One of the pieces of advice for young adult writers that I've seen bandied about on the internet is to get in tune with the "youth" culture. Watch what they watch, listen to what they listen to, and your books will become more realistic and appealing to them.
But I think that if you have to hear this piece of advice, maybe you're not supposed to be a young adult author at all. I don't listen to My Chemical Romance and Miley Cyrus because the "young people" do it. I listen because I like them. I don't watch MTV in order to know what's down with the "youth." I do it because I like it. My taste overlaps with that of my (intended) readers naturally. I don't choke down pills of their pop culture like medicine--I devour them of my own volition, and would whether or not I was writing.
Two things: (1) I don't only watch stuff 14 year olds watch. I like a lot of different things. I like Frontline, for example, which I doubt a lot of teenagers are tuning in for regularly. NPR is on almost constantly in my house--so much so that Kai Ryssdal from Marketplace is my Sekrit NPR Boifriend. I enjoy "literature." I garden. (Okay, sorry, I'm totally lying about the gardening. I hate gardening, and I suck at it. I barely keep my lawn mowed to regulation length. But the point is that I have adult tastes. I'm not just a 14 year old with a mortgage.)
(2) I don't think you have to have the same tastes as a teenager to write about them. I do, naturally, but I think that it is a grave mistake to force yourself to like things because your audience likes them. Gossip Girl, for example. I've never read the books, so I can't speak to them, but I tried the tv show and...I hate it. I think it's stupid. I can't get behind a show where there's always false drama and intrigue and everyone's always boning or trying to bone everyone else. It's boring to me. So I don't watch it and I don't pretend to like it. Audiences, and I think especially young adult audiences, can sense insincerity a mile away. It's better not to like something, than to fake it.
All this is a really roundabout way to get to the point that I really like Made. If you haven't seen it, Made is a show produced by MTV on which a high school kid gets "made" into something that they're not. The kids apply themselves, get assigned a Made coach to help them, and then try to become what they want to become. So, for example, a tomboy might get made into a pageant contestant, or a drama kid might get made into a member of the soccer team, or a popular girl might get made into an a member of the science club (true!).
There are several great things about this show: first, it's done documentary style, so that we hear mostly from the kid undergoing the transformation. We see snippets of interviews with friends and family and other kids at the high school, but mostly we hear from the kid him or herself.
Second, it's a fantastic portrayal of the modern American high school. The kids are from all over the country, so we get a glimpse into the lives of rural Wisconsin kids, and urban Florida kids and kids from everywhere, all over. White kids, black kids, hispanic kids, asian kids--Made has them all. And we get to see into their schools, as well, since the producers get access to the schools. Want to know what a high school in a certain part of Oregon looks like? It's been on Made. We also get an idea about the different social strata of high schools that exist in different regions. It isn't all Jocks, Dorks, Normal Kids. In one high school (in Texas, I believe) there are actually three hallways: Jocks (this one seems universal but note that this is where the band kids hang out in this school! Crazy!); Cowboys (where all the rodeo and ranch kids hang out); and Magic Hall (kids in drama, arts, non-band music, Goths, assorted freaks). Magic Hall! How cool is that?
Third, it reminds you of how generous high school students can be, even the "popular" kids so often painted as evil. Typically, the Made student's goal forces the student outside his or her comfort zone--the popular girl who wants to be a BMX biker has to hang out with the guys who do BMX, for example. The loner who wants to be Prom King has to talk to students he never said a word to before. It's hard, and there's rejection, but usually the other kids, even the popular kids, come around. The drama kid who wants to be a soccer player, for example, doesn't impress the other soccer players at first. He's too girly, they say (he's gay), and he complains too much. But as drama kid works and improves and shows determination and interacts with them, they start to give him props. They start to say things like "he tries really hard" and "he's shown that he can do the work" and they start becoming less afraid of the fact that he's gay and dealing with him like a teammate. We get to see not only the change in the Made subject, but also in the kids around him.
Fourth, the kids don't always get what they want. In a recent episode, for example, a dorky girl wanted to become a member of her school's dance team, despite the fact that she has no dance experience. She and her Made coach do their best in the six weeks they have, but she doesn't make the team. She's not good enough. But she is good enough that her audition isn't a joke. She stood a fighting chance. She devoted herself for six weeks and became good enough at dance that she could audition without people laughing at her. She certainly wasn't the worst dancer on the floor. In that way, Made is realistic. Wanting and working don't equal having, and that's something that a lot of television shows gloss over.
Fifth, sometimes the kids succeed beyond what anyone thinks is possible. One girl wants to be made into a BMX biker, and the conclusory challenge is for her to compete in a BMX bike competition against a bunch of other girls. She tries a backflip and crashes, damaging her bike. But one of her new friends loans her his bike, and she tries it again and sticks it! It's a crazy stunt, and it looks great, but it's even more impressive when you learn via caption that she is only the second girl in the history of BMX to land a backflip in competition. THE SECOND ONE! EVER! That's cool.
But even when Made is not breaking new ground, it is a great show. It gives us a kid who wants to change, and then makes that happen. The subjects, even when they don't succeed, are all happier than they were when they started the show--even if they don't keep being beauty pageant contestants or high school wrestlers, or plus size models, they are better off than they were at the outset. They may not have million dollar birthday parties or drive new Mercedes, but Made gives them something infinitely more valuable--the opportunity to change--and we get to watch.