Orson Scott Card definitely caused a stir when he published Ender’s Game in 1977 with a young child being trained as a battle mastermind, away from his parents and any true parental authority from age 6 onward. Very few books up to this point treated any character under the age of 14 as a character whose thoughts were to be taken seriously. Why should a child represent humanity?
In an introduction to a reprint edition of Ender’s Game in 1991, Orson Scott Card tells us,
Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along – the same person I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.
Although there are definitely inauthentic parts of Ender’s Game (psychologically damaged and chauvinist much?), Card went out of his way to prove that children take themselves seriously even when adults frequently don’t. This is one of the primary things that separate YA and MG (middle grade) books about youth from adult books written about children/youth; in the YA and MG books, the protagonists are acting in the here and now. These youthful protagonists have real emotions and real issues; we as writers must treat these issues as such. If we do not, we risk losing our readers.
Having spent years working with kids, both in my time teaching and in my ten summers at a girls’ overnight camp, I can absolutely attest to the idea that kids and youth have real emotions, desires, and issues. The primary difference between them and us is their lack of experience (and their frequent desire to hide that lack of experience).
What we as writers must learn to do is write the truth right there on the page; it should ring with emotional integrity. This can be harder than it sounds. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole reminds us that
Teens have a very sensitive BS-o-meter. So for the YA market especially – even though this applies to all kidlit – authenticity and truth are paramount. If something is cheesy or irrelevant, teen readers will not hesitate to declare you a poseur.
What are our takeaways?
- Be authentic in your writing. Write truth.
- Treat your characters’ issues like they matter. If they don’t matter to you as the writer, they certainly won’t matter to your readers.
What else do you think is frequently stereotyped with youth protagonists? Do you have any favorite authentic youth protagonists?