Why I Write YA
Contributor
Written by
Melissa Kantor
February 2012
Contributor
Written by
Melissa Kantor
February 2012

When people hear that I write novels for teenagers, they often respond with a question that I find ever so slightly disingenuous: “How can you remember all that stuff?”

I really shouldn’t accuse complete strangers of lying to my face. After all, it’s hard to think of something to say when someone tells you her profession (“You’re a lawyer? That must be so…interesting”), and people might feel that a simple, “Cool” will make them sound un-literary. So “How can you remember all that stuff?” could just be a way of making conversation with someone whose occupation sounds dull or bewildering or, I don’t know, weird. Assuming one of these to be the case, I smile and shrug and say something along the lines of, “Just lucky, I guess.” Since I teach high school, acquaintances often assume I simply write about my students, and here too, I don’t disabuse them of their notions.

 

But when people ask me, “How can you remember all that stuff?” what I really want to say in response is, “How can you not?”

 

It seems to me that there is, quite simply, no more vulnerable, terrible, memorable time of life than adolescence. Burdened with many of the responsibilties of adulthood (complicated romantic relationships, demanding friendships, scholastic responsibilities that will impact your future), you have none of the perspective that adulthood brings—the knowledge that broken hearts heal, that friends who take without giving are not really friends, that there are many paths to happiness, that the life we live is rarely the life we plan. Before we learn these lessons, each setback feels permanent, each disappointment epic.  

 

It is one of the blessings of adulthood that this is no longer the case. A few years ago, I was invited to a party for a friend whose trendy radio show was launching a TV series. The party would be filled with people who (to me) are hugely famous, celebrities whose stories I’ve listened to and admired for years. I was giddy with excitement about being invited and spent the days before the party impressing (annoying?) my equally awed colleagues with my invitation.

 

And then my son got a stomach virus. The day of the party he wasn’t deathly ill, but he spent the afternoon throwing up and by evening he was running a significant enough fever that I couldn’t see leaving him with a babysitter. I called my friend and wished her luck, told her I’d be thinking of her and asked her to call me the next morning to tell me all the details. Then I settled down to an evening spent nursing a sick pre-schooler.

 

I was certainly sorry to miss the party. But it was a fleeting disappointment, and the next morning I was more relieved that my son was better than I was sad about not having gone out the night before.

 

Had I been in high school and had the same thing happened, I think I would have died. I certainly would have wished for death, just as I wished for death (or at least a new life in the form of the witness protection plan) when boys broke up with me, when my mother wouldn’t buy me the pair of jeans I wanted (needed), when I had knock down drag out fights with my best friend.

 

The beauty of adulthood, for me, is that while terrible things do happen (marriages break up, people get laid off, life-long friendships end), we are, for the most part, equipped to handle them. I’m not denying there exist horrors that lay low even the most capable of adults, but these are horrors. Real horrors, not parties sick children prevent us from attending or designer jeans our incomes prevent us from purchasing.

 

Writing about teenagers (for me), means not just remembering but being willing to dwell in that place where life felt like walking a tightrope without a net. When the boy I liked was the last boy I would ever like, the friend I fought with was the last friend I would ever have, the college rejection letter was the finale of a promising academic career.

 

I believe that while many people choose not to remember what those things felt like (and who would blame them?), few have truly forgotten. Sure, the name of the girl who threw the party where you first kissed some guy in the closet might have escaped you, but has the feeling of emerging from the closet (everyone knowing what you just did and wondering about it)? If it has, I guess you’re lucky.

 

If it hasn’t, you might want to write a book.

 

Melissa Kantor is the author of numerous books for young adults including If I Have a Wicked Stepmother, Where’s My Prince? The Breakup Bible, and, most recently, The Darlings in Love. If you’d like to comment on this blog post (high school memory, anyone?), please do so! I’ll choose one comment at random and send you a copy of the book of your choice! (To read the first chapter of any of my books, go to www.melissakantor.com and click on “books.”)

