, except my mother who called me Daniel, and my father, who called me Pal.
And by the time Pop called me home for dinner, the summer before high school started, I’d been out on my own for most of the day with my friends. After playing ball all morning we’d go to the pizza parlor and get slices with the money in our pockets, and afterwards we go back to the school yard or maybe, if it was real hot, we’d go down to Spaghetti Park and watch the old timers play bocce, or maybe we’d kick around the Italian Ice stand, under the awning, licking ices and talking a million ways around what was going on with our bodies, our muscles growing and our veins pumping with this crazy energy that lead to the kind of things we knew next-to-nothing about, but wanted more than anything in the whole world.
And even after my father called me home, and I had dinner with my parents, I kept thinking about those things me and my friends talked about under the awning of the Icey stand, and that taste of watermelon stayed with me through dinner. And the best part, the best part of the whole summer, was that after dinner I got to walk down to Geenie Martini’s house.
Geenie Martini was the cutest girl in my class. She was short and brown-eyed, had what people around called a great set of lungs. Her father was a plumber and into the races, so he’d be out most nights at the track. Her mother wasn’t around at all, so Geenie’s grandmother came downstairs most nights, and Geenie and I would share a love seat in the front parlor while Nonna watched her programs in the next room. Under the blare of the television and the switching of the scenes, Geenie and I would whisper in the fake light and touch each other best we could until her father came whistling up the stairs. I felt kind of invincible back then, untouchable, like the super heroes in the comic books I collected.
|Kelli Sue Landon|
"I Stay Relevant …by Speaking in Their Voice""I stay relevant to my audience by speaking in their voice, writing in first person. I match the voice to the character's personality. It's important for teens to relate as they read. It's actually pretty easy if you have teens in the family or if you watch them talk on talk shows - pay special attention to their phrasing. For example, I used the word "like" mulitple times in the dialogue from Tami Simmons in Sudden Moves."
Excerpt from Sudden Moves
“Don’t worry about her!” said Tami on the school bus ride home.
I turned to her from the window. “I didn’t even say anything!”
“Yeah but I can tell you are, like, spacing out or something. What is with you wanting to know why she left? Who cares?”
“I do!” I was flabbergasted at her attitude. “Mom will shoot me if she knew I loaned out that book!”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that. Did she take it with her to Florida?”
“She said she wasn’t going to. She wasn’t done reading it yet and didn’t wanna lose it,” I explained.
“Well, then you can have someone go into the house and get it for you. You know, like a realtor or something.”
We had to talk pretty loud to hear our voices over the excited freshman kids who were anxious to get home. They reminded me of animals who were locked up in the zoo and were now getting to run free in the jungle.
“Who says they are going on a vacation then not come home?” I was mortified. “That makes no sense. I wonder if anyone in Deedee’s class has asked about her.”
“Who?” Tami asked, fishing through her backpack.
I took a deep breath. “Deedee Thompson. Katie’s sister.”
“Oh, that little girl who is always hanging around her house? That’s her sister?” She retrieved a small bag of cheese curls and ripped it open.
“Yeah, supposedly. They must be half sisters or whatever.”
“Sounds like their mother has hot pants or something,” Tami said with a chuckle.
“What, you think they were, like, in an accident or something?”
Tami’s suggestion crossed my mind just minutes before. She always seemed to take a lucky guess at what was in my head.
18-Year-Old Kelsey Miller Hit on a Different Strategy: Start Writing Young!Since I am still a teen, I think I have an advantage at being able to stay “relevant” for my audience. It’s easy to know what teens and pre-teens like because I am going through all of it myself. But I will say that social media also is very important in accomplishing this. Through things like Twitter and Facebook, I can keep up with current slang and the latest things that everyone is talking about. Another way I keep my work in line with my audience is to actively visit the young adult shelves in bookstores. It is imperative to create a book that has what the reader is looking for. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book that used slang incorrectly or was cheesy. It was really annoying, and I couldn’t take the book seriously. If you want to succeed in the young adult genre, you have to be fully committed to creating something that young adults will enjoy. You can’t skip corners here; they will know it. The best way to keep up with what this demographic is doing is to read what they’re reading. And besides, why not? There are some really amazing YA books out there.
Excerpt from Retribution.
