October 24th, 2006

MG vs. YA

During my teen years, I didn’t get in very much trouble. And the little trouble I did get into I could wriggle out of all too easily. (Bambi eyes and a fluid tongue do wonders to disarm security guards at convents where the sprinklers practically beckon to teenagers driving aimlessly through the otherwise dull city of Orange, let me tell you. And if a club suddenly decides to start implementing its card-everyone-who-looks-under-21 policy, you just say you left your license in the car if you happen to be under 21 [that’s always believable, right?]. And if you steal books from the library, you can make up for it by giving an anonymous donation to said library in the estimated value of the stolen materials. Doncha think?)

 

I didn’t worry about my good behavior much during my teen years. I was too busy calling the boys I liked and hanging up when they answered (thank God Caller ID hadn’t been invented yet. What would I have done with my free time? On the other hand, maybe without that outlet I would have found some real trouble to get into!).

 

Now that I’ve refocused on fiction, though, and fiction for the younger reader, I find myself in a quandary. It feels like I’m geared more for YA topic-wise, style-wise, theme-wise—and yet, it’s abundantly clear that my good-girl years are not going to help me pay off in the YA category. (At my advanced age, I’m shocked at some of the YA material that’s out there [and more than a little depressed at how advanced these fictional teens are, compared to yours truly]. And I read Go Ask Alice. More than once. And Tiger Eyes. So there.)

 

But this weekend I had a chat with an 18-year-old boy that made me wonder if, after all, I’m exaggerating the excitement of other people’s teen lives. (After all, you can’t compare real life to a television soap opera, so maybe you can’t compare real teens to Gossip Girl.)

 

I’ll call him Armando (because that’s his name). He’s the son of a friend’s neighbor, a nice boy who smiles when he complains about having to go to work and lowers his eyelids when he admits he was out till 5 in the morning. And he told me the best story ever on Sunday:

 

Armando, whose parents would flay him if he ever had the slightest connection with any sort of illegal activity, was riding his bike to work to pick up his check. He was wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt. With the hood pulled all the way up. (Like gang members sometimes do.) And it was night. And he was riding in the middle of the street, swooping back and forth like a 10-year-old kid. (Or a drunk.) And he’d picked up an Arizona iced tea to drink as he continued on his way. And the iced tea was still in the paper bag. (The way some people disguise bottles of the hard stuff.)  

 

So here’s this dark-skinned kid, cycling down the middle of the street in the dark, hood up, drinking something out of a paper bag.

 

He didn’t tell me whether he was surprised when a police car in a church parking lot flashed its lights at him, and a voice demanded that he pull over.

 

“But I haven’t even started my engine,” he joked.

 

The officer sat him down on the curb for a good long talk—during which he discovered the nature of Armando’s hidden beverage, and his goal of becoming a police officer. I bet the guy felt awful when he realized the kind of kid Armando is. But this incident made me feel a lot better about my own docile youth. And even though I’ve used it here already, I just know it's going to make it into a story someday. (A YA story, natch.)

 

Story-stealing could be the answer for a thoroughly middle-grade writer like me. So if I really want to aim for those YA shelves, I guess I just have to eavesdrop a little harder. (Or you could make my life simpler, and just email me your deepest, dirtiest secrets. Your call.)