Children’s Writing Weblog

Writing for Young Adults: Finding Laughs Amongs the Angst

Posted on: January 2, 2010

It seems when kids turn 13, one word sums up their lives: melodrama. Emotions hover on the surface; every event is huge. Adults are idiots who don’t understand them, and their classmates are constantly watching to make sure they don’t do anything stupid (which includes wearing the wrong clothes to saying the wrong thing to listening to the wrong music). Oh. My. God. As adults on the receiving end of this hysteria, we may roll our eyes or deliberately show up at Back to School Night with wet hair, just to see our child’s response. But as authors, we can mine the drama for its flip side: humor.

Many books for teens feature characters who are on the edge of the abyss and facing life-or-death situations, extreme moral choices, or have been dealt a tough hand and have to somehow live with it. Their drama is achingly real. Or, a protagonist might be self-assured enough to rise above the sniping judgements of his peers. Both characters are admirable, but often not funny. Humor comes from a flawed character the reader genuinely likes, who’s in a sticky situation the reader can easily imagine. Then the author turns it up a notch. The reader gets to laugh at someone who’s like her, but from the safety of not having to actually suffer the humiliation personally.

In Denise Vega’s click here (to find out how i survived seventh grade), Erin Swift is not having the best start to middle school. Her big feet are the butt of jokes, she lands the role of Corn Cob in the school play, and the Cute Boy she has a crush on becomes infatuated with her best friend Jilly. But Erin’s a whiz with computers, and joins the Intranet Club to become the lead designer for the school’s web site. She also keeps a secret blog where she spills all her innermost thoughts and true feelings about everyone at her school. When her blog accidentally gets posted on the school web site, Erin’s convinced she’s going to die. Vega’s taken traditional middle school dynamics and filtered them through Erin’s self-deprecating lens, which lightens up the angst of the genuinely heart-wrenching scenes (Cute Boy’s attraction to Jilly, Erin overhearing girls criticizing her in the bathroom). Then Vega throws in every middle schooler’s worst fear: that they’ll be stripped metaphorically naked in front of their peers and revealed for who they really are. If Erin’s public blog was the only drama in the book, we’d pity Erin but not really identify with her. But because of the melodrama in earlier scenes, we know that Erin’s learning to laugh at herself, and she’ll find a way to survive this very real problem.

Parents offer endless inspiration for melodrama. If you’re looking for a good adolescent plot twist, simply ask yourself, "What the most embarrassing thing a parent could do to this character?" Your answer might give you a whole book. The opening line of Shelley Pearsall’s All Shook Up says it all: "Looking back, I would say everything in my life changed the summer I turned thirteen and my dad turned into Elvis."

Like Vega, Pearsall keeps close to comforting upper middle grade territory but then cranks up the embarrassment. Josh is sent to live with his father in Chicago one summer when his mother has to take care of his sick grandmother. Josh hasn’t seen his dad for a while, and assumes he’s still the scatterbrained shoe salesman he remembered. But Dad’s got a new gig as an Elvis impersonator. And what’s more, when Josh’s visit is extended into the fall and he starts school in Chicago, one of his classmates leaves him anonymous notes about Elvis. Josh’s dwindling ability to keep his dad’s identity a secret is completely shattered when Dad is invited to perform at the school’s 1950s concert, and Josh must take drastic action that threatens to ruin his relationship with his father forever. Readers will certainly emphasize with Josh, but also observe how he and his father learn to compromise and respect the person each has become. Josh is forced to think about someone other than himself, which (along with the fact that Dad is a terrific performer) helps deflate the social suicide of having Elvis for a dad.

For my money, one of the best young adult beach reads you’ll find is Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About The Grapes of Wrath by Steven Goldman. 17-year-old Mitchell is a slightly scrawny, socially inept, average student, whose best (and only real) friend tells Mitchell he’s gay one day at lunch. Mitchell’s junior high school year is marked by trying to talk to girls (Does his sister and her best friend count?), navigating the school hierarchy, reassessing his friendship with David, and turning in a slightly pornographic claymation film in lieu of an English paper on a book he hasn’t read. Much of the humor comes from Mitchell’s dry, somewhat clueless first-person voice. He’s hovering outside the whirl of popularity, and so can comment on high school without having much to lose. School Library Journal called the book "A side-splitting slice of male adolescence, [that] turns the spotlight on the ridiculousness that is the average, contemporary American high school experience."

When I asked Goldman how he writes humor, he said, "I was just trying to capture some of the feelings I could remember from high school, and really see the world through the eyes and the running narration of a character with a particular view of the world and a particular way of expressing his feelings. One of the things I really enjoy about writing YA is that I find high school students to be funny. Frankly, I think they have better senses of humor than adults. They are willing to put themselves in situations that no one with a brain would, and yet they have the intelligence to realize that they are doing it. That risk-taking extends to language as well — they will say things that are brutally honest and horrible and therefore frequently funny." This brutal honesty, both with each other and themselves, creates those situations bordering on melodrama. Once of my favorite scenes from Two Parties is at prom, when Mitchell is in the bathroom thinking about his date who’s abandoned him, and he accidentally pees on his white tux pants. While laughing at Mitchell’s description of himself, I couldn’t help but cringe at the image of him walking through the school gym with wet pants. Even as an adult, I still feel I share in Mitchell’s experience. That’s why writing humor for teens may be easier than you think. As Goldman said, "We never really recover from our adolescence; those years starting in middle school and continuing through high school are so formative that they we can still find them in a lot of the ways that we feel about things as an adult. I might be 45, but when I walk into a party I swear I’m still 17 and clueless about what to do next. We may leave high school, but we never really escape it."

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