So I recently put together a post about summer recommendations, and I included some books that I had read a number of years ago when I was still in junior/senior high school. One of these books were the Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot.
I loved that series when I was in junior high. It’s ten books long, written like a diary, and it’s a fun, easy to read contemporary. In a time when young adult literature was mostly lame and fairly limited, these books were incredible.
But thinking about these books got me thinking about contemporaries as a general, and how much contemporary books use from real life. Pick up any contemporary novel and you’ll get a snapshot of what that time was like: smartphones, flip phones, or no cell phone at all? What music is popular? Do you watch television on your tv or your laptop? Even if the book isn’t dated for a specific year or time frame, you tend to find a lot of this stuff anyway. To use the Princess Diaries as an example: in the first book, Mia and her friends write notes on scraps of paper, and call each other on their landlines. By the tenth and final, they have smartphones and just text each other.
I grew up in the same time frame as this series, so this isn’t a stretch for me. I remember calling my friends on their landlines and having to ask their parents as politely as I could to please speak with their son or daughter. I remember passing notes in class. And I remember when we all started getting phones and texting instead. Hell, I remember the first time we got reliable internet, and we were allowed to use it for 30 minutes a day so it didn’t rot our brains or connect us with unsavoury folks.
But if I handed the first book in the Princess Diaries to a thirteen year old today, would they be able to connect with a book that doesn’t represent their reality? Because a thirteen year old in 2017 was born around 2004, and they probably don’t have too many recollections of life before cellphones and laptop computers. And as we move forward in time, kids who know of life without iPads, laptops, Netflix and smartphones are going to be far fewer.
I’m not saying that they’ll never be able to connect with it. A lot of things haven’t changed. Family, friends, crushes, and falling in love remain relevant, and those are the major themes of these books. Here’s to hoping that these things never fall out of relevance.
But I do wonder: if given the choice between a YA love story set in 2001 and one set in 2016, how many of today’s teenagers are going to connect more with the one set in 2001?
Because that’s what we all look for in books, isn’t it? It’s a thing in our society. We want to connect with the characters, feel like we understand them and know them. If you read reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, the phrase ‘I could(n’t) connect with the characters’ is a fairly common one. We want to see ourselves in the pages and feel like part of the story. It’s part of the fun.
But if you’ve only lived in a society where personal cellphones, text messaging, and Im-ing is your reality, will you understand a character’s stress over having to call someone’s landline and actually speak to their parent first? Or going on a date with someone you’ve been set up with, and not being able to look up their social media before hand?
I read a lot of contemporary fiction when I was a teenager myself, especially in the younger years, ranging from 60s settings to 00s settings. And I remember always enjoying the 90s or 00s ones far more than the older ones. They just made more sense to me. I remember reading an early edition of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and being so confused why the main character had to use a belt to wear a sanitary pad. (I believe this has been changed to be more current since 2000 when I read this.) It was much easier to read and more enjoyable Princess Diaries or a similar book, where they used to same sorts of products as I did.
The thing about contemporary fiction is just that: it’s contemporary. It’s current, and set in the present. But does that mean that it also has a limited shelf life, because we’re developing technology at such an incredible rate and the targeting age range is still very young?
I suppose we just have to wait and see. Things are different from when I was a teenager – these sorts of online communities for books didn’t exist in the same way. And there are lots of articles out there talking about how book bloggers/booktubers keep book relevant for longer periods. So perhaps this is an ever-changing thing.
Part of me wants to say this is true for past decades, if not this one, just because of my own experience. My favourite YA contemporary books from my preteen/teen years (the 2000s) are rarely seen around the book blogging world. I don’t even think I’ve seen mention of Meg Cabot’s early books, nor Caroline B. Cooney, Julie Anne Peters, Louise Rennison, Francesca Lia Block, or Cathy Hopkins. Others, such as Speak, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and The Giver, to name a couple, have stood the test of time, but most seem to have more or less fallen off the map.
When I started researching for this discussion, I couldn’t find anything on this subject. So I am very curious as to what you have to say about this topic! Do you agree, disagree, got another theory entirely? Please comment below so we can discuss this!