“What author inspired you the most while growing up?” This question was posed to me by a critically-acclaimed writer and professor on my first day of graduate school. I was sitting in an old classroom in an old college in an old Southern town. The other students all responded to the question with very “literary” answers: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen.
I answered with, “Judy Blume“.
In the world of literary fiction, writing for and about teenagers can often result in a steadfast stigma, labeling you forever as “the one who writes the teen stuff”. For some reason, our work is often not taken as serious as our grown-up, elite counterparts. We get grouped in with other categories muttered with similar lowly disdain such as “chick lit”, “beach books”, and “anything written by that Nora Roberts woman”.
I’m often quick to point out 27 books by Nora Roberts are sold every minute.
And Judy Blume’s books have been translated into 31 languages and over 80 million copies have been sold…and counting.
Not bad company to be in, if you ask me.
Yet, selling a gazillion copies is not my driving force as a young adult author. I write for teenagers simply because I love to.
I write for teenagers because when I was 13 years old, a woman named Norma Fox Mazer changed my life.
Just weeks after experiencing my first kiss with a Latin boy named Pedro (after he slipped me a crumpled note that read, “Meet me afterschool because I like your stories”), my eighth grade world was lit on fire when it was announced Norma Fox Mazer – one of my favorite authors – would be making a guest appearance at our school.
After some serious campaigning to the junior high powers that be, I was one of the few students selected to have lunch with her in the library. I was beyond thrilled, having read every book she’d written. Although I was terribly star struck, I bravely showed her a section of a short story I was working on at the time and told her how much I wanted to be a writer.
Norma Fox Mazer scanned over the first page and informed me, “You already are.”
Two years later, I published my first short story. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But I never would have become a young adult author without first being a young adult reader.
Norma Fox Mazer was my best friend, without even realizing it. Each step of the way, she was there for me, guiding me through the field of adolescent landmines. She helped me cope with my parent’s divorce with Taking Terri Mueller. She taught about me death and grieving in After the Rain. She let me know that it was okay to not live like the rich kids in Silver. And she answered the questions I was too embarrassed to ask in Up in Seth’s Room.
Similarly, I learned valuable life lessons in every Judy Blume book I could get my hands on (particularly Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t). I devoured every volume in the Nancy Drew series. I hung on every suspenseful word written by Lois Duncan, and later, Christopher Pike.
Yet, as much as I read and loved each book by these authors, I could never find a true version of myself in them: a young gay boy growing up in the conservative 80s in northern California.
My first young adult novel, (set in 1986 in Sacramento), has just been published by Bold Strokes Books. While the novel explores a very timely and important topic (the life of a young girl is deeply affected by the murder of her gay older brother), the book is truly a literary tribute to the young adult authors who made me the writer I am today. Without them – and their beautiful words – I never would have sat down and taught myself to type at the age of 13.
I wouldn’t be able to recognize how much weight our words as writers carry, especially when read by young people.
Teenagers need us now, more than ever. They want us to be their best friend, their older brother or sister, their confidant. They want our experiences: the choices we made or didn’t, the decisions we’ve never second-guessed, the regrets we’ll always have. It is imperative that we share our lives with young people – not just through our words, but also by example.
After hearing Norma Fox Mazer had passed away last October, I reached out to her daughter, Anne, who is a successful writer. In a letter, I recalled my eighth grade memory of her mother in my junior high library, and of the tremendous influence she’d had on my career since.
In her response, Anne shared with me, “I was touched to hear the story about how you met my mother. She would have been so happy to hear from you again and to learn about your novel.”
In my heart, I will always carry Anne’s words, right beside her mother’s. Right next to Judy Blume’s, and Lois Duncan’s and Christopher Pike’s. Next to the characters and the stories that helped to shape my youth.
In my lifetime, I only hope my own words will one day resonate with a 13-year-old who has yet to be told, “You already are.”