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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #73 Young Adult Fiction: Pop culture and context in young adult fiction


SA Partridge - 2011-08-10

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I came across fellow youth writer Maya Fowler’s piece on writing for youth (#25 Some thoughts on writing youth novels) and she made some very interesting points about pop culture:

I’m not keen to populate my fiction with Hannah Montana-type characters or references to Jay-Z and the gang. But one can’t help feeling you should, just to get through … By adding that much of pop culture, mightn’t one overpopulate the work with detail in the same way Higginson describes that too much historical detail weighs down the work? I think the same holds here, namely that the writer is “undermin[ing] the richness of collective memory [or collective cultural knowledge] the reader brings to the book”.

I recently read the young adult (YA) novel Deadlands by Lily Herne, which has been marketed as South Africa’s first zombie novel. The book is set in a future Cape Town after a zombie apocalypse forces everyone into enclaves to protect themselves from having their brains eaten. The book has many pop-cultural references in it, including films, music and books from the 20th century. The use of these pop culture references clearly targets the book to the “now” generation. In this instance it works well and adds an element of fun to the off-beat tale, but I can’t help wondering how well future readers will relate to the content. Are pop culture references necessarily a good thing or can they date a novel?

It could be argued that the use of pop-cultural references makes it easier for teen readers to relate to YA novels, as the content reflects the period in which they find themselves growing up.

Cory Doctorow’s youth novel Big Brother reads like a personal account of the 2008 internet generation in America.

Harajuku Fun Madness is the best game ever made. I know I already said that, but it bears repeating. It's an ARG, an Alternate Reality Game, and the story goes that a gang of Japanese fashion-teens discovered a miraculous healing gem at the temple in Harajuku, which is basically where cool Japanese teenagers invented every major subculture for the past ten years. They're being hunted by evil monks, the Yakuza (AKA the Japanese mafia), aliens, tax-inspectors, parents, and a rogue artificial intelligence ….

… And it's a competition, with the winning team of four taking a grand prize of ten days in Tokyo, chilling on Harajuku bridge, geeking out in Akihabara, and taking home all the Astro Boy merchandise you can eat. Except that he's called "Atom Boy" in Japan.

I wasn't always into ARGing. I have a dark secret: I used to be a LARPer. LARPing is Live Action Role Playing, and it's just about what it sounds like: running around in costume, talking in a funny accent, pretending to be a super-spy or a vampire or a medieval knight.

For someone not necessarily familiar with internet lingo all the references in Big Brother can become quite exhausting. More importantly, young South African readers might not be able to relate to the content at all. (I know I didn’t at first).

Do we as South African writers have a responsibility to the unique demographic in our country, and if we do, should we fill our books with unique pop-cultural references that only South African readers would understand? Culture is important, especially in a country such as ours that is as diverse as it is unique, but good realistic teen fiction can function without it.

In my latest novel, Dark Poppy’s Demise, I decided to keep the pop-cultural references to a minimum so that the book could appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This presented a marked difficulty, since the plot was framed around a 16-year-old girl who meets a boy on Facebook. Instead of relying on typical Gen-Y speak and internet lingo I focused more on the themes of identity, sexuality, familial struggles, and abuse to connect with my readers. Most teens will have had similar experiences in their lives, whether it’s bullying, first love, that first big fight with a best friend – and through these shared experiences identify with the book.

Teenagers are an ever-evolving species, but their underlying needs of acceptance and self-identity are aspects that don’t change.

Michael Cart said it best in his white paper:

YALSA [Young Adult Library Services Association] also acknowledges that whether one defines young adult literature narrowly or broadly, much of its value cannot be quantified but is to be found in how it addresses the needs of its readers. Often described as “developmental”, these needs recognize that young adults are beings in evolution, in search of self and identity; beings who are constantly growing and changing, morphing from the condition of childhood to that of adulthood. That period of passage called “young adulthood” is a unique part of life, distinguished by unique needs that are – at minimum – physical, intellectual, emotional, and societal in nature. By addressing these needs, young adult literature is made valuable not only by its artistry but also by its relevance to the lives of its readers.

By focusing on what unites young adult readers novels can achieve a timeless relevance.  For this reason teens can pick up SE Hinton’s The Outsiders or  JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and still be able to identify with the characters and the themes, even if they don’t understand the cultural references.

Young adult fiction should mirror real life and should be an impartial (albeit enjoyable) tool for teenagers to identify and cope with the problems in their lives.  Young adult fiction can capture the essence of the Y generation, but whether it’s through pop-cultural references or through relevant issues, the most important aspect of YA is that it should tell a story, and tell it well.

 

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