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Pop Culture, Slang, And Day-Old Sushi: Things That Can Quickly Go Bad (and How To Keep Them From Fouling Up Your YA Fiction)

posted 11 Dec 2010, 14:30 by Mpelembe   [ updated 11 Dec 2010, 14:32 ]
In 10 years, will anybody understand you if you say "fo
shizzle?" Will they stare blankly if you mention Britney Spears'
buzz cut or Paris Hilton's jail time? They might, they might
not, but the point is this: If you're a writer of young adult
fiction, you can't afford to pepper your prose with slang and
cultural references that reek like week-old sushi.

More than in any other genre of writing, writers of young adult
material must be acutely aware of the fact that what's hip today
is ho-hum tomorrow. In a youth culture where information is
instantaneous and trends seemingly change by the hour, a great
piece of writing can easily be spoiled by out-of-date

"Any pop culture references to fashion or TV shows change so
rapidly," says Dr. Montana Miller, an assistant professor with
the Popular Culture department of Bowling Green State
University. (Yes, they have a whole department that studies
nothing but popular culture.) "In a way the effort to be
relevant to the young audience by putting in these references is
futile because the references are so quickly outdated. Young
readers have a high sensitivity to when these things are
contrived. They like to have a lot of detail but pick up on when
the detail is being put in their purposely to capture them."

Since the actual publishing of a novel generally takes a year
(not counting the time it takes to write the first draft),
shout-outs to famous people, hot television shows, political
scandals, or trends will more than likely ring false to young
adult readers once the book is actually read. Realistically, pop
music stars who today are the focus of intense devotion on
myspace will probably be has-beens by the time your novel is

Are there exceptions to this? Are there people, things, or
events that become so entrenched in the prevailing psyche that
they will fly as pop culture references? "Barbie is always going
to be a touchstone for everyone," Miller notes. "But I think
that very few things become that universal and as permanent as

Barbie, though, has consistently wormed her way into the
unconscious dreams and desires of little girls (and probably
little boys too) since she was created in 1959. That's more than
50 years of birthday parties, Christmas presents, and unfettered
envy plastered into every little girl's subconscious. Barbie has
earned the right to be used as a cultural reference anywhere,
just by longevity. But what about other less hearty objects?
Anybody remember Tickle Me Elmo? Only the parents who clubbed
each other one Christmas to hijack the local Toys R Us to make
their childrens' dreams come true. The kids probably stuffed the
thing in a closet somewhere, and don't even remember they wanted

Media is a tough call also. Music, movies, television shows,
these all are a huge part of the American experience. But what
makes a piece of media reference-worthy? Classic films from the
'40s and '50s might be a cultural touchstone for people of a
certain age, but for young adults, the idea is mass consumption,
not lasting memories. And people of the older generations had
far fewer options for entertainment and media. Pretty much
everyone saw Casablanca and knows what it is. Pretty much
everyone watched Leave it to Beaver because there were only
three channels on the old black-and-white Zenith, and two of
them didn't work if the weather was bad. These people shared
many common references.

Today, though, an internet search of 'popular culture' will net
you more than 2 million entries. It's not possible that every
young adult who reads will have the exact same cultural
references today, let alone remember them in five years, or ten.
So, generally, the rule of thumb should be to avoid hot pop
culture references in your writing.

At least two exceptions to this rule exist, though. First, if
you're writing for a specific genre audience that will share the
same background and cultural history, some pop references will
ring true. The sci fi geeks who frequent Comic Con all know the
Star Wars mythology, and more than likely share at least a
passing knowledge of things like the Dungeons and Dragons role
playing game and the old Star Trek series. Sub cultures have
their own history and language, so using their own internal pop
culture references might work if you're familiar with that
world, but again, you must be absolutely sure that you do know
what you're talking about. Sports, surfing, the goth culture,
punk music, the gay teen scene, all these are sub groups under
the young adult umbrella, and all have their specific common

The second exception, according to Miller, is the case where a
teenager writes the account of his or her own experience. In
that case, pop culture references that might go stale are
acceptable because the pieces are more like documentaries or
memoirs, and so the point of view is that of a real person who
is recounting the details of his or her life. One example is a
French bestseller, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow written by Faiza Guene,
a college-aged student who writes of her experience as the child
of Algerian immigrants raised in Paris. Although labeled as
fiction, the novel draws heavily on Guene's own experiences, and
because of this and because of her age, cultural references in
it automatically retain their credibility.

Another issue in writing for the young adult audience is the
use of slang, which Miller notes is still "awfully regional."
The term for something that's cool in San Francisco, ("hella")
is different from the term for cool in New England ("wicked").
Although internet and text messaging slang might seem universal
since most teenagers use it, the terms change and mutate so
quickly that including them could be risky. One current
favorite, "pwned" (it means "to be owned or dominated by an
opponent in a situation"), actually is a corruption of the word
"owned" and comes from a popular online game called World of
Warcraft. In five years will anyone remember that? Hard to say,
but it's probably safer to leave it out.

All in all, the best bet for YA writers is to capture a
reader's attention with universal themes and characters rather
than hot pop culture or slang. "If you're an older writer
writing for this audience," Miller suggests, "the most important
thing to capture the loyalty and love of young readers is to
focus on themes of relationship, gossip, jealousy, betrayal, the
things that keep readers attached and gripped. They respond
better to plot and story lines and themes that are getting even
more intense in this competitive world today. Kids want to see
the kind of pressure they are really under now reflected in the
stories they read."

Fo' shizzle.

About The Author: Laura Preble is a journalist, singer,
teacher, and writer from San Diego. Her first Queen Geek novel
is The Queen Geek Social Club, followed up this fall with Queen
Geeks in Love. Learn more at