Monday begins with grumbles about mornings, inhaling coffee and complaining it’s never enough, and a trek to work through the beleaguered throngs of nine-fivers to start my day-job as an elementary music teacher at an international school. Monday mornings suck right up until the gaggle of pre-K kids (that’s little humans aged 3-4) bounce up the stairs and into my music room. They bring with them the wide-eyed joy and wonder of young children, who can sing Wheels on the Bus every single lesson and never get sick of it. After 30 minutes of wiggling and giggling, singing and dancing, my Mondays are greatly improved and I feel much more ready to tackle the week.
So what does my job with kids aged 11 and younger have to do with writing? Initially, I thought the two wouldn’t have much to do with each other considering I tend to write for kids aged 13 and up, but I was wrong.
While I currently only teach elementary students, I spend Monday-Friday in an environment full of teenagers. Everyday I learn something new about my intended audience. Everyday I am baffled, awestruck, and amused by the students in my school. Everyday, I am inspired.
I rarely interact with the upper school students directly, but I do my best to observe them, especially since my school brings together over 30 different nationalities from around the world, providing insight into various cultures and points of view on an array of topics.
Here are a few things I try to pay attention to while observing the teens in their natural habitat:
What they talk about
Given the nature of our school, I usually find myself pleasantly surprised by the topics of conversations, which have lately ranged from Fortnite to strong opinions about Brexit. Teens today, it seems, are not only informed about world affairs but are genuinely concerned about their futures, particularly about climate change and the global political landscape – just look at Greta Thunberg. And while love-life does often come up in conversation, teens seem far more likely to be talking about their friends and friendships rather than romance.
How they talk to each other
This is perhaps a side-effect of many of our students not being native English speakers, but it seems their conversations aren’t nearly as peppered with slang as one might imagine. While snippets from a trending meme might pop up, for the most part, the teens around me are extremely articulate especially when discussing topics they’re passionate about. (I did recently learn what constitutes a ‘bop’ though).
What they’re reading and watching
Honestly, I am sometimes shocked to discover students as young as grade 5 (age 11!) are watching Game of Thrones, but then many of my grade 3s – and younger! – play Fortnite and Call of Duty, have watched The Hunger Games, and all the Avenger movies.
When 13 Reasons Why first came out on Netflix, it was the topic of many a conversation among the high schoolers and views on that show were as strong as they were varied. Movies and series like Love, Simon, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and the recent Sex Education have all been the cause of much intense debate among the teens when they’re not too busy analyzing assignments and evaluating the quality of teaching in their classes. These overheard snippets of conversations are truly enlightening and have given me frequent pause for thought. Just how well do authors know their target audience, and just how fairly are we portraying teens in YA fiction?
What’s in the library
Our school library accepts suggestions for books from the students and regularly updates displays with the latest releases and most popular books. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover most kids, at least at my school, want to read diversely. They’re reading queer books and books by PoC, they’re reading across all genres, and have strong opinions about what constitutes a ‘good’ book.
Whenever I see a student with a book in their hands, I take note of the title and author. Again, I have been surprised to see students as young as 8 and 9 reading YA books while older students (often the actual intended target audience for that specific title) might not show much interest in it at all. Although my sample size is admittedly small, this makes me wonder exactly who my target audience is and what effect the recent trends of dark and bloody YA might have when pre-teens are the ones reading those books. And if teens are the ones devouring ‘adult’ books like The Poppy War, Nevernight, and the Shades of Magic series, perhaps we authors need to think a little harder about what ‘YA’ really means.
Being surrounded by kids of all ages on a daily basis has certainly inspired and informed my writing, but for all that I might borrow a certain style of talking or make note of attitudes toward the meaning of feminism, what I will never do is exploit their personal stories.
I once read about a novel written by a teacher featuring a cast of queer characters. The author said she’d created these characters based on her students, inspired by their stories.
Those stories weren’t hers to tell and no matter how fascinating, poignant, tragic, worthy-of-a-book the personal lives of my students might be, that’s where I draw the line on inspiration. That’s when I’d do my best to encourage those students to pick up a pen or open up Word and start writing for themselves.
In short, while I go to school to teach every day, the truth is I’m the one receiving an education. My students are complex individuals who are exposed from an astonishingly young age to the darker side of life, who think critically about the world around them, and often have a startling self-awareness. I only hope I can create characters in my books as nuanced and intricate as the real teens around me, and that I can write stories they find worthy of their time and opinion.