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Why I write YA: 3 books that changed my life

When I tell people I write Young Adult literature, the typical response I get is: “Really? Why young adult?” The tone of that question is not one of piqued interest. Instead, it is typically more of a shocked, condescending sort of tone–like I should be writing something more respectable than books for teenagers, as if what I write cannot possibly have literary merit because it is written for mere children. It takes effort, but I usually bite back a series of scathingly sarcastic remarks I would likely regret later and take the high road. I tell them the truth. I write young adult literature because the books of my childhood changed my life unlike any other category of fiction. Whether speculative or contemporary, inspirational or horrific, young adult literature, middle grade, and children’s literature is important, and, I would argue, crucial to an adolescent’s developing worldview. Other than my parents, the characters from books I read during my formative years did more to help me navigate the difficult path of adolescence than any teacher, adult, or friend, and their timeless voices remain with me today each time I sit down to write. Here are three books that changed my life:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery As an educator and former adolescent, I can testify to the unbearable feeling of displacement and awkwardness experienced at one time or another by every teen during those exciting, yet heart-wrenching years. Anne Shirley, homely orphan turned teacher and author, filled me hope that no matter how badly I overreacted to a situation or embarrassed myself, Anne survived and I would, too. Her “scope for the imagination” and constant daydreaming spoke to me because that’s what I was doing during every math class from the time I was in eighth grade until I graduated from high school. Her dramatization of every crisis, her short temper, and her constant drive to be better and follow her dreams, despite her status as a “foundling” echoed my own feeling of constantly being an “underdog”, which almost every teen experiences at some point. Furthermore, her pursuit of a career during a time when women were mainly wives and homemakers made me aware of my role as a female in a world still plagued by gender inequality. Long before Katniss Everdeen, Anne Shirley was my role model, and her story changed my life and helped shape its course. While I had always wanted to be a writer, Anne Shirley made me believe it was possible with enough hard work. And here I am, still striving toward that goal as an adult.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor  I will never forget reading this book. Just after our move to Tennessee, my mother took me to the public library, and after reading the synopsis on the back, I checked it out, took it home, and read it in one sitting. The struggles of Cassie, Mama, Papa, and Uncle Hammer opened my eyes to injustice and unfairness that I was only beginning to understand in my small, safe world. I remember crying when I realized what a lynching was and asking my mother why anyone would be so cruel. I became more aware of  the feelings of others, more aware of race, more aware of the hatred around me in the rural town in which I lived.  I remember swearing to myself after that conversation with my mother that I would never allow hatred to consume me and would try my best to be kind to others. Now, I am grown and have a son of my own, and I hope to pass on the values of love and equality to him, values that stemmed from a book about a different time, a different place, and a different race than my own, a book written for children.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton Since I first picked this book off the shelf in my middle school library, I have probably read it twenty times. I own the movie and have seen it at least as many times as I’ve read the book. The Outsiders is the first book I recommended to my students when I taught school, and the characters and conflict from this story still resonate as strongly among young people today as they did when it was first published. Ponyboy Curtis, Johnny Cade, and Dallas Winston captured my heart and then twisted in an agonizing illustration of the injustice of living on “the wrong side of the tracks.” While Hinton’s novel deals mainly with socioeconomic inequality and the resulting unfair treatment, any teen who has felt on the outside looking in will relate to the characters and high stakes in this novel that also addresses violence, abuse, and the value of life. Even as an adult, Johnny’s words, “Stay Gold,” still result in an overwhelming swell of emotion that comes from being reminded of a profound truth. No matter how difficult life is, not matter how many times you get kicked or knocked down, hold on to that innocent light inside, that joy in your heart that keeps you young. Life was hard as a teenager. It’s even more difficult as an adult, and there are things I’ve experienced that could certainly have left me jaded and bitter. But “staying gold” is a choice I made while lying in bed with my nose in a book during a sick day in middle school. I didn’t know it then, but The Outsiders would be the single most important book of my childhood.

That’s why I write young adult literature. These three books and countless others that have stayed with me throughout the years illustrate why I brave rejections, why I strive to stay relevant in a flooded market, why I tell the stories that are in my soul, and why a part of me will always be fifteen years old. These books are why I’m still writing and why I’m still chasing my dreams. Young Adult books matter. They contain a special kind of magic that sustained me during those agonizing years of adolescence, and I’d like nothing better than to spend my life paying it forward.

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