Let’s start by looking at this clip below. The illustrated video, created by Steve Cutts for Moby’s new song, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” is dark and disturbing. You can even watch it with the sound off, since my interest is almost entirely with the story told by the visuals.
Wow, right? A bleak look at cell phone addiction. Or maybe it’s just a slightly exaggerated look at our world?
Contemporary cell phone culture presents unique challenges to any children’s book writer. Not the phones themselves, of course, but the way in which so much of contemporary teen life is spent on those phones. A quick Google search reveals reports that claim young adults will take more than 25,000 selfies during their lifetimes. More than 93 million selfies are taken each day; and so on and so on. You get the picture.
In that regard, cell phones must be considered central to any telling of realistic fiction. It’s where so much of their lives are played out. But, confession: that’s not the version of life I’m personally interested in exploring. Maybe this reveals me for what I am — an old guy who grew up in a time before cell phones and personal computers. Their world is not my world. Maybe it’s beyond me. And yet I’m typing this on a laptop with an Apple phone at my side.
None of this was an issue for Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston.
How do writers of children’s literature deal with phones? How do we tell contemporary stories? One way, of course, would be to embrace the phone fully. Make it a central character — that’s where the drama plays out, so dive right in. That’s a legitimate approach, but feels gimmicky. I also suspect that technique would quickly become dated.
In my books, I’ve dealt with phones in a number of ways.
Here are a few:
* I recently wrote a new Jigsaw Jones, The Case from Outer Space. The characters are in second grade, so cell phones are not an issue. Nice!
* In my “Scary Tales” series, phones present a different sort of challenge. The phone makes the world less scary. I don’t want a kid who is trapped in a cave to be able to pick up her phone and call 911. And the inverse is especially true — any sense of isolation, of disconnectedness, raises their discomfort. In I Scream, You Scream, the phones are confiscated before a thrill ride (no photos). Other times, the Wi-Fi is mysteriously down (Good Night, Zombie). I’m often trying to get the phone out of the way.
* In The Fall, a book that deals, in part, with teenage cyber-bullying, there’s no way to pretend that phones don’t exist. My characters send and receive texts, and “cell life” is inherent in the story. Interestingly, while the phones enhance our ability to connect electronically, they can also limit our real-time connections. Here’s a moment in the story when Sam recounts his second meeting with Morgan. They are both walking their dogs off-leash behind the middle school. They talk a little bit, thanks to the dogs. And then, this:
I stared at my phone, scrolled.
Morgan pulled her cell out of a coat pocket.
We stood there in awkward proximity, alone on a field, playing games with our phones. Silence drifted over us like clouds.
I pocked the cell.
“Bye,” I said.
I don’t remember if she answered me, but Morgan called to Max, “See ya, boy!”
* For The Courage Test, a father and son go on a long camping trip together. It would have been perfectly valid for them to lose a signal at different points in the story (and they do). But I still had the problem — if you can call it that — of a kid with his phone. Rather than ignore it completely, I wrote a scene where they are driving along in Montana. William is playing a game on his phone, not, to his father’s mind, fully appreciative of the landscape. They argue about the phone. The argument escalates.
He holds out his hand, gesturing for the phone.
Now, this next part is funny.
And it’s also incredibly, fabulously stupid, because I can be such an idiot sometimes. My father has pushed me into a corner. We are in the middle of nowhere. Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Back home, at Puckett Field, there’s an All-Star practice tonight — a practice that I’m missing, for a team I can’t play on, because my ex-dad wants to haul me across the universe.
My right index finger pressed the button on the armrest. The window slides noiselessly down and I immediately feel it, the wind and whoosh of summer heat.
I turn and can’t resist, so with a flick of my wrist I pitch my phone out the window.
* In Before You Go, possibly my only true YA, Jude has a phone and uses it. But at the same time, I mostly write around it — to a point that might present a picture that’s somewhat untrue to life as it is currently lived. Again, it’s hard to move a story along if people are constantly staring at Youtube videos and Snapchat. Or maybe you can? But yuck.
* Picture books, where characters can be talking pigs or pogo-sticking hyenas, offer another way for a writer to sidestep phone culture. Just create an alternative world and write for very young children. Though lately I’ve seen a few picture books where kids are dealing with parents who won’t stop looking at their phones.
* Write Historical Fiction. Set stories in a time before cell phones. The same is true for dystopian novels and science fiction. “Electricity’s out, folks, you’re going to have to talk among yourselves!” Maybe that’s why we see so much of it these days?
I share these musings not because I have the answers, but because I think it’s an issue which confronts contemporary writers. Phones are awfully tedious, and people staring at phones — while super realistic: just look around! — is even worse.
What do you think? Can you think of books that dealt with phones in an innovative or effective way? In our efforts to be realistic, do we need to incorporate more phone-drama in our books? Thoughts?
The idea of writing that Civil War story never looked so good.