Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hard Times

(OK, epic fail on the unplugging thing. I still twittered. I might have facebooked once or twice, and I read a few fabulous blog posts. But I did get over the hump with my latest project, and I feel a lot better about the revision as a whole. So much better that I could actually write something else. Here it is...)

Tara Kelly, author of the fantastic novel HARMONIC FEEDBACK, recently tweeted this: "What I need to see more of in YA: non-white MCs, poor kids, kids who have to work, girls who have curves, girls who don't, gay MCs."

Amen, sister. On all fronts. This blog post, though, will concentrate on the first three.

Our country is in a state of economic transition. Ok, that was probably a bit mild. Our economy is in the shitter and will be for quite some time. I realize that isn't exactly earth-shattering news. We all know people who have lost jobs. Maybe you've lost yours. At the very least the thought of being "let go" is probably swimming laps in your brain, surfacing steadily, rhythmically.

The official unemployment rate is currently 9.6 percent. That figure doesn't include the underemployed, the people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, the folks who can't take it anymore and have just given up. So the unofficial rate, according to a variety of sources, hovers around 16 percent.

Yes, that's awful. But do you know what the unemployment rate is for young adults (the age group 16-21)? 26.3 percent, according to the Department of Labor. Based on purely anecdotal evidence, I'd say it's much higher for minority teens. Just to give a little perspective, at the height of the Great Depression one out of every four men was out of work. 25 percent.

Teens are not adults. I get that. They aren't chiefly responsible for paying the rent or mortgage, the grocery bill, the utilities. The thing is, though, as more and more adults are losing their jobs, teens are increasingly responsible for helping to keep their families afloat. Some teens have always lived their lives like this. For some, economic instability is a new kind of pain. Add it to the everyday strain of adolescence and you get some stressed out kids.

And that added stress dramatically ups the risk of those kids dropping out of school, suffering abuse, drinking and drugging, making unwise sexual choices, etc. This is their reality.

But back to Tara's tweet. Should we be writing about this? Or better yet, do teens want to read about it?

During the Great Depression, people flocked to the movies for escapist fare--screwball comedies, musicals, stories about cute kids. In contrast, the top selling novels of the era reflected the desperation of the times more accurately: THE GOOD EARTH, THE YEARLING, and Steinbeck's story of the Oklahoma Joads fleeing the Dust Bowl in search of a better life in The GRAPES OF WRATH. (Incidentally, all of these books still show up regularly in high school teachers' lesson plans.)

I think tastes in literature and film in the Great Recession will prove similar to the past. A movie like Grown-Ups takes in 160 million, while Stieg Larsson's stark DRAGON TATTOO series tops the bestseller lists. My explanation for the disconnect is this: sitting in a movie theater is a group experience in entertainment--you laugh/cry/boo with others. A book, even if one reads it on a cold, hard Kindle, is much more intimate. You might be reading in bed. Or at the breakfast table. It feels safer to open a few more emotional doors.

There are a lot of stories grounded in realism out there, waiting to be read. And there is an audience for them, a nation of teens looking for acknowledgment, looking to connect to their reality through literature. Let's make sure they have the opportunity.


  1. AWESOME post and so true. Thank you!!

    -Tara Kelly

  2. I saw Tara's tweet and thought the same thing! Nice followup :)
    My MC is going to be experiencing this reality when her comfy suburban life is pulled out from under her. I also try to talk to my kids about the reality, w/out scaring them. It's amazing to me what kids take for granted. One reason why of course, is the perpetuation of media images that involve products, shopping and celebrity culture. But that's another post :)

  3. Loretta - this is such a thoughtful post. I also have heard those facts about people attending movies and such during the depression as an escape, but your remarks about the books that people read during these dark times is quite interesting. (And might I just add that The Yearling, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Good Earth are still great reads today.) I say yay for writing good realistic fiction. These books stand the test of time.

  4. AMAZING post, Loretta! Love Tara's original Tweet too. In the Gossip Girl glossy world of YA it's easy to forget that teens (and adults!) like reading about and connecting with REAL characters. And real characters come in all shapes, sizes and income brackets.

  5. Books that provide escapism are good. We all need that. But books that deal with situations such as you mentioned benefit all teens. It helps them better understand the unpleasant reality many teens face. A reality they might otherwise be shielded from based on where they live or who their friends are.

  6. I agree with this. Right now, I'm writing a half-Asian MC who lives in the city. While I'd like her to work, I'm worried it will pull her away from the main story too much. I'll see as I progress.

    In The Eternal Ones, the MC doesn't have much money and in Tithe, the MC is dirt poor. So there are some, but it's not the norm.