I don't just write YA; I read it. Of course I read it; I'm a teacher, and I have to know what books to recommend to my students.
Recently, I've read a good deal of YA with contemporary settings, and most of it has left me chuckling at how "out of it" some authors are. One of the authors is only about 25, but she's making the same mistakes the other, older writers are. What her teenage experience was like a decade ago is ancient history now -- and it shows.
Folks, if you're going to write contemporary settings in YA fiction, you absolutely have to be in contact with actual teenagers. You cannot assume that what you experienced in high school is still current -- because it's not.
Technology is ubiquitous today. Unless a kid is from a dirt-poor or really strict family or is living in a remote area, that kid has a cell phone. And that kid can text with two thumbs faster than you'd expect. S/he can also text without looking at the phone, with her/his hands inside the pocket of a hoodie. S/he can even text while driving (yes, it's stupid, but it's true) and while taking a shower (I am not joking. Kids text in the shower with plastic bags over their phones.). Kids will text each other at all hours of the night, waking each other up to spread news. Lack of sleep these days is not usually due to being OUT somewhere; it's due to kids' texting each other all freakin' night. (Smart parents confiscate phones at bedtime.) If you have a character who doesn't at least get at least occasional texts at night, you need a good reason for it in your story. Is the kid a nerd with no friends? Has the phone been confiscated? Why is this teen merely sleeping through the night? You'd better give some hints because your readers will be wondering at why this character is so old-fashioned. (Eric, in Half-Vampire, is up half the night anyway because he's nocturnal, so this wasn't a particular problem for me.)
The most common punishment nowadays is phone confiscation; it's the new "grounding." Kids feel they will die socially if they are cut off from their phones, so parents use this as a threat.
Facebook is so socially important that kids are stunned that some people (old fogey adults) don't use it. Kids post everything on facebook, although most of them are now smart enough to set controls so that only those they've "friended" can see their pages. If you create a contemporary teenage character, that character needs to be very familiar with social media; if s/he's not on a site somewhere, there'd better be a reason. Does s/he have super-strict parents? Has s/he been cyberbullied?
Kids only send e-mail if it's something that needs an attachment or if it's to someone out of phone range. They never e-mail their friends for social reasons. In a book I read recently, a girl gets an e-mail of acceptance to her preferred college late at night and goes through agony waiting until morning to tell everyone. Pardon me, but how 2004 is that? A normal teenager of 2011 would text every single friend no matter the hour and would update her facebook page immediately. By 6:00 AM, she would not be breaking the news to anyone, for her entire social sphere would already know the news -- except for maybe her parents; they'd have to be told.
Oh, and in one book, a character actually received a LETTER IN THE MAIL from a friend across town. No, no, no. This is not the 1970s. I have students who've never sent a letter in their lives. Really.
Most schools and teachers know all about this stuff. Most schools have anti-cell phone policies and phones are confiscated if kids are caught using them. A decade ago, kids still passed each other notes in class; now they text in their hoodie pockets. I keep finding stuff in books that gets this all wrong. Either the characters are living in the 90s and shoving notes into each other's lockers, or else they're texting in class openly, with the teachers looking on. Not even. It ain't gonna happen, people.
Technology is in classrooms, too. We teachers are not luddites. We have webpages, blogs, and e-mail. Some teachers even use facebook pages for their classrooms. Students do lots and lots of techy projects. Today's child does NOT make a diorama in a shoebox for a book report; s/he e-mails a powerpoint project to the teacher or posts a book trailer on youtube. Teachers don't get memos anymore; we get e-mails and IMs. Attendance and grades are done online. We don't show videos anymore, people. We use youtube or DVDs in our computers, which are hooked up to projectors in the room. Overhead projectors have been replaced with cameras and smartboards. An actual chalkboard would only be in a very poor older school indeed. Kids don't do bubble sheets to take tests anymore; schools have computer labs. Some of my students have never even seen a bubble sheet before.
It's also important to understand as you write what kids DON'T know. Most teenagers today have never seen a vinyl record, a typewriter ribbon, an umbrella-style outdoor clothesline, rabbit-ear TV antennas, a transistor radio, a floppy disc, or even a phone that has the receiver connected to the body by a cord -- except in photographs. They don't realize there was a time when schools had no procedures in place for lockdowns. They don't know what Y2K was. Only the oldest teens right now remember 9/11/01. Most kids don't know the sound of a dial-up modem connecting. They can't remember when gas cost less than a dollar a gallon. They are amused at older people who wear watches instead of just looking at their phone to see what time it is, and many young teenagers cannot tell time on an analog clock.(Consequently, they do not have a concept of time as circular, rotating through hours and seasons, as many adults do.) They consider CDs outdated technology, and most of them have had iPods since they were 6 or 7 years old. (They do not grasp that there was a time when songs had to be played in the order they appeared on the record, tape, or CD -- that tunes were not movable on any playlist.) And teenagers have not hung out at malls to socialize in years. Most of them don't even go to malls to shop; they shop in large, single-purpose stores or online.
Last week, a music teacher at our school wore a tee-shirt with this symbol on it:
In the past few months, I've read books wherein a character gets a watch for a b-day gift, heads to the mall to try on prom dresses, burns CDs for a friend, and/or doesn't know what to do in an emergency at school. (Schools have DRILLS for these things, people. Kids KNOW what to do and where to go. There are LAWS about such drills.) All of these things are ridiculously out-of-date and would need a special reason to exist in a book. For example, an heirloom watch given as a gift would make sense, but the character would need to get used to using it. Burning a CD so the friend could use it to transfer songs to her/his iPod is still sensible -- or if the character's car stereo is so old that her/his iPod can't be connected to the speakers, then a CD for the car might still make sense. A student very, very new in the school might still be confused about where to go during an evacuation drill. And if you must have a scene with girls trying on prom dresses, then consider girls trading dresses or giggling over an online prom store together with virtual models trying on the clothes.
Okay, so this has turned into a bit of a rant, but if any current or future YA authors read this and USE it, it will create some much-needed changes in characters and settings. And, trust me, kids sense it when an adult is trying to be up-to-date and cool and failing miserably.