Does Pop Culture Belong in YA?

Leon Husock, an associate agent at L. Perkins Agency, offered this thoughtful Tweet:

“Pop culture references in YA are tricky, tricky things. Teens these days probably aren’t watching/listening to what you’re watching/listening to, and they almost certainly aren’t consuming the stuff you did when you were a teen.”

As an educator, writer of and a fan of the young adult genre, I realized that by stripping any realist narrative of pop culture references, writers are doing a disservice to young readers. Avoiding pop culture references, in fear of not being relevant or marketable (this already feels too much like high school), means stripping literature of history, assuming young readers aren’t capable of researching, and ultimately, damaging critical reading skills.

As a college English instructor, whose trained with The Reading Apprenticeship Program (a program devoted to helping college students acquire critical reading skills in all subjects), I get a lot of high school transfers, as well as high schoolers (15-16). Before we dive into the world of rhetoric and composition, I talk, at length, about critical reading skills. And I am floored every semester, especially during SLO  (student learning outcomes) testing, when students fail a basic reading comprehension test.

These are skills necessary to understanding the dense texts they will encounter in whatever field they pursue. However, some of them won’t break the educational barriers and succeed because reading was “too hard.” How will they write papers that aren’t solely echoes of someone elses’ ideas if they can’t comprehend dense material? We’ve made literature too easy for them. We don’t force them to engage with the subtext at all, or at least, it seems, we are too afraid to.

We as writers, aren’t challenging or trusting what our readers are capable of, and as a result, the writing is not only poor, but so is their critical thinking.

When I was in high school, I was forced to annotate Carol Plum-Ucci’s The Body of Christopher Creed. My tenth grade English teacher, Ms. Hopkins, graded our class on the quality and quantity of our annotations. (If you’re dying to know, I received an A.) I’ve been fortunate to have conversations with Plum-Ucci on Facebook, and she’s told me she wrote her novels as “blunt” as she could because she didn’t want the message of the work to be misconstrued. She is, after all, formally trained in journalism. However, as direct as her prose was, there were still things I didn’t understand. There are several pages with large, very concerned question marks in the margins. And I didn’t have Google to help me. I had to use context clues to figure it out. The horror!

Yet, by annotating and asking questions of the text, I became a more critical reader.

If we think about our high school, or middle experiences, we know that a lot of texts we read were dense, and riddled with references beyond us: The Catcher in the Rye? Things Fall Apart? 1984? THE GREAT GATSBY? SHAKESPEARE?! Yet, that didn’t stop us from engaging with the work, and loving literature.

Should writers refrain writing about fidget spinners because they won’t be cool tomorrow? Or refuse to talk about Twitter in fear that 10 years from now people won’t get it? Short answer: no.

Last summer, I taught a middle school writing class. Their ages ranged from 11-14. We assume these kids don’t know anything about our lives as “old people” because –– why would they?

They asked about my writing, and my novel. I told them it was about emo culture, expecting them to raise their hands and ask what that was. One student, a young boy with a mowhak and one of my youngest in class grew wide-eyed: “YOU LIKE MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE?” Cue the entire class playing their favorite “emo” songs for me during passing period, and asking me about my favorite albums. This was the best part: exchanging knowledge!

It’s funny how classic rock like AC/DC and Led Zepplin get a pass for being a few of the pop culture references writers can include in their young adult fiction. However, we’re pigeonholing the high school / middle school experience by proclaiming that of course they’ll get into classic rock. DUH. But more than that, I think we are afraid to admit our history is relevant, or even worthy of noting. That no child would possibly get into what we got into as teenagers. Wrong.

Sure Friends and Seinfeld are considered retro, but that’s the shit kids like. My next door neighbor, a sophomore in high school, posts Snapchats galore of her and her friends watching these shows. It’s the new thing to do. But, see? They’re growing up just as you and I did. How many of us grew up with Happy Days or I Love Lucy? I’m sure those references have made it into our young adult fiction well after these series came to an end, but it didn’t hurt our readership or the appreciation of literature. It didn’t make the character’s experience any less believable.

What if you have a contemporary main character who loves the band N’Sync? What if that was the last tie to her dead mother? Should we omit what or who N’Sync is, or should we let young readers explore the past and get acquainted with history? Dare we trust them?

I think we should provide young readers with the opportunity to learn, to make connections, and to use Google wisely. Additionally, we shouldn’t assume all young readers are on What’s App, and therefore that is the only “believable” pop culture reference. Not all teenagers grow up the same. Their interests vary.

No true teenager would try to revive AOL? Puh-lease. That will come back soon as most of the relics of our past.

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