29 April 2007

Getting the Details Right

Yesterday I attended a signing by Jacqueline Davies for her new middle-grade novel, The Lemonade War. Some other writing-group friends and I prevailed on Jackie to do a second reading even after most young customers had disappeared and the chairs were cleared away. Coming home, I got to thinking about the challenge finding the details of everyday life for kids today.

The Lemonade War was inspired by a lemonade-selling rivalry between two of Jackie’s own kids. During the reading, she mentioned how a passing episode that ends poorly for a bike helmet had really happened as well. She even named the perpetrator (so, kid, don't think you're getting away with anything; the grown-ups are onto you).

One of the novels I'm now writing is like Jackie's: set in the contemporary world that its young readers are supposed to recognize as their own. But I don't have kids, so not only am I not forced to know all about today's middle-school society, but I'm somewhat stymied at finding out the gloomy details.

Keeping up with technology is relatively easy because it's so new and obvious. I can pick up that some kids have cell phones and others want them, that the oral report is being replaced by the Powerpoint presentation, and so on.

But what about the minor but telling details of wardrobe? I must take care not to dress my young characters the way I dressed at their age. When I was a boy, all boys' socks were white, tubular, long enough to cover the calf, and striped at the top. The big choice was red stripes or blue stripes or, like the young gentleman to the left, a snazzy combination of both. As for shorts, they were short--hence the name.

Now boys' shorts are actually Capri pants, with extra pockets (for what?), and boys' socks have shrunk to hide inside shoes. Back in my youth, we had little socks, too, but they had pompoms at the back, and only girls wore them. (There does seem to be a conservation law at work here, though. Boys in shorts still bare the same amount of leg; it's just moved ten inches closer to the ground.)

So my hero wears little socks, and when his jeans get wet in the rain, they'll slap coldly against his shins. And he'll have to wear a bike helmet, right? My generation thought those were a good idea--in theory. Now kids actually seem to wear them.

Wrist bands? I grabbed that detail for another character when I met debut novelist Karen Day's son and realized he had more rubber on his arms than my old car had on its tires. Flip-flops? In my youth, kids didn't walk around in flip-flops unless they were actually in Hawaii or carrying a surfboard, but they seem ubiquitous now--and will no doubt spread further as the climate warms. But what other crucial details am I missing?


MotherReader said...

Oh, let me warn you about the rubber bracelets which are on their way out. You can still when they hit the discount pile at Claire's. Okay, so I have two girls.

Flip-flops, though, I think are only building. I can't even find my older daughter sandals and there is a whole shoe aisle at Target devoted to flip-flops for both boys and girls - though it still seems more like a girl thing to me then a boy.

But I think you got the basic boy outfit down.

Kelly said...

Interesting post, J.L.

Question: Do boys actually even wear socks? Seems like a lot of them just stick their feet into sneakers au naturel. Not a pretty picture, I know, but I'd check it out.

Have fun studying the habits of the typical middle schooler. I have one, but she's a girl :)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the word on the rubber wristbands. I expect to keep that detail for a particular character because he's the type who would believe in causes (as I think the wristbands originally signified) and not fashions (as they became).

As for flip-flops and actually wearing socks, there's probably a lot of regional variation in that. Weather and all, you know. Getting the right skaterboy look might be harder here in New England than in LA. But, of course, sometimes one must endure a little pain to look pretty.

Monica Edinger said...

My 4th grade boys here in NYC mostly wear short socks year round.

They HATE coats and jackets even if it is freezing out.

And moving a bit afield, what about technology? I'm listening to an adult title right now (The Thirteenth Tale) and can't quite figure out when the two stories take place. The older one seems pre-automobile while the other one, I think, is meant to be relatively recent. But that narrator only communicates with letters, nary a phone call ever (and there are no computers mentioned).

I've noticed several recently published kids' books with contemporary settings where there is absolutely no mention of any sort of technology (phone, cell phone, computer) which I find surprising. I understand why (the stuff becomes dated so quickly), but it also seems odd to me.

J. L. Bell said...

If we could somehow harness the metabolism of ten-year-olds, then we wouldn't have to worry about heating bills ever again.

As for the technology, as far as I can tell a great deal of "hanging out" with friends for teens today consists of talking on the cellphone to other friends who aren't there. I doubt it's possible any longer to write a realistic story about mainstream teens without the device.