Contemporary Characters in Children’s Books
So far, my published stories have all been contemporary, set in the now, or at least in the very near past.
One of the big questions writing about contemporary stories is the degree to which the author should integrate current events, slang, and pop culture.
A lot of people put forth the idea that we should create timeless children’s stories so that they will be equally appealing to each successive generation.
I’ve been thinking about that.
When I began writing, I was younger than most but not all children’s-YA book authors. Older than most but not all children’s-YA book readers. At that time, many of the books being marketed as “contemporary” (with new, updated covers featuring characters in current fashions and hair styles) seemed dated to me. So did a lot of recently published books supposedly reflecting the present. They were not necessarily laden with pop culture references, but there was a historic sensibility to them.
A popular, beloved contemporary book from the 1970s, like ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME MARGARET by Judy Blume was, to me, a welcome historical read at the time.
That was two decades ago. I’m long past being a new voice in children’s publishing. I’m an established (but still evolving) one. I’ve watched my earliest books age and observed countless young readers over the year connect with them.
I still think there’s a need for books written in a moment that will always reflect that moment and sensibility. A lot of kids love historical fiction for a reason.
At the same time, I’ve become (hopefully) more deft at framing fiction that won’t quickly shift in perception from a story of now to a story of then.
So, a few quick tips to get you started:
1.) Beware of new slang. It may be “out” before the manuscript is published.
2.) Not every trend or personality has staying power. There’s the niche movie you happened to watch last weekend, and then there’s “Star Wars.”
3.) Consider “evergreen” themes. Advances in technology (the CD-ROM?) can be here and gone in a blink. But personal rights of passage—a first kiss, the death of a loved one (including, say a loved hamster), navigating peer pressure—are eternal.
And, by the way, so is Judy Blume.