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Comments
  • Nissi Mutale

    I am in my early 20s and my first book'Finding Me' looks back on my relationships during my teen years. I vividly remember feeling like everything was going to last forever and sometimes still get those niggling epic moments. As a young adult I love writing young adult fiction because I believe it is so very important to capture such a precious time in life. Great post!

  • Daphne Q

    Interesting perspective, Melissa... thanks for sharing

  • Jodi Su Tharan

    Yes! I am so happy to sit here nodding my head in agreement with you! Yes yes yes!

  • Tia Silverthorne Bach

    Love your post. My middle school memories were so imbedded in my psyche/mind/emotions, etc, that my mom and I wrote a book together about the teenage years (she wrote the mom's perspective, and I wrote the teenager POV of the same events). While it is fiction, so much was built on real experiences. I remember it vividly. People often ask me how I captured the teenage voice so well. I feel like the voice is still mine, but as an adult I control the urges more. ;-)

     

    I love writing from the teenage point of view, because it's such an exploratory time. The characters can grow so much and experience intense emotions. There are things that happened to me in my teenage years that I still would have trouble processing (my best friend died of Anorexia), much less then.

     

    I look forward to looking into your work, not only for me and my own journey, but because I have three daughters (12, 10 & 7). And they are all avid readers.

     

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • Margaret

    My most embarrassing high school memory is when I was a junior and had planned and put together the prom as president of the class and didn't receive one request for a date. I had my dress made (Pick taffeta) I had an appointment for my hair, but no date. My father asked if he should call one of the boys planning on going stud. "Noooooo!" I ended up calling an acquaintance from another town to see if he would escort me the morning of. He happened to have his tux rented already for their high school prom the following night and agreed that I could be a part of a threesome with his buddies who had dates. I remember the feeling of walking on clouds as I entered the decorated gym on his handsome arm. There was a hush and then the whisper . . . how did she get a date with him - the most awesome guy at the rival high school. We danced almost every dance and went to the party afterward at my friend's home. He took me home at 3 am - with pre-arranged approval from my parents. I was dreamily exhausted. I wanted to preserve my orchid to wear to church the following day - like all the other girls were planning to do. Wandering out to the back porch where the refrigerator was I pulled the door open and laid it on the shelf and then plopped into bed fully dressed. My mother woke me a scant 4 hours later to do Saturday chores. "Where is your orchid?" I mumbled something about the fridge. she pulled a black blob from behind her. "What's that?" Mom sighed. "You froze it." Sadness beyond despair.

  • Ingrid Cheng

    High school is hard for many teens. I was anorexic at age 17 because my family called me "Fat Girl"and my mom told me to lose some weight. I exercised a lot and starved myself in order to look good and feel good. No matter how hard I tried, I just felt empty inside. I know many teens and women struggle with their weight and the need to look good. That's why I'm writing a book about Yoga Life Lessons. Yoga teaches  acceptance and non-judgment.

  • Katherine E. Hinkson

    Mary Anne, You are a trip. I loved doing that to my friends and Mom. In high school, mom was taking me to work (Micky D's) and we were passing a construction site. I leaned out the window wolf whistled and ducked down, leaving Mom the only one in car. She could have killed me.

  • Mary Anne Benedetto

    I've been blessed to remain in contact with some people who have been my friends since elementary school, though many miles separate us. One friend reminded me recently of the fact that she had rescued another friend and me from ever having to ride the school bus from the time we were in 10th grade. She was just a little older and had her driver's license long before the rest of us. Each morning, she would pick us up at our homes and drive us to school in one of her family's vehicles. This particular Friday, she arrived in her dad's truck with a big camper on the back so all three of us girls were seated on the only long bench seat in the vehicle. Just as we entered the school parking lot, I ducked down so no one could see me, and it looked as though my two friends were sitting very closely in the truck. 

    Needless to say, they were screeching at me to sit up so everyone could see that there was indeed a third person in the vehicle. We've been friends for forty-eight years in spite of some of the nutty things we have done!

