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readergirlz is a literacy and social media project for teens, awarded the National Book Foundation's Innovations in Reading Prize. The rgz blog serves as a depot for news and YA reviews from industry professionals and teens. As volunteers return full force to their own YA writing, the organization continues to hold one initiative a year to impact teen literacy. All are welcome to "like" us on Facebook!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November: Recommended Read, Cynthia Leitich Smith

And now, a guest post from Cynthia Leitich Smith:

As the author of one of this month's suggested reads, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, I thought I'd discuss a question I struggled with in writing the novel: how should I weigh the need to convey a contemporary setting with the risk of dating the book too quickly?

Because so many images of Native people in books are historical, I wove a few pop culture references - mostly related to science fiction - into Rain's narrative to give the book a fairly “now” feeling. However, I selected and framed these tidbits carefully.

For example, I planted into Rain's character that she is a lover of science fiction -- recent and classic. That way, she would be as likely to mention “The X-Files” if we were to assume the story is set in the year 2001 as she would be to mention “The X-Files” if we were to assume the story is set in, say, the year 2010. This particularly holds true because the sci-fi fan base as a whole tends to have strong memories and long-standing loyalties.

Likewise, I refer to the "Bat Out Of Hell" albums by the band Meatloaf, a favorite of Rain's brother Fynn, as "vintage." So, from the first time the reader sees the reference, she knows that this is not meant as a time marker to indicate when the story is set but rather a "historic" reference.

(It did, however, require some conversation with my editor to establish that albums of both the 1970s and the 1980s would be considered vintage to today's teen readers; and on a personal level, we were both amused to find that a bit distressing).

In this way, there is a general early 21st century feel to the story.

Do you think that making Rain a science fiction fan was an effective way for me to weave in pop culture tie-ins without dating the book too quickly? Why or why not?

Also, do you believe that dating the book really matters? Does it bother you to read a book written for a contemporary audience that has a few tie-ins that seem a couple of years old? Or do you just assume that the story is a near history, set a couple of years ago, and go ahead with reading the story? Why or why not?

- Cynthia Leitich Smith

* Note: Cynthia's short story entitled "A Real Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate" appears in Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori Marie Carlson, which is another of this month's recommended reads.

Feel free to leave your thoughts or blog links in the comments below, rgz!

Related Posts:
Lorie Ann Grover's thoughts on pop culture in contemporary novels at On Point
Timestamps: Books Getting Dated (or Not) by Pop Culture References by Little Willow at Bildungsroman

8 comments:

Sadako said...

Great post. I had never heard of this book but it really makes me want to read it now.

THALIA CHALTAS said...

I like the technique of using a few historic tastes to place the reader in a time "zone," as you do, Cynthia. If a book shouts that what I am reading is happening right now, I don't want references to something current, because if they aren't MY current, I am pulled out of the story. Otherwise, lodging a story firmly in the 1980s can be its own historical fiction... shocking for some of us, since we were there not long ago. :)

Little Willow said...

Thank you for sharing this with us, Cynthia.

I know that people often don't give kids enough credit for knowing things, be they related to academia or to pop culture. I heard it enough growing up: "You can't possibly know that," or, "That was before you were born," and every variation in-between, ranging from surprise to downright condescension when I would quote, sing, mention, or otherwise reference something.

Pop culture - the bits of trivia, gossip, and fact that populate the day-to-day in our society - are so much a part of just that, the day-to-day, that all ages pick up these trivia bits nearly by osmosis. There are the lesser-known facts, of course, but the shows, books, movies, and other forms of entertainment, politics, and history that are general public knowledge touch us all in some way.

- and this is true for all societies, all groups of people. Haven't you read a book or seen a movie that is set somewhere other than your mother country and, even if is contemporary, mentions something or someone offhand that clearly everyone in that story understands while you are left scratching your head, wondering what/who/how that is? :)

I don't mind so-called "dated" books. The story is set when and where it is set. That doesn't make the characters or their trials, failures, and triumphs any more or less important. It can change the impact on the reader, certainly, if that reader doesn't "get" it, but if that reader wanted to, I'm pretty sure that she or he could learn more about that era, town, state, society, etc in an effort to "get" it!

I do love when stories feel timeless, but it's rare that a tale is completely such, without any reference to song, fashion, or history that places it in a specific era. (I could name some, but I'll save those for another post!)

What I don't like is when a book references a Top 20 hit or right-now story/gossip/whatnot every few pages, because what's popular and "hot" when the book is in its first draft will change by the time it is published, and that just-missed dating can be worse, in a way, than a few years/a decade removed.

Hi, Thalia! Good to see you here.

Nice to meet you, Sadako.

Little Willow said...

I just wrote all that and more at my blog: Clickety clack to Bildungsroman for my rambling!

Lorie Ann Grover said...

Awesome, Sadako!

Great thoughts, ladies. Cyn, I'm so thankful this generation of teens has our pop culture at their fingertips. This just wasn't the case for my mother and her mother.

Whether it's vintage, or on youtube, or hulu, or project playlist, all the media material of generations past are accessible today.

This frees us as writers to draw on memories important to us, yet still connect with today's teen.

What a win win! My mom will often laugh when she visits and hears Dean Martin seeping from my daughter's ipod. Just goes to show...

Melissa Walker said...

I love the idea of giving the timeline a "feel" rather than a specific marker. I didn't know to do this when I was first writing, and I'm much more conscious of it now...

Marlene Carvell said...

While Sweetgrass Basket is historical fiction, my other novels have contemporary settings so I definitely understand the difficulty of keeping a story timeless. In young adult realism (my focus), it is almost impossible for writers to avoid those details which would "date" a story. Hopefully, the characters we develop and the conflicts they experience are strong enough to engage the reader in such a way that references to "current" culture are not distractions.

Erin said...

It's when an author has obviously tried too hard to make a book "current" that it bothers me. Especially because teen trends can fluctuate yearly if not monthly.

I think making her a sci-fi fan and mentioning "vintage" music is a perfect way to give a sense of modern setting, without dating it.