I try to keep my finger on the pulse of YA culture. What are teenagers doing these days? What and how are they thinking? What do they like and dislike? How do they talk? What is important to them? I've been a teacher for several years, so observing them has been pretty easy, and even though I'm no longer teaching full time, I'm still teaching a creative writing course and keeping in touch with my students. As a YA novelist, I think it's very important to keep up with "what the kids are doing." A couple of things this week have made me rather thoughtful about YA culture, especially from the perspective of someone who writes for a YA audience, so I figured my blog was as good a place as any to ruminate on them.
I wasn't surprised by Miley Cyrus's performance at the VMAs. While everybody else seems to be sounding off in shock, awe, dismay, and disbelief, I watched the performance (for the record, not live, but on YouTube) and thought to myself, "Yep, that seems about right." I don't mean that sentiment in any sort of condoning sense. It was vulgar, and the use of children's motifs in sexual ways ought to disturb and infuriate anyone with any sense of morality. What I mean by it is that Miley Cyrus merely followed her pop star trajectory to its logical conclusion - self obsessed, convinced of her own perfection, impulse driven, and hyper sexualized. These things are the markers of YA culture at its worst, and they feed and are fed by the natural inclination of all young people to be self absorbed. These are also all the things I have kicked back against in my writing for young people. Along those lines, I found a great article this week that perfectly articulates what I try to do when I write my books. It's a very short article and worth a read (click HERE), but the gist of it is that young people need to be encouraged to look outside of themselves and to see that they aren't the center of their own little worlds, but rather they are participants in a world much bigger than themselves. I love this quotation from the text: "One way to display a higher opinion of children than the popular fashion is to address them as members of the human family and not as a special class of self-worshiping mirror-gazers." (Zach Franzen, "Get Children Outside - Of Themselves). I will always try to drive this point home in my stories, no matter what I am writing. I don't keep my finger on the pulse of YA culture so I can regurgitate back to them what they already believe and are doing, I do it so I can know how to encourage them to be better people. It is important for young people to know they each have unique, God-given gifts and abilities, and that they are important as individuals, but concurrent with this, they need to be encouraged to focus not just on themselves and how they can make their own lives better, but on others and how they can use their gifts and talents to serve other people. I try to avoid doing this didactically, but it should be clear in all my currently published books that selfish behavior results (ultimately) in bad things happening. If this is a message we can drive home to our youth, perhaps we'll have fewer Miley Cyrus's running around in the future.
*For the record, I should note that I don't in any way believe it is only young people who are inclined to selfishness - it is a malady, rather, of humankind. I'm merely addressing young people since they are my target audience. Furthermore, I believe that young people, more so than adults, have a much greater capacity for great acts of love, heroism, and kindness. What I see in young people is the potential for great good and for great evil, and also a great potential to change. This is why I think children's and YA literature is so important - because it addresses the formulative years when almost anything is possible.