The Vampire kept the headlights off until she had driven away from the houses. Noticing her calm, Faolan wondered how many times she had snuck out of people’s homes. Probably many, many times. “So where are we going?” Faolan asked after a minute.
The Vampire shrugged. “I don’t know, just around. Don’t you ever do that? It’s the act of driving more than the destination. I find that just driving is what calms me down. It keeps my mind off…things.”
Faolan knew better than to ask what sort of things. “I know what you mean. I do the same. I go for a walk, though. I don’t have a fancy BMW to drive.”
The Vampire smiled faintly. “I don’t know what it is, but whenever I’m driving I feel so peaceful. Maybe it’s because the activity’s one of the only things that requires virtually no thinking. It’s repetitive, stop here, turn there. Sometimes I just drive to look in people’s windows. I know that sounds creepy, but it isn’t meant to be. Most of the time I just want to see what they’re doing, these perfect strangers, what their life’s like. Often I wish I’m in there, too, completely ignorant, living a normal life. The majority of people really don’t know what the real world is. Our world, I mean.”
Faolan could not muster a reply. He had never entertained the idea that maybe the Vampire was as unhappy with her life as he was with his. He had always assumed she acted that way because she wanted to, but now the Vampire sounded as if she had no choice, like she was forced to live such a way. The thought was slightly disturbing.
“Ah, well, I can’t say that I’ve ever done that, but I guess I get what you’re saying. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a normal family, away from them and all the responsibilities of the Family,” Faolan said.
The Vampire looked at him and not the road. “You would be able to go to college, then.”
Faolan was surprised she understood so quickly what he meant but would never admit aloud. He realized that perhaps the Vampire was able to do so was because she felt the same way. “Y-yes. That’s right.” He hesitated. “Didn’t you say you wanted to go to college?”
Her face clouded. “Yeah. College: the epitome of normality. Something I always wanted and could never have. That was before, when it was actually possible, but not anymore. I would have had one more year of high school left.”
“I just graduated.”
The Vampire was startled. “You did?"
“Yeah. All the wolves go to the local school. There’s subjects even the elder Family members can’t teach us.”
“I didn’t know that. I never would have expected—”
“That we’d actually get an education? Unfortunately only a high school diploma is enough for the Family.”
“Oh.” The Vampire concentrated on the road, trying to act like she didn’t care that she would never get to graduate also.
Feeling inconsiderate, Faolan’s expression softened. “I’ve got news for you. Senior year’s not that great. You’re not missing anything, believe me.”
The Vampire’s mouth pulled up in a self-deprecating smile. “Oh, yeah? Is that so? What about junior year? Or sophomore year? Am I missing anything there?” Faolan gasped. The Vampire continued, “That’s right. You didn’t think about that one, did you? I’ve been a Vampire for two years, not a couple months. You seem to have forgotten that. If there’s anything that ruins your life, it’s the change. My life was effectively over. You forget I was changed when I was fifteen. A newly born Vampire doesn’t have time for things as mundane as school. I had enough problems without worrying about crap like homework.”
Faolan refused to believe her sarcastic façade. The Vampire wanted to go to school, perhaps even more than he did. School was normal, and normal definitely couldn’t describe either of their lives. “Wait!” he cried.
The Vampire swerved into the other lane at his outburst. “What?” She asked warily.
“How are you doing this?”
“What are you talking about?”
“This.” Faolan motioned to the car. “How are you driving? Fifteen-year-olds don’t generally know how to drive. If you changed before learning, when did you learn? You had other things to worry about, after all.”
She shot him a withering look. Shifting uncomfortably in her seat, the Vampire answered, “More fifteen-year-olds know how to drive than you think. I’ve never had what you would call a conventional existence. I learned how to drive. Period.”
“So your license is fake,” Faolan mused.
The Vampire snorted. “I have a fake life.”
She had a point. Faolan supposed the small details were not important; he just tried to keep the conversation going. Otherwise their impromptu trip would be awkward, and Faolan was sick of awkward conversations.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t finish school,” he said after a moment.
“Me too,” the Vampire agreed. She sighed. “I’m sorry you can’t go to college.”
Thank you, Jenai, for allowing our authors to share their thoughts about writing YA fiction, and their book excerpts, with your readers. - Jon Reisfeld