On Not Talking (or Writing) Down to Teens

Even if you’ve never heard the name Lois Duncan, I’m willing to bet you’re familiar with her books. Or if not her books, then at least the titles of her books. Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was adapted for the screen back in 1997. (The movie, in case you don’t remember it, boasted a dream-team cast of what were then the hottest young actresses and actors around: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze Jr.) I’m happy to report that Duncan had absolutely nothing to do with either “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” or “I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer” (and yes, I’m serious – the latter truly exists).

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across some of Duncan’s not-quite-so-famous titles. Ransom, was one, and They Never Came Home was another. I read them, and found a lot to like about them. Duncan writes tight, compact suspense stories. She favors the third-person, omniscient narrator, and often juggles as many as six, seven, or eight points of view. She tackles big, dark, messy subjects – violence and murder, terror and trauma – and although clearly writing for teen readers, she doesn’t shy away from exploring her adult characters’ thoughts, feelings, and stories.

One book that I didn’t have, but that I was eager to read, was Killing Mr. Griffin (this became a made-for-TV movie, and was later used as a blueprint of sorts for the movie “Teaching Mrs. Tingle”). So I went to the store and bought a brand-new copy. It didn’t look like my other Duncan books – instead of the monochrome, silly/eerie cover with some cryptic, foreboding tagline (which invariably ended with an enticing “ . . . ”), I saw a picture of a noose, the book’s title superimposed over the rope in letters that’d been made to look like they were written with chalk. (Scroll down to see this cover, as well as some of this particular book’s other ones.) Compared to the covers I was used to, this was colorful and clever and even cool. I was caught off guard, and slightly concerned. But I bought the book anyway, and went home to begin reading it.

I’d gotten through a few dozen pages when I realized that something was wrong. I’m going to quote the passage which made this glaringly clear to me, but before I do, I want to bring your attention to a small, but significant, fact: Lois Duncan wrote Killing Mr. Griffin thirty-five years ago, back in 1978.

Okay, here’s the passage:

“The only thing alive in the whole living room was the telephone, and it sat silent on its hook so much of the time that it might as well not have existed at all. He sat down next to it and considered dialing a number. Any number, just to hear a voice. But he didn’t know anyone’s cell numbers and no one else was sitting around with nothing to do, like him.”

Is there a word in there that stands out to you?

Cell, maybe?

That one leapt out at me.

I’m guessing that some top-secret government agent or ultra-brilliant techie probably had a prototypical cell phone back in 1978. But teenagers? No way. Only recently did it become normal for the majority of kids the age of Duncan’s characters to tote around their very own cell phones. And seriously – who knows anybody’s “cell number”? I know my own, plus a couple of family members’. I don’t even know my own girlfriend’s “cell number.” It’s silly and lazy, I know, but she’s always there in my call log, so why bother setting those ten digits to memory?

Oddly, other anachronisms (such as the “hook” for the telephones in the passage above – another word that might’ve leapt out at you) were left unaltered. This is most obviously seen in the dialogue. Thirty-five years is a long time, after all, and kids (and people in general, for that matter) just don’t talk the same. You’re not going to encounter a teenager saying “gosh,” “gee,” “golly,” or “darned” anytime soon, not unless it’s delivered dripping with irony.

But diving into Duncan’s books, I’d expected these sorts of anachronisms. The other sort of alterations or updates (which briefly made me wonder whether I’d forgotten about the author’s sci-fi phase), not so much.

So where did that errant “cell” come from? I wasn’t sure, but I had an idea . . . I flipped to the front of the book, to the copyright page, and lo and behold, there I saw it:

First published in hardcover in April 1978 by Little, Brown and Company
Revised Paperback Edition: October 2010

I’m not sure who undertook these revisions (and there are plenty more weird, out-of-place words and phrases). It might’ve been the author herself, or maybe just some intern at Little, Brown who was assigned the task of making Duncan’s work more “modern.” Whoever did it, I wish they hadn’t.

