Quote Originally Posted by SarahRoss View Post
I'm trying my hand at writing an upper MG for the first time and was wondering about the wisdom of including pop culture references, for books set in contemporary settings. I gather that it's generally considered a no-no, but I have to admit that I feel the urge because I think references can add specificity to characters and make them more relatable. So in the first part that I just wrote, I mentioned that my MC loves The Sims, which I thought was a pretty safe bet because that computer game has been around for ages and probably will continue to be around in the foreseeable future. I'd like to mention some long-running reality TV shows as well (i.e. American Idol, The Voice, America's Next Top Model), but I don't know if that's wise.

The MG series I loved at that age, which is still one of my all-time favorite series, is Animorphs, which is particularly infamous for its cultural references. I personally love it and think it's written into the DNA of the series. They tried to make "updated" versions of the books five or six years ago, but it didn't really work. But I realize that the 90s cultural references in the books are probably a barrier to entry for the books, despite wonderful characters and universally relevant themes.

So I'm curious to hear what other people think of pop culture references in middle grade.
There are kids who, given a compelling story and style, will be willing to read through and figure it out from context, even if they don't get the immediate reference. And there are kids who won't, no matter what. You can't do much about the latter, but don't underestimate the intelligence of the former. If it's important to the feel you're creating, if setting your story in a particular time is part of the tale you're weaving and the reference fits the character you're creating, then don't be afraid to drop the odd potentially-dating reference.

I see When You Reach Me, which has heavy A Wrinkle in Time references (to the point of being a spoiler for the latter book) and also refers to a now-defunct TV game show (Million Dollar Pyramid), go through the library quite a bit. I even see Animorphs now and again. So clearly there's still appeal in both, despite "dated" references.

If you write the story in such a way that it's clear from context what's meant (in WYRM, you don't need to have read AWiT, because enough is explained about the book that you get the gist of it, and the game show reference anchors it in an era - since it deals with possible time travel, that's actually part of the plot), it can still work. As for the Animorphs, it had to be set in the 1990's, so the then-pop references (IMHO) now act as time-anchors; ubiquitous smartphones and other tech advances would kinda have killed things, making it too hard for the secret to stay hidden... plus (again, IMHBO - in my humble, biased opinion, being a fan of the series myself) Applegate's style still has plenty of pop and energy that will appeal to those kids willing to "read through." As with most things, moderation is generally the key.

Also, as I understand it, the older Sim games tend to have a larger adult audience than kids - but everything from S3 onward's kinda tanked the franchise, IMHO, so don't quote me on that... If your character is a Sims fan, though, the game is still popular enough I wouldn't expect young readers to be thrown by it, especially if you drop a few context clues about what the Sims is, and why it appeals to them. (The latter makes for good character building - it's not just that they play Popular Game 4, but why they play Popular Game 4 that will reveal who they are... whether they like playing God with virtual lives, or are trying to figure out people because they just can't get the hang of them in real life, or they're more interested in building and landscaping, or are heavy into modding...)