Writing About Social Issues For The Young Adult Market

This is a guest post by Emily-Jane Hills Orford, author of “Gerlinda“.

Emily-Jane Hills Orford is the author of many books, including the award-winning books, Gerlinda, To Be a Duke, F-Stop: A Life in Pictures, and The Whistling Bishop. She teaches music and creative writing to creative young minds of all ages. For more information on the author, check out her website at: http://emilyjanebooks.ca

Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Author

There are a lot of hot issues facing teens today. One of the biggest concerns is teen suicide. What drives a teenager to want to end his/her life? It can’t be stress and peer pressure alone. Two serious causes of teen suicide have been identified: bullying and abuse.

To say that these issues are isolated to the current generation of teens is completely and totally wrong. Bully and abuse have always existed, and, unfortunately, probably always will exist. How we deal with them will determine how successful we are at rehabilitating and helping the victims of these crimes. In the past, these issues were brushed aside as a result of growing up. People tended to look the other way, or to tell youngster to “toughen up and just take it.”

How do we write about these issues in a way that teens can identify with the victim? And realize that, if they are a victim, they’re not alone? In a way that a teen might empathize and want to help the victim? And, in an age of high tech, how do we get the teens to actually read these stories in the first place?

It’s important as writers to remember the old adage, “write what you know.” You have to know your subject, your characters, your victim and his/her perpetrators and you have to know all of this very intimately. If you can’t relate to your subjects and your characters, don’t expect your readers to be able to relate to them.

When I wrote “Gerlinda”, I chose a time period, the 1960s, that I was familiar with. I grew up in the 1960s. I chose a character from my childhood who was abused at home. How did I know? All the kids on the playground knew. She came to school in the same dirty, thread-bare dress every day, she smelled like she’d never had a bath and her arms, legs and face were covered in bruises. In fact, one day she arrived at school with a burn blister on the back of one hand, the size of a baseball. What was there not to know? Kids are very intuitive. We knew what was going on even if our parents appeared to be oblivious.

As for the bullying? There are bullies everywhere, both children and adults, and they always zone in on the weakest and those already victimized. The bully in my Grade 8 class lived across the road from me. He bullied me, as well as the girl I called a friend, the one who was abused at home.

First-hand knowledge! To this day, I can recall vividly scenes on the playground, clashes with her abusive father and visiting her home. Basically, I wrote most of “Gerlinda” from my memories. And, as I developed a plausible plot around real life events, I showed my story to my readers, I didn’t tell it. Show, don’t tell and you’ll capture the attention of your readers, young and old, right from the first line.

And how did I start my story? With the catcalls from the bullies on the playground:

“Cooties, cooties,” several boys’ voices rang loud and clear.

     Gerlinda could hear the boys chanting as she marched briskly down the remaining block towards school. It was the same every morning; unless, of course, it was raining. Then everyone would be indoors in the gym and the noise of over a hundred wet, giggly children was a guarantee to drown out any chant.

     The catcalls were for her. Gerlinda knew that.

As another victim of abuse and bullying wrote, “This is a book of abuse, plain and simple, but it is far from being a plain and simple book. The human psyche is represented in black and white, but on cannot say that the book is black and white. There are countless angles, emotions, etc. Those who read this book may get much more than they bargained for in the way of feelings, memories, etc. Be prepared for anything.”

We may never stop bullies and abusive people. But we can certainly present the raw facts in the stories to make people talk. To make victims realize that they’re not alone. To help victims heal without resorting to suicide.

Raw facts. Keep the story true and realistic. Show the story, don’t tell it.