Technology in Young Adult Fiction

Well, it’s official. After missing a few exciting things and getting some encouragement from MFA classmates, I’ve joined Twitter.  I’m a little overwhelmed and still not clear on the nuances, but hey, that’s technology.

Speaking of technology, and in honor of my entrance into the Twittersphere, today I’m thinking about technology and social networking in young adult books.  We all know social networking is a major part of adolescents’ social lives, so it hardly seems accurate to write contemporary realistic fiction that ignores cell phones and Facebook and Twitter and G-Chats and Instagram.  But a number of issues arise when writers attempt to depict all this technology in fiction.

For one thing, even technology-savvy adults may not know as much about social networking as teens do, or we may not use social networking in the same ways.  I’ve been using Facebook and a cell phone for years, for instance, but until some students filled me in, I didn’t know that some teens post TBH (meaning to be honest) as a Facebook status and then have to write something “honest” on the wall of anybody who likes the status, and I didn’t know some teens use group texts to exclude and badmouth somebody who’s physically present but not receiving the texts. Plus, trends in technology change so quickly that a book that includes specifics will soon be outdated.

It seems to me that writers handle technology in a handful of successful ways:

1.) They avoid modern technology by writing historical fiction or by orchestrating some situation in which no one has technology access.

2.) They write sci-fi or fantasy and invent their own types of technology.

3.) They reference technology but without specifics.  Characters mention their phones, and readers can infer that they mean cell phones, but the writer doesn’t choose a specific brand or commit to any terminology.  Or characters chat with other characters online, but the writer doesn’t say whether they’re on Gmail or AIM or something else.

4.) They make up fictional sites that resemble real ones but have different names.10594356   (This strategy is sort of like fictionalizing a setting, something I’m preparing to do in my novel-in-progress; if you give a place a different name, you can draw inspiration from a real place but nobody will hold you to the details.)  For instance, Sarah Dessen has invented a Facebook-like social networking site called Ume.com, which pops up in some of her novels, and Lindsey Leavitt has created another Facebook-like site she calls Friendspace, which includes a game called Authentic Life, for her new novel Going Vintage.

5.) They make technology, or a glitch in technology, part of the premise of a book.  Both Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us and Sarah Mlynowski’s 6693333Gimme a Call take the glitch-in-technology approach.  In The Future of Us, Emma and Josh, two teenagers in 1996, somehow access Facebook in 2011 and find out how they are faring fifteen years in the future by checking out their older selves’ profiles.  And in Gimme a Call, after dropping her phone in a fountain, a high school senior named Devi, who has just been dumped by her boyfriend, realizes that she can call herself as a freshman, so she attempts to keep her freshman self away from the guy who’s broken her heart. 

In the case of both of these fun, high-concept books, technology is a large part of the premise and readers are encouraged to think a little bit about how they use technology and social networking.  The 1996 versions of Emma and Josh are shocked, for instance, at how much private information their future selves reveal on Facebook, and Gimme a Call suggests how much teens rely on their phones.  But really, both of these books encourage readers to think more about another compelling idea: how small actions can impact the future in large and unpredictable ways.

Lindsey Leavitt also uses technology as part of the premise for her novel Going Vintage, in which 16-year-old Mallory swears off technology and resolves to return to the way things were in the 1960s after she finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her with a “cyber-wife.”  In this case, there’s no technological glitch, but what Mallory learns via social networking provides the inciting incident that starts her journey.

I was excited to read Going Vintage because it addresses important questions about social networking and technology and how they impact teens’s social lives.  Leavitt shows how teens get back at each other on social networking sites (Mallory changes her boyfriend’s status to one that proclaims him “a tool” after she finds out about his online relationship), and the way online arguments can blaze up like forest fires (lots of other people get involved and write nasty things about Mallory after she posts that status).  Leavitt also reveals how impossible it is for teens, or any of us for that matter, to avoid technology altogether and still function.

So there you have it: five ways I’ve noticed that authors handle the challenges of social networking and technology in fiction.  What other ways can you think of, or what other books depict technology in effective ways?  Or, alternatively, any Twitter tips for me?

Responses to “Technology in Young Adult Fiction”

  1. L. Marie

    I’ve been wondering about Going Vintage. I have that on my wish list. Glad to know it’s good. Technology is so difficult in books, because it gets dated so fast. Now with tablets constantly entering the market and changing, writers will have to try to keep up!

    By the way, I just followed you on Twitter!

    Reply
  2. laurielmorrison

    Thanks, Linda! Yes, I definitely recommend Going Vintage (I also read most of it on my Kindle on the bus on a 7th grade class trip when kids weren’t allowed to use cell phones or other devices that connect to the internet, so that made it feel extra relevant!). And I couldn’t find you on Twitter before, but now I’m following you, too!

    Reply
  3. Shelby

    Technology is so rapidly changing, it is hard to know what to do. Despite their former ubiquitousness, any writer in a contemporary novel who has a character updating his or her MySpace page or logging onto their ICQ accounts looks like an idiot. How soon will Facebook go out of style? It wasn’t that long ago that unless you were in a university, AOL was synonymous with email to the extent that a book I really like (and is still in print) references AOL in a way that isn’t how it’s used now. Technology can be so “dating” and sometimes it really does feel like a stretch that writers force an artificial historic setting in order to use technology in a static sense. It’s one thing to set your story in the 90s because that’s where the story belongs, but another entirely to set it there because you don’t want to deal with technology. And I think young readers see through that approach just as much as they see through any other convenient literary device. What I want to know, really, is how much does this actually bother young readers? Are they truly offended by references to outdated technology, or do they just roll with the punches if the story is good enough?

    Reply
    • laurielmorrison

      That’s a great question, Shelby. I have a feeling that if teens are drawn into a story they won’t be bothered by outdated technology. Outdated technology seems like another thing that could potentially pull readers out of the fictive dream, but if they’re into a story I bet they read right past it the way they do when they read a story set in Australia or England and some terminology or conventions of schools aren’t the same as what they’re used to. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to have a subtle reference to when a story takes place (referring to the Class of ’13 or something like that) so that future readers can realize, “Oh, that’s how things were way back in 2013” rather than thinking the author is out of touch. I will ask some students about their experiences reading books with outdated technology questions and post again with their responses.

      Reply

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