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Friday, February 6, 2015

What is Meant by “Authentic Voice” in Writing Young Adult Books?

By Lorilyn Roberts 

When I was a young girl, a black lady named Helen used to take care of me while my mother worked. Helen’s voice was soothing and loving; when I heard her voice, I knew I was safe. Later, my mother remarried and we moved away to another city. I used to think about her and wistfully wished I could hear that voice call my name one more time: “Lori.”

One afternoon, quite by surprise, I arrived home from high school and I heard a voice from the past in the basement of our home laughing and talking to my mother. I stopped for a moment, thinking, could it be? But it was too outlandish to even consider, I brushed it aside as impossible. Then I heard my mom call me, “Lori, come see who came to visit you.”

I rushed down the stairs and there she was. Helen said, “Lori, it’s so good to see you.” My first thought was that her voice sounded exactly the way I remembered it from a decade earlier, a sweet sound, distinctively hers no matter how long I went without hearing it. That made an impression on me that I have never forgotten. All those years, I had longed to hear her once more and thought I never would. If I heard her voice again today, I would recognize it as Helen’s.

To me, that is an authentic voice – one which is identified as belonging to one person and no one else. It translates into writing. We must each have our own unique voice. My voice should identify me as Lorilyn Roberts.

While I think it’s good to read and examine others’ style of writing, we should strive to develop our own. I am still playing around with my own style because writing fiction is much harder for me than nonfiction. I have come to realize, though, it’s what I feel comfortable with, what flows naturally, and where my creative process takes me. It’s what I was born with. God gave me a voice to talk; He has given me a voice with which to write. 

Involved in that is a process of learning. Children have to learn how to talk, and that’s much easier and more natural than learning to write, but they still have to learn. In the same way, writers need to develop their own authentic voice and not be afraid to claim it. They should not try to write something intentionally or unintentionally that imitates someone else.

A great example of voice by a young adult is Anne in The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. Anne was writing to “kitty,” her best friend. Her spunky personality shone without pretense or excuse for why she felt the way she did. She was comfortable in her own skin. There is a term called self-actualization, where one uses everything he or she is to become what he or she was created to be. During Anne’s confinement, she was able to verbalize her innermost fears, hopes, dreams, ambitions, and little triumphs as she learned to rise above the horrific situation she was in and “cope.” 

It’s a tribute to her that such a young girl could come so far into understanding so much about herself and who she was. The amazing thing, which was a God-given gift, was that she had the capacity to write it down so that future generations could empathize and understand what she went through. It’s a great achievement, I believe, in the use of authentic voice, to come so close to knowing Anne Frank and yet never having met her. 

Her authenticity came out in the graphic descriptions of the people in the attic; what it was like to live there for two years locked away from society; their everyday struggles, from using the bathroom to what they ate to what they did to occupy their time; the frequent references to the war and who was winning; their fears of being discovered and their constant squabbles among each other; and even Anne’s innermost thoughts about love and sexuality.

In one way or another, I could relate from my own life experience. I knew she was real and what she suffered was genuine. I wanted to read more to learn what would happen. I was engaged and transported back to a war fought before I lived. I wanted to save Anne and her family. It was hard for me to believe she died before I was even born. This book is a masterpiece.

A third-person narrative can also have an authentic voice, but it needs to be so close to the person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions that you can’t tell the difference. If a book is well written, I won’t even notice if it’s first person or third person unless I stop and think about it.

More than any other genre, young adult books need an authentic voice. YA readers need to be able to like the protagonist and identify with her feelings, thoughts, and goals. That makes writing for young adults challenging but very gratifying when well done.