Saturday, October 13, 2012

Book Talk: A Word to YA Authors

All YA authors tour schools at some time. Many of them are former teachers. So why do they never understand how schools work?

1: Blackbords
I've never known a teenager who goes to a school that has them. We have whiteboards now, and sometimes SMART boards. Those are going to gain popularity in years to come.
2: Popularity ladder
Schools contain hundreds, some thousands, of students. Do you really think we'd take the time to rank every last soul by popularity? There's your friends, the people you know, and then everybody you don't know. Some people are more well known than others. Mostly for being stupid. Nobody memorizes the names, faces, and reputations of the entire varsity football team for the sole purpose of whispering about them. You're not going to track everybody by where they sit at lunch. You're too busy eating and talking to your own friends. Which brings me to our next item.
3. Cafeterias
Lunchrooms are big. And loud. Sometimes you have to ask a friend sitting next to you to repeat what they just said. So naturally enough, you won't be able to hear an anouncement over the intercom. You won't see somebody trip halfway across the cafeteria. And depending on the size of your school, you won't be able to sit alone at a table. You couldn't at my elementary or middle school, but my high school has more space because it lets people eat outside or in the halls.
My elementary school had twenty tables in two straight rows. Stand in the middle and you can see anything that goes on. There was an end of school food fight every year. I never saw it. Everything fifteen feet away goes unnoticed.
4: Characters dramatically switching seats after a dramatic breakup
Some teachers let you choose where you sit, but even they won't let you trade haflway through the quarter. Usually you get alphabetical seating at the beginning of the term and a more randomized seating chart once they've realized who's going to be their problem student.
Attention...students, I have a...very shrill deliver...
5: P.A. systems
What does that even stand for, principal audio? I've always called it an intercom.
6: School nurses
Schools don't have their own anymore. Most nurses travel around between dozens of schools. When you get sick, it's the attendance office lady who opens the door for you and tells you to lie down.
7: Clever abbreviatons
Perhaps some people refer to their cafeterias as "the caf" and classes as "bio" or "chem". But to the rest of us, it just looks weird. English lit, home ec, gym when it was called lifetime fitness on your schedule, those are okay. But do yourself a favor and make it mainstream.
8. We're all sixteen going on seventeen
Except for the readers. I've been reading books about high school students since I was in third grade. Apparently ninth grade protagonists are only acceptable in boarding schools where they're not quite the youngest. Sixteen is the golden age. It's when you discover you're descended from a line of magicians and inherit your powers. It's the year the monsters realize you are the Chosen One and hunt you down. It's the year the prophecy must be fulfilled. It's the year you obtain a driver's license, so the setting isn't limited to the walking distance of Freshman Fred's stubby legs.
All the little people can read up. Unless they're content with the books featuring protagonists their age. Namely stupid middle school clique novels and fantasy where fifteen year olds don't need to be in school. Really, that's all there is. If they start out fifteen, they have a birthday by the end.

9. Miss Wilma Wallflower
She lurks on the outskirts of the aforementioned cafeteria, hiding behind her book, glasses, and long, dark hair. An outsider among blondies doting on lip gloss and boys. All the others find it strange that she reads and pulls straight A's. So she's supposed to be different.
But she isn't. She's a more common stock character than the blonde cheerleader. When female authors want to set a story in high school, they recall their own memories of teenage life, and this is what they get. But wait, there's more!
Despite his status as school quarterback and the personal harem clinging to him as he glides from one class to another, Dreamboy wants her. Because she doesn't want him. Because she doesn't wear makeup. Because she's intelligent. Bonus points if he's a senior and she's merely sixteen (see above). Wish fulfillment, anybody?
Oh, and intelligence? It's not that rare a quality in teenagers. But nobody gets straight A's unless they spend every single waking hour outside of school on homework. Minimal sleeping. No hobbies. No friends. Have fun writing a novel about Wilma spending a year in front of a computer screen maintaing her perfect report card.
Really, can't she settle for being an honor student? There's nothing wrong with a 3.0. How does the entire student body know her GPA anyways?
10. Mrs. McTeacher
From kindergarten to tenth grade, I have had...let's see...twenty-seven female teachers. Ms. Darger became Mrs. Johnson halfway through the year. Mrs. Mackerell had us call her just that. My Spanish teacher, Ms. Denney, encouraged us to call her Senora. Ms. Von der lohe taught theater and appreciated the title 'Queen V'.  All the rest had Ms. in front of their names. Even if they were old. Even if they were visibly pregnant for much of the year. Even if they had children attending the school. Even if they taught home ec. That's just how teachers work in the early twenty-first century. Until seventh grade, I didn't even know Ms was supposed to have an air of unconventional feminism to it. I thought it was an abbreviation for Miss. In books, Mrs. McTeachers strike me as weird unless they're supposed to be motherly, or grandmotherly, or evil teachers pretending to be caring for appearance's sake.

That's school as I know it. Time to break the tropes.