Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Knock, Knock. Kids? Let Me In Your Head!

Lots of us kidlit writers like to joke (or are we?) that our development arrested at age 12 (or 14 or possibly 16) and that’s why we’re so drawn to writing about kids. My Twitter profile says it all: I write kidlit so I can excuse my pop culture tastes as “necessary research”. But the fact of the matter is (addicted as I might actually be to Good Luck, Charlie), I AM doing constant research to better understand the age groups I write for.

I watch what they watch, read what they read, and visit places where they shop, play, and study.

Most of this is aided by the fact that I’m being dragged into Justice or tugged onto the couch for an Austin and Ally marathon by my own young kids. As much as this is family time, it's also priceless source material. On Sunday, I cuddled on the couch with my seven-year-old, watched the Ramona and Beezus movie, and saw something that helped me make a breakthrough on a plot point that had me stymied. Each Monday, I read to my twin eleven year-olds’ sixth grade class so I can be a fly on the wall in a middle school classroom. I often linger (you say spy, I say linger) to listen to the kids chat as they put away their lunches and get ready for recess. I know the ins and outs of the Rainbow Loom and which Magic the Gathering cards are rare. I have been well schooled on the fact that middle school kids DO NOT make phone calls. If they can’t text it, it isn’t being communicated

I thought I was all set.

But none of that is helping at the moment because I’m writing a YA. And the only teens in my life are the babysitters who just want to be paid already thanks, so they can slip quietly into the night and swear off children until the next time they need gas money.

So I have to get creative.

Once again, pop culture is my friend (Oh, Friday Night Lights, you always steer me straight) and I’ll happily work my way through any YA to-read pile, but I’m taking it a bit farther these days. This week I started reading an ARC of  The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain, which is described by the Huffington Post as “a riveting, reassuring, and plain English guide to what is going on in adolescents’ heads between the ages of ten and twenty.” I also signed up for a seminar called “Understanding your Teen” at my town’s high school. I’m sure the other parents will wonder why I’m the only one there not pulling out my hair and sobbing into my coffee (kid stuff is great, but I draw the line at strawberry milk). I will listen in and revel in the fact that at least I have complete control over the teens who will live on my pages. I will also try hard to ignore the fact that in a few short years I’ll have bald patches of my own. I guess when that day comes, it'll be a fair trade off for appropriately-aged source material.


So spill: how do you get to know your kid characters? 

-- Jen


  1. Love this!! I, too, immerse myself in kid pop culture - tv shows, "the" radio station, things online, etc. But since the only school I can show up at without getting arrested is a preschool, my favorite eavesdropping locations are: 1) the dressing rooms at Kohl's (it's amazing what you can learn while trying on jeans); 2) the skating rink; and, 3) any large public event (the state fair, concerts, etc.). So much fun!

    1. ooh, yes the dressing room! Also, our local Starbucks. Though how these kids are affording $10 mochas is beyond me.

  2. This is such a fun post, Jen!

    I'm the mom of three adorable kids so I have lots of material around me. But my favorite eavesdropping location is during carpool. I get to hear my kids interact with a carload of their friends in a confined space. And for whatever reason, kids forget about the mom in the front seat.

    They'll talk about music, school, teachers, even (ack!) the cute guy/girl at lunch. This week alone, I've heard conversations about the latest Rainbow Loom patterns (there are new vlog websites launching everyday with tutorials), a discussion of the ingredient list of Yoohoo chocolate drinks (available only in the dusty old vending machine near the HS training room), and the latest Pokemon launch.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I have yet for the car-eavesdropping to work for me- the girls just whisper in the back seat!

    3. Car pool is awesome! With three kids there's rarely room for anyone else's but I agree I've picked up some doozies from the car ride. It's like you wear an invisibility cloak while in chauffeur mode. I was just asked to chaperone the middle school dance, but that is where I draw the line on research!!!!

  3. I love teen tv (Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, pretty much everything on the CW) and excuse it as research. The biggest thing though is to remind myself that those shows represent aspirations and not real lives. They start trends rather than reflect them. When I was in high school I loved 90210, Party of Five, Dawson's Creek later, etc. but none of them mirrored the way I actually talked with my friends or what we valued on a day to day basis. I'm also always reading two books and at least one is a recently published YA. But I also like to write in teen areas - mostly the cafeteria in my kids' school, but also in a local book cafe, while my kids are in sports practices, anywhere there are kids and I won't look creepy writing and taking notes on dialogue - to get slang and mannerisms first hand. Mannerisms are key to get for me because I feel like adults carry themselves differently than teens. And I feel like being surrounded by teens for a full day starts to influence my dialogue positively.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Your kids' school lets you write in the cafeteria? That's genius! I definitely carried myself differently as a teen- I was positive everyone was aware of me/looking at me (in both good ways or bad, depending on the day) and I always was self-conscious of that. Now I walk kids to the bus stop in the morning in my pajamas and try to convince myself no one will notice:) Thanks for commenting!


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