  • Emily Harris

    Thanks for the post, Melissa. I remember, all to well, my first breakup (I was dying of a broken heart -- sigh). I currently write fiction and nonfiction and teach college students. The drama may be more instant (Twitter as a dumping device) but it's still there.

  • Melissa Kantor

    It's so wonderful to read these comments! Everyone's got such great perspective on all of these upsetting, embarrassing, unsettling experiences. If only we could write a letter to our teenage self promising her that all things pass...

  • Frances DeMartino

    I'm 50 and still love reading YA books.  In my sophomore year I bailed out of a small parochial high school in favor of a large public school.  I hated the noisy cafeteria, so I would go to school dressed in a skirt, blouse and heels and sit in the faculty lounge. Everyone thought I was a substitute teacher.

  • Kelsey Berryman

    The memories still live on... I remember everyday going to the library at lunch and hiding among my book while others were out having fun and being dramatic. It was how I survived high school but I feel like I missed something.

  • Valerie King

    Great post indeed! I can certainly relate. I myself am a YA fiction writer. My passion resides in this genre, although so many of us love to indulge in a great YA novel even if we are no longer a senior in high school. :) That's the beauty of it!

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    "It seems to me that there is, quite simply, no more vulnerable, terrible, memorable time of life than adolescence." Boy does that  bring back memories. Sure I remember being that age but what I remember even more is teaching drama to high school kids. Every day was a bit like a play within a play.

    Lynn

    www.writeradvice.com

    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  • Ann Elise Monte

    I'm only just out of high school, so a lot of memories are pretty fresh for me. I was involved in every school musical for the entirety of my six years there (Australian school system). One year, when I was sixteen, our school put on a production of Beauty and the Beast. I was Cogsworth. Since I'm a rather petite female, the rented costume was slightly too big for me and I didn't have the gut to force it into the box-like shape it was supposed to be, leaving it as a slightly squashed cowbell shape. In one particular scene I have to walk on stage with a turning key in my back. The thing was flimsy, made of cardboard covered in golden material and beads on the side. Because of my lacking height, it often fell out of the hole in my back, which had to be tied around my waist before I put the cowbell suit on over my head.

    Most of the time, the turning key stayed in place well enough as long as I was careful with it. One performance, though, things didn't go quite to plan. In this particular scene, Cogsworth is freaking out over discovering the key and is flailing around in circles trying to get a look at it while Lumiere the candlestick tries to calm him down. As I turned, as I had for a number of shows, the key popped out and clunked onto the floor. I had to improvise intense pain and put the thing back in before I could continue with the scene. Luckily, the girl playing Lumiere (we didn't have many boys) was able to improvise with me with a bit of, "Are you all right?" Then we continued as normal.

    But, of course, the key was not done with its machinations. During the final fight scene, Cogsworth screams "TALLY HO!" and starts a swordfight with two attackers. My line was a cue for all hell to break loose, essentially. Another show, after the Show of the Painful Key had occurred, I leapt forward, screaming my line (or as close to streaming as a British male played by a female can get). As I pulled my sword out from my pendulum compartment, I heard a thud and looked down to find the key had fallen out again. So I picked the thing up and used it similar to a scabbard being used to block attacks.

    After that, we wrapped bubble wrap around the end of the key that the audience wasn't supposed to see. It didn't fall out again. Funny how one small object can cause so much trouble.

    And for everyone's amusement, here's a picture of me as Cogsworth:

  • Sharon Lippincott

    After a week of sweaty palms and squeaking voice, I finally found the courage to ask B.L to the annual Sweethearts Dance the year I was a senior. Alas! I waited too long! A button-cute blond sophomore beat me to him, by minutes, if the grapevine reported truly. Of course I instantly hated her, but also began rationalizing all the reasons that I didn't really like him all that much anyway. You can imagine my gloating satisfaction when he got thrown from his horse and broke his leg a week before the dance, then landed in the hospital with an infection. By then I was over the horror of my timing gaffe and went to the hospital to visit him the night of the dance. Of course when I walked in the blond was just leaving. What a thrill to sit on the edge of his bed as he lay there in his p.j.'s -- at least until the nurse pointed me to the too-low chair. I must have had an effect on him. After a couple of minutes, he bit the thermometer said nurse stuck in his mouth in two, filling his mouth with glass shards and mercury. At that point, Nurse Nasty invited to leave, and his physician father forebade further visitors. I did go out with him a couple of times after that -- at his instigation, and then I had even more reasons why I didn't really like him all that much.

