She’s twelve years old.
If you’ve known her all her life, maybe she’s still a baby in your eyes. Remember when you changed her diapers? How cute was it when she pronounced “raindrops” as “waindwops?”
But if you’ve never met her, maybe certain words and ideas go off like an automatic flash in the camera of your mind. She’s just a kid. What does she know? You might allow her to speak, but in the end, your grown-up opinion matters more. And maybe you even speak to her like she’s an adorable kitten or wide-eyed toddler. Her “kid-ness” seems to trigger something involuntary in your tone.
But if you’re her—or you’re her age—the story changes.
Twelve years old was a long time ago for me. There was a time where I could remember Jr. High like it was yesterday, but these days, I’m lucky if I can remember half the names of my teachers from those years.
Of course, there are certain aspects I recall all too well: namely, the bullying and the paralyzing fear of not fitting in. And while I’ve utilized these memories in my writing, my silly adult brain still interferes now and then. It likes to, at times, confuse Twelve with Seventeen, or sometimes even Twenty. And much to my chagrin, my brain has, many rough drafts ago, tried just a little too hard to create something that looks like Twelve by slapping on an unrealistic use of modern slang and trends.
So I did something to rewire my brain, and if you write an age group that isn’t your own, I suggest you do the same: I immersed myself in tweenhood.
Now, not being a parent or teacher, this was no easy undertaking. I worked full time, and as it turns out, most schools don’t let you just waltz on in to watch the kids. So I went a different route.
I have a twelve-year-old nephew and an eleven-year-old niece. From them, I’ve witnessed clear and concise responses to tough questions. Their profundity knocks me upside the head. But I’ve also seen them struggle to explain concepts I myself long ago conquered. They grasp for the right words, say things like “you know? The thingy! With the thingy…?” (Some adults do this as well!) I’ve also seen them bounce off the walls with spurts of random hyperness.
But they are just two out of many kids, and as I am their aunt, my perspective of them is biased. In order to be a proficient portrayer of their age, I knew I needed more.
My sister is a Girl Scout leader, and after I passed a background check, she agreed to let me sit-in on a meeting of Junior and Cadette girls (average age was eleven years). I sat in silence and took notes while their leaders taught them how to handle a run-in with a cougar.
That day, similar to what I see in my niece and nephew, I saw two extremes in this age group. I saw intelligent people, eager to answer questions, passionate about their complex opinions, listening to and supporting one another. I also saw wild beasts, bouncing around the room in play, giggling, growling, and having fun as they acted out scenarios of cougar encounters. Without batting an eye, these kids teetered back and forth between childlike and mature. And oh my, did I have fun watching them! But I knew I needed more.
REAL, RAW, AND WONDERFUL
After my evening with the Girl Scouts, I contacted friends who helped run a tween youth group in a nearby town. They allowed me to drop in, and this time, I saw the same behavior as explained above, but I also saw something else.
This group was larger and mixed—boys and girls. They were subdued. Chill. Easy-going. And they were, I was certain, trying to act a certain way in the presence of the opposite gender. The girls in particular gave off an air of fourteen or fifteen, throwing their hair over their shoulders, laughing coolly, making their eyes sparkle as they sneaked glances at the boys.
And the boys? …Oblivious, in their own world. Passion struck their voices as they chatted with one another about “the game from last night,” the “totally epic episode of (fill in the blank),” and how much math homework sucks. But they scarcely, if at all, interacted with the girls. What they were thinking about could have been something entirely different, of course, but in this setting, I saw a prime example of, at least, external behavior.
And then something amazing happened.
One of the boys got up in front of his peers and gave a testimony. Now that takes guts! His words were simple, but honest. He talked about how before church camp, he had a hard time at home. He said life back then “pretty much sucked.” But at camp, he learned there were other kids who had struggles just like his, and that made life “kinda a lot better after.” He shrugged a lot and avoided eye contact. He used the phrase “and stuff” numerous times. He was nervous and awkward.
And it was wonderful.
The presentation of his story was refreshingly raw. He wasn’t putting on a show. He kept it real, without even trying, I’m sure. And for me, it was an unadulterated gold mine of writing material, because I saw a glimpse of something not everyone gets to see of this age—vulnerability.
USE YOUR CONNECTIONS
If your sister isn’t a Scout leader or you’d rather stab your eyes out than step foot in a church, there are other avenues. Now, of course, don’t just start watching random groups of kids—writing research or not, don’t do anything to warrant unwanted attention from police or angry parents! You can, however, sit at the table next to the giggling group of tweens at the mall. No joke. Do it. Don’t stare at them, but listen, and listen well.
And here are some other ideas:
· Volunteer to drive your niece and her friends to soccer practice on a regular basis—and eavesdrop on their conversations! When friends get together, they sometimes forget there is an adult in their presence! True personalities galore!
· Volunteer to supervise nieces’, nephews’, grandchildren’s, and your friends’ kids’ slumber parties—sweeten the deal by sending their parents out for the night! They’ll love the night off, and you will likely see what the kids act like when their parents aren’t around.
· Tag along with your tween-age nephew and his friends when they go bowling. Pay attention. Talk to the kids, see how they act in speaking to an adult versus how they interact with their friends.
· Watch tweens’ vlogs. You’ll learn what they love and hate—although this one comes with a warning. Often what you see is a performance, which works great if you’re writing about a tween who vlogs, but otherwise, seek out experiences that are more vulnerable and natural.
· If you don’t have access to kids at all, go the extra mile, get a background check, and apply to volunteer with Boys and Girls Club or some other after-school program.
Bottom line, whatever means you choose, your books need you to do this for them. People of a different age group, people who are different from us in general, are almost always different than what we imagine them to be. And me? I’m nowhere done eavesdropping. My subject matter has a lot left to teach me, and you can bet I’ll have my notebook and pen at the ready.
S.E. Eaton has authored and published a variety of genres for adults: dystopian, dark fantasy, suspense, horror, and general fiction. She has published three out of her five works, as well as several short stories; the latter you can read on her website. After experimenting with different genres, Eaton switched gears and is now focused on her true passion: middle grade fiction.
Eaton is married to an entrepreneur, is the proud mother of a sweet beagle named Emmie Lou, and lives in the verdant Pacific Northwest. Favorite authors of hers include C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Richard Peck, Holly Black, and Robert Jordan. Her current works in progress are a middle grade fantasy novel, the first in a series, and a middle grade magical realism novel.
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