From Stories are Good Medicine:
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.
–Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act IV, Scene 3
We’ve all heard it. There are three crucial ingredients to any YA novel:
3. And oh, yea, did I mention — voice?
Since I’ve ventured into the brand new and exciting world of children’s literature, I’ve heard this focus on the voice in writing time and time again. Voice of course refers to how engagingly a tale is told. But it also means hitting that correct note so that your writing will connect with your readers. For a writer of young adult fiction, this means finding your inner teen voice. Which, unless you are actually a young adult yourself (think S.E. Hinton, or, for a modern day non-novelist, Taylor Swift), ain’t always that easy.
Recommendations on how to go about this vary tremendously – from listening to popular song lyrics, to hanging out in school cafeterias, to reading lots of children’s novels, to eavesdropping in Starbucks. Meg Cabot, author of the tremendously popular Princess Diaries books among others, is known for dropping popular culture references in her writing, while Prinz award winner Libba Bray writes faboo paragraphs like the following (from Going Bovine):
The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World… I know what you’re thinking: WTF? Who dies at Disney World? It’s full of spinning teacups and magical princesses and big-assed chipmunks walking around waving like it’s absolutely normal for jumbo-sized stuffed animals to come to life and pose for photo ops. Like, seriously. (p.1-2)
Sure, Libba Bray uses phrases like "WTF" and "Like, seriously" in the above sentences… but when we step back and think about it, do these authors really sound like teens? The fabulous combos of Rachel Cohn & David Levithan (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares) and John Green & David Levithan (Will Grayson, Will Grayson) write teen voices that are smart, edgy, witty, brilliant and, quite honestly, a little not-teen-like. Consider the following dialogue from Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares between the main character Dash and Lily’s 80 year old aunt, whom they call Mrs. Basil E:
"I need to gauge your intentions," she said, "before I can allow you to dillydally with my niece."
"I assure you I have neither dillying nor dallying on my mind," I replied, "I simply want to met her. In person. You see, we’ve been — "
She raised her hand to cut me off. "I am aware of your epistolary flirtation. Which is all well and good – as long as it’s well and good. Before I ask you some questions, perhaps you would like some tea?"
"That would depend on what kind of tea you were offering."
"So diffident! Suppose it was Earl Grey." (p.150-151)
The ensuing banter about various kinds of tea is one of my absolute favorite passages I’ve read this year. And yet, can I imagine a teen engaging in said banter – nonetheless said references to dillying and dallying or Earl Grey? Maybe not.
But does it really matter? And here, I’m not arguing that YA writers should NOT sound like teens. Not at all. Rather, I’m wondering aloud what the purpose of YA literature is for teens altogether. And if YA literature, like any form of literature, in fact seeks to illuminate otherwise internalized experiences, giving form and texture to that which would otherwise remain hidden, maybe it doesn’t need to sound exactly like every inarticulate teen. Because if it did, it wouldn’t accomplish it’s goal, which is to narrate all those difficult, gushy, mixed-up, confusing feelings and experiences that probably feel utterly un-narratable to most young people.
The other evening, I had the honor of guest teaching a class on the YA novel to a Teacher’s College seminar on Narrative Medicine and Secondary School Students. I had assigned Laurie Halsie Anderson’s Speak, a book with whose voice the students struggled. Many felt it sounded too much "like an adult" rather than "a teen." Until one of the students told us how, as a teacher, she really didn’t like the book when she had assigned it to her high school students, but was surprised to find her students loved it. We tried to dissect what this could be about – an adult who thinks the book sounds inauthentic, but a teen relating utterly to it. And then one of the other students explained it perfectly. "I can imagine," she said, "a teenager looking at this paragraph and saying, ‘yea, that’s it! that’s exactly what I was feeling!’ Maybe this kind of writing gives kids the words to say what they couldn’t otherwise." Interestingly, the paragraph she was referring to is all about ‘giving words’ to experiences (from p. 9):
It is easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it. All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing your feelings is a lie. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.
In a world where teens are still silenced, where their voices are not given the space to sing out, perhaps it is the responsibility of YA literature to provide (sorrow) words. And not in the sense of ventriloquism, but in that magical way that all literature can help you find that part of yourself you never knew you were searching for. The way that I can still open a book and blush, or have my heart race, wondering if the writer somehow knew my innermost experiences or thoughts. The way I can quite literally see myself in the bodies and lives of characters on a page (all the characters quoted above) – characters who are ostensibly nothing like me, but who are, really.
Maybe authenticity of (teen) voice doesn’t matter as much as just plain old authenticity – that ineffable ability of literature to connect with our lives. To give words. To be both a mirror and a place of aspiration and imagination.
What do you think?