  • Barbara H. Horter

    Wonderful post!! I was a singer during high school and sang at our school dances. I loved holding that microphone and watching my school buddies dancing to the music. I am like you, thinking, how can one not have the memories. It seems like yesterday!

  • Lynn A. Davidson

    This was a good post. I have few good memories of high school, and I really don't know if I want to relive those years through writing about them. On the other hand, not having considered gleaning stories from that time, there could be unrealized potential there.

  • Q Lindsey Barrett

    Love your website Melissa -- I opened it in the background while I read the comments here and wondered why my computer made kissing noises at me.

    Jodi (fun to find you here) I had a similar experience, made especially lovely since I was wearing a white dress. I stood up in class and saw that I not only had started my period, but had bled so profusely my chair held a thick red puddle. The humiliation of having to make my way to the nurse's office (the source of emergency "femine hygene" products back then) knowing what the back of my dress must look like was made so much worse thinking about the next class coming in and either someone pointing out the mess on the chair or sitting on it without looking, thereby passing the problem on to an unsuspecting person.

    Once I grew up and had some perspective, it certainly because a "who cares?" moment, but you're right Melissa -- at 14 it was the worst, most humiliating thing I could imagine.

  • Darlene Foster

    I can't imagine forgetting those years either.  Here is my story: The Valentine's dance was coming soon and I had nothing to wear.  We did't have any money for a store bought dress but my very pregnant mom had some fabric and planned to sew an outfit for me.  But she had my little brother on February 10.  So at 15, I sewed the outfit myself.  I dreaded showing up in a home made dress but ended up dancing the entire night. Everyone loved my outfit the best!  Some of the girls asked me to sew them an outfit just like it.  This one had a happy ending.

  • Jessica Rachel

    My high school experience was paradoxical...on the one hand, I lived it fully, with academic successes, an active cheerleading life, and all the typical teenage drama. On the other hand, though, I was barely hanging on - I went to the hospital every other day after school to get a four-hour dialysis treatment. I lived a double life and no one knew about my health problems and the rare genetic disease that caused them. Although this might seem extreme, I think it speaks to a fairly common issue among teenagers: the desire to appear "normal," whatever that word might mean in the environment particular to the individual. Now as an adult I am able to proudly share what made me so unique in high school, but at the time, this was not only enormously difficult, but also not even an option in my eyes. (www.rollerskatingwithrickets.com/blog/)

  • Penny Harter

    I was a senior in high school and had never been asked to a formal dance. The boy I had a crush on was going with someone else, and I needed to be there just to see him, so I asked another boy I didn't really like that much to go with me. He couldn't dance, so my parents suggested I invite him over and teach him . . . they'd been taking dancing lessons and had taught me. I did that, playing records on the old portable victrola in our dining room. He never did learn that well. Anyway, we went to the formal, and I spent an unhappy night mostly ogling the guy I really liked and his date across the room. . . . I also remember that by the spring of my senior year I'd never been "french kissed" and was heading off to college. I wanted to know what it was like so asked a boy who was just a friend to show me. He did!

    I kept a detailed diary/journal every day of high school, and I graduated in 1957. I read it now and it all comes flooding back.

  • Katherine E. Hinkson

    Melissa,

    Great blog and question.

  • Katherine E. Hinkson

    I love being a grown up... anyone for hot chocolates and making snow angels?

  • Olinka Broadfoot

    Ah well Katherine...it was a long time ago...I got over it. And by the way, good for you!