Pop culture references in books has been something that’s been on my mind for quite a while now, and it’s something I’m starting to pay a lot more attention to than I used to. As contemporary is my favourite genre, most of the books I read have at least some references to things in popular culture, whether that be TV shows, music, or social media. What I love most about these references is that it so clearly ties a book to a time period, and I think that’s a good thing. However, some people don’t feel the same.
I was recently on Goodreads, looking at reviews for a book I can’t even remember now. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Goodreads is often regarded as the cesspool of bloggers and reviewers, where people are hated on for disliking books, liking books, and even just thinking they were average. You can’t have your own opinion on Goodreads, apparently.
But anyway, I saw that one reader disliked a book because it had pop culture references. And that reason for disliking something puzzled me. I can understand that sometimes these references aren’t seamlessly inserted into the narrative or they feel forced, like the author’s trying to appear ‘cool’ in the eyes of teens. But most of the references I’ve come across felt authentic and definitely improved the novel in my eyes, giving it a depth in ways that books devoid of any links to specific time periods don’t have.
What I often dislike is reading a contemporary YA novel devoid of any pop culture references, or anything that could tie it to a particular year, or decade, because that’s just not authentic. I can’t imagine the world today without social media, or where music, movies, and TV shows come up into daily conversations. To me, it would just be really unrealistic to avoid mentioning these things in a contemporary novel if its set in a place that facilities those conversations. Authors shouldn’t be afraid of connecting their novels to a particular time.
I once was listening to an author speak at her book launch and she was talking about the pop culture references in her books and how she initially tried to remove them so that her novel could transcend time periods and be a piece of literature that people could still enjoy fifty years from now. But to me, what makes art so beautiful is that it is a snapshot of the world we’re living in when it’s created. Even if writers avoid including pop culture references, the way the book is written and the language that’s used will inevitably point to a period of time. Being tied to a year or a decade isn’t something that authors should shy away from when writing – they should embrace it.
What makes art so wonderful is that it provides a glimpse into the time it was made. That’s why we love it and preserve it. So, to me, books without pop culture references or references to the world at the time the book was written in just seem bland. Of course, these references have to fit in with the type of story the book is telling and they can’t just be forcefully inserted, but when done well, these types of books become my favourites. The way to my heart is through pop culture references.
But what got me thinking about the whole conversation on pop culture references in books was these two novels by Winnie Salamon – both of which incorporate references into the narrative seamlessly and in a way that benefits the story, as well as providing a snapshot into the time they were written in. While they’re both really enjoyable stories with a great range of vibrant characters, undeniably what I loved most about them was these references.
The first of these novels I picked up was Facetime, which was published in 2002. Because so many of the YA contemporary novels I read are set this decade, most of them within the past couple of years, I’ve never really read anything like Facetime before. There’s talk of geek references that would have been popular back then, online chat rooms, getting your dreams interpreted over the phone, and wow, it was just overwhelmingly 2000s – but in a good way. I wasn’t old enough then to appreciate that time in the world, but Facetime gave me a glimpse into what that society was like for young Australians with the internet. The friendship in this novel was also really well-written, and I loved the way their lives seemed to gravitate around pop culture references and ‘geek culture’. It was wonderful.
While the pop culture references in Pretty Girls Don’t Eat don’t take centerstage like they did in Facetime, I still loved the way they were included in the narrative to make this story one that was all the more authentic and genuine. Pretty Girls Don’t Eat is ultimately a story about an aspiring fashion designer with negative body image, and her road to becoming body positive. I’ve read a few YA books with similar subject matter in the past couple of years, but I loved what a short, sweet read Pretty Girls Don’t Eat was. I read it in one sitting. Again, I loved reading about a trio of friends and I’m always a sucker for #LoveOzYA. Trigger warnings for mentions of anorexia, bulimia, body shaming, and suicide.
Ultimately, these two #LoveOzYA novels are the perfect examples of how books can provide a snapshot into the world at the time they were written in and I thoroughly enjoyed the use of pop culture references to enhance the stories. These two were quick, fun reads with vibrant casts and great character development, despite them being so short. If you’re looking for an Aussie book to devour in one sitting, then I recommend picking up either of these ones!
My top picks for YA with pop culture references…
Do you read many YA contemporaries? What are your favourite books with pop culture references? What’s one book you think does this really well? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks to Winnie Salamon for providing me with copies of both Facetime and Pretty Girls Don’t Eat in exchange for an honest review!