Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we’re living here in Allentown
–Billy Joel, “Allentown”
When World War II ended, American soldiers returned home en masse to start new families. Their children were the Baby Boomer generation–the first kids to grow up with television, the first kids to encounter rock and roll music at a high school, the ones who might have watched a live Moon landing and been inspired to careers in science.
I came along a couple decades later. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I had Baby Boomer teachers who were the audience for my first writing assignments. The Baby Boomer authors of then-contemporary books were the models I tried to emulate. When I was first trying to break into publishing, Baby Boomers were the mentors who spoke to me about their own struggles with writing for a younger generation. Paula Danziger told me her theory that a high school generation was only four years long–which meant that eight years out of high school, I was already two generations removed from the experience!
“Wheel of Fortune”, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!
–Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
I’d always had a vague sense that many of the books in our school library weren’t really written for me. The classics of prior decades sometimes included confusing instances of 1960s counter-culture, or references to songs, shows, and movies that my friends and I had never heard of. Even the newly-published books had moments where the styles, themes, tastes, and experiences didn’t match the needs of Generation X. We needed more books about kids with working moms or divorced parents that weren’t issue books about working moms or divorced parents. And we definitely needed more computers in our books than we were getting.
Desktop computers became a big thing in the 1980s. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 1983 was a desktop computer–except that they weren’t yet called desktop computers because there was no other kind. Our junior high school had a computer lab of TSR-80s, and friends of mine had Apple IIs or Timex Sinclair 1000s. My first Internet experience was logging into a bulletin board with a 1200-baud modem in 1987.
But the characters in our books only had computers if the machines were big, crazy, complex things that tended to become sentient and wanted to take over the world. The Baby Boomer authors of the time clearly weren’t as comfortable with the technology as their Generation X readers.
That’s why, when I started writing, I wrote for me. For little kid me, who saw gaps in his bookshelf where there should have been Gen X adventures. My characters had computers they used for doing homework, sending email, and writing their own stories. Computers weren’t the focus of the story but they existed for my characters as they had for me.
Today, I don’t write for myself anymore. My current audience is the new generation that my children are a part of, the ones who come after the Millennials. My goal is to fill some of the gaps that exist in their bookshelves. We Need Diverse Books is a long-overdue effort to identify and fill some of those gaps to reflect the diversity of our culture, something all authors need to immerse themselves in, but there are other gaps that require us to figure out who these kids are, what they have in common, what makes them tick, and how they are different from the generations that came before them.
I was reminded of this recently when MTV took a stab at the first step in describing a new generation–tagging them with a cute nickname. Some people have been calling them Generation Z, recognizing that “Millennial” is an awful name that should be retconned into Generation Y. I once put forward Generation XII for the same reason. Others are calling them the iGeneration because of the influence of iPhones, iPads, and the Internet on their lives. MTV, after first asking the kids what they’d want to be called, is throwing out “The Founders.” Because prior generations have messed the world up so much that it needs to be rebuilt from scratch.
The Founders have never known a world without the Internet. I know kids who are so steeped in Internet culture that they identify the second in a series by the “hashtag-two” on the cover. The Founders have never known a U.S. President who wasn’t black, except in their history texts. The Founders don’t accept books that acknowledge the existence of cell phones but don’t provide characters with “enough bars” for their use. Founder activities are more heavily scheduled than mine ever were, with more sports leagues and fewer unsupervised games of stickball in the middle of the street. While we grew up with concerns about dirty water and dirty air, the Founders are growing up with the prospect of catastrophic global climate change. While we grew up with Soviet ICBMs aimed at our cities, they are growing up with terrorism.
Writing for the Founders is an honor, a privilege, and a challenge. They’re going to need some amazing books to inspire all that founding that needs to be done.
Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sports and sci-fi books for the Founders.