How should teenagers speak? Okay, that’s a loaded question. Let’s re-state the question: how should teenagers speak in the book that you’re reading (or writing)? Should they should sound like they just stepped out of a twenty-first century American high school? Or, especially if the book is a fantasy, should they be using the same, often archaic or formal, phrasing that characters frequently use in fantasies that have an old-time (say medieval) setting? I don’t think there is a single good answer to this one. I have seen reviewers praise a book in which the teenage characters use much less formal – even high schoolish – speech even though the setting of the book is far removed from our current society or world. However, that does not necessarily feel right to me. Through much of our history, a male or female was considered adult when they were physically mature enough to handle adult roles (and even before). What we consider adolescence didn’t really exist and I doubt that people in that age group in say the 17th century used their own slang or manner of informal speech. Karl XII of Sweden assumed full power at 15 and led the army in battle as a teen. I imagine his speech was no different than that of other adults. At the same time, of course, if the setting of the book is in the near future or in a society at a comparable level to ours, then, yes, adolescence and distinctive language patterns make sense. Whichever is chosen, though, I think consistency through the book is important.
What started me on this was reading “A Wizard’s Guide To Defensive Baking” by T. Kingfisher. The main character is Mona, a 14 year old girl with very limited magical powers who works in a bakery. Essentially, her ability to work magic is limited to doing things with bread. Despite this limitation, a string of very unfortunate events (starting with Mona finding a dead girl on the floor of the bakery when she opens up one morning) leaves Mona as the key person to the defence of her city. The story is fun and moves fast. I liked the characters of Mona and her even younger sidekick, Spindle. They seemed like real kids, somewhat short-term in focus and not always given to the best decision-making. There were a few things I didn’t care for. Bob, Mona’s magic sourdough starter, is a disappointment. I was expecting more from the character. Also the language seemed to veer, occasionally, from what seemed to fit the setting to modern teen American. These are minor concerns. In her note at the end, the author indicates that she had received some feedback during the writing that the book was too dark for children. I don’t agree. I would call the book YA and I would have no concern about having my kids read it. (Good grief, we read “Lord of The Flies” when I was in those grades!) I think it would be fine for middle-grade, too, at least for a child who can handle the length of the book. Spindle falls into that age category, which would provide a character to relate to.