In high school, my teachers loved that tired old joke that goes, “When I was your age, back in the Dark Ages—” Funny, now that I’m the same age many of them must have been at the time, my school days seem like they could have happened only a few heartbeats ago. And yet something important has changed between then and now. The World Wide Web went public three months after I graduated from high school (thanks to Wikipedia for the date), which means my high school years really did take place in a darker age than the one in which we live now. What are the implications for YA fiction?
Let’s start by taking a look at the implications for YA reality. On a typical day, one of my fellow YAYAers who happens to be in high school might be chatting back and forth with me, discussing her latest manuscript via email-capable cell phone while she’s in Spanish class. At the same time, another teenage YAYAer might be checking in and connecting with friends across the country when she drops in at her school library. Physically, they’re in school, surrounded by fellow teens, desks, and textbooks. But their minds aren’t focused on those potentially bleak surroundings—or at least I hope not. Instead, they’re connected to a larger world. The writer on the cell phone is sharing mutual feedback with me—a mom, yoga teacher, and multi-genre writer on the opposite coast. The writer in the library is researching agents, connecting with a select group of people all over the country who share her specific interests, and putting the finishing touches on a manuscript. Their lives are, without a doubt, far bigger than the walls of the school buildings that contain their superficial daily activities.
When I write YA, on the other hand, I draw on memories of a time when if you didn’t have a car and you didn’t have change for a payphone, you were stuck spending the school day trapped in your school as if it was an island, an eight-hour-long mini Lord of the Flies scenario—or at least that’s how it felt some days. A lot of the impetus behind my choice of YA as a favorite genre—why I find it so compelling to read and write—comes from remembering and embellishing on what I saw happening to the human spirit as we attempted to grow and interact under the strange, largely artificial circumstances of high school. The situation brought out both the best and worst in people. Combine the trapped isolation with the fact that teens are forming adult identities and—supposedly—deciding what to do with the rest of their lives, and you have great kindling for an infinite number of hot stories.
Now, high school life is probably not quite as isolated as I knew it to be. I went through some of my days as a teen feeling lucky if anyone wanted to have a conversation with me, even if it was the guy at my table in art class telling me how he stole a bunch of candy from the local convenience store. I couldn’t have imagined that someone in a different part of the country would be interested in talking to me.
Note that I’m not saying life is easier for teens now than it was two decades ago. In fact, some of the changes have made adolescence harder in some ways. Here’s my question: Does that old sense of isolation in school still occur just as strongly despite the ease of internet access? Despite the fact that if you’re a teen now, your world is much bigger than mine was as a kid in the eighties? Tell me how—and if—you think this affects YA plots!