For one thing, they did a half-assed job. If they’d really wanted to create the illusion that this story had been written in 2010 and not 1978, they should’ve gotten rid of that “hook” and should’ve made a better excuse for why that bored, lonely boy couldn’t call up one of his friends.

But even if they had taken the time to do a proper rewrite (and that’s what it would’ve been – not a revision but a complete overhaul, a total rewrite), I’d still be against it. Because they’d still be butchering the book. The 2010 edition’s revisions rip you right out of the story the same way that a “revised” soundtrack would disastrously distract you from an older movie. Imagine if Grease (released in 1978) was dubbed over with the top pop songs of 2010 – Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck you,” Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R,” Usher’s “OMG.” It’d be really, really funny, but only as a travesty. The movie would lose all its power and charm.

If anything, the “historical” books that have been popping up on the bestseller lists with increasing frequency indicate teens’ ability to delve into the past, and even their appetite to do so.

There’s Markus Zusak’s wildly popular The Book Thief, plus Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy, which take readers to Soviet-era Lithuania and 1950s New Orleans, respectively. In The Diviners, Libba Bray transports readers back to the Roaring Twenties in New York City, and in Code Name Verity (which won all sorts of awards and landed on pretty much every best-of list out there), Elizabeth Wein drops readers down into Nazi-occupied France. The list goes on, and authors continue to reach back even further into the past, some plumbing the medieval world for fresh, new stories.

All of which is to say that teens can handle reading a novel set in a time before cell phones existed. It’s condescending – just plain rude – to think otherwise.

Younger readers can empathize with characters even if (probably especially if) their speech isn’t studded with like’s and LOL’s and OMG’s. They can handle those big, thorny issues that the authors listed above, including Duncan, so successfully tackle: death, violence, torture, trauma, hate, and war (not to mention other, not-so-grim stuff, like love and friendship, etc.). They can stand to look inside the hearts and minds and lives of adult characters, both in order to further exercise their empathetic abilities (which like muscles go flabby and weak if you don’t use them frequently enough) and to expand their knowledge of the wider world around them.

In my experience (both as a former teenager and, now, as an adult who often interacts with them), talking down to teens only ever breeds resentment, distrust, and/or outright animosity. Because talking down isn’t really talking to – it’s talking at. It isn’t a conversation, but a lecture or a speech.

We know this. It’s obvious. And in this case, writing is no different from talking. Just like adult readers, teens don’t want YA books to be coddling or condescending. They just want good books, ones that tell good stories, whether or not they’re shelved in the YA section or the Fiction section. (As I said in a previous post, “a good book is a good book is a good book.”)

Lois Duncan writes good books, and I’m glad they’re still being printed – I know there are legions of readers out there, young and old, who would love her work – but I just wish it were the original, untouched texts that were being bound with the new, cooler covers. If this post inspires you to go and pick up a copy of Killing Mr. Griffin or Daughters of Eve or Locked in Time (or any of Duncan’s numerous other taut-yet-deep, thrilling-yet-thoughtful novels), I just hope you can get your hands on the right version.

The many faces of Mr. Griffin.
The many faces of Mr. Griffin.

3 thoughts on “On Not Talking (or Writing) Down to Teens

  1. I know your phone number…
    No but seriously, best blog yet, I love to think what sort of dance Danny Zuko would do to O.M.G.

  2. I totally agree—kind of reminds me of my friend, who was kind of batshit crazy, but kids LOVED her. Because she treated them like people her own age. She didn’t dumb down her words for them or talk to them like they weren’t people. If they didn’t understand something, she simply explained it. Same kind of idea I guess. You’ll get in better as a writer with kids and teens if you don’t censor yourself or assume they don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.

  3. Spot-on stuff, Ashley! Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. They’re great — just like your mac and cheese recipe (which, by the way, I’ve made about a billion times since you gave it to me)!

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