Why I Write YA
Written by
Melissa Kantor
February 2012
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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  • Katherine E. Hinkson

    Olinka I'm sorry about your high school years. We made it through to the other side. I didn't go to college until I was in my forties. I joined the army to avoid marrying someone like my biological dad. Two of my sisters married the men my dad set up them (drinking buddies).

  • Katherine E. Hinkson

    I remember my high school years all to well. I grew up in a small town and how I dreaded every day of it. A side from  the days I had math classes, a teacher who made me cry every class, I was so shy and backwards that being called on by teachers, I'd pass out, don't even think about talking to boys. My parents even made arrangements for me to become a nun and live at a convent. I withdrew into my books and my stories. No I'm not a nun, I ran away and joined the army. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who was too beaten to protect us. I think I used the shyness as a protective shield. I have a character who is stronger than I at that age. She is one of my favorite characters.

  • Olinka Broadfoot

    High School Memory? I was an immigrant and went to Barringer HS in Newark, NJ. I was not liked by the popular girls or even any of the students, since all of them were Italians who were at war with the Polish gangs from a different part of town. Having been born in Czechoslovakia that put me in considerable risk. Everyone just lumped me with Poland. I was almost run over by a car, attacked at church, football heroes took out their penises in class and everyone giggled at my discomfort. Teachers loved me. ...Except the gym teacher who needed to be accepted by the cheerleaders...she tried to flunk me in spite of straight A's from everyone else....when I tried to change gym classes...I was kicked out of school until I had gone to a psychiatrist...He sent me back and said I was an intelligent, thoughtful young woman who needed to be left alone. I went to summer school to get out early and when I graduated because I was one of the top ten students in the graduating class - a picture was put up on a bulletin board which the cheerleaders used as a dart board. Was I miserable? YES! The last three months I bleached my hair, put on make-up and tried to look like everyone else because I needed a recommendation from the school counselor so I could get a scholarship to go to college... (It was too late).  I hated High School. College was a relief!

    Just before graduation

  • Lois Roelofs

    Oh my, dredging up memories. My mother threw me a surprise 16th birthday party. I was so embarrassed because I was certain that all those kids would not have come otherwise. Years later, I wrote the story from her point of view and I was able to love her for doing that for me!

  • Susan Sawyers

    Mortifying to think this one through but here goes. We were 15 and none of us had been kissed. The thought of initiating a kiss wasn't part of the equation yet a summer pact led us to the challenge. Sweet 16 loomed and we we figured we needed to check a kiss off the coming of age list.  My chance came following the Sadie Hawkins Dance, that one occasion when girls asked guys to a Saturday night dance in the hs gym.  No recollection of dance. Went en masse, parents drove. Got out of designated driver's car at date's house, hung out in his kitchen, kissed him, peck on the cheek, and called my dad to please pick me up. Crazy, determined and definitely mortified. The whole thing. Painful memory, painful time in life. Brings back that that sinking feeling of wanting to be loved, wanting to be cherished, wanting to be pursued/desired. You know, the stuff that fairy tales are made of. I know, now, those sentiments don't necessarily come from another but how nice to dream about, reflect upon, the rare occasion when it does. Best to love yourself first. Happy Valentine's Day.

  • Pattimari Sheets

    Outstanding Melissa!

    I certainly will check out your books.

  • Terrific post.   I was raised by a single parent - a dad, and I was the oldest of four.  By high school, I was 'in charge' of the household.  And I remember wanting to stay in that high school library for as long as I could, until the last bell.    Being in the library meant I didn't have to cook dinner, or do laundry, or take care of my siblings, or do anything but homework, or better yet, read.   Truly, the author of LIE. 

  • Jodi Paloni

    This may be TMI, but there was that horrifying day when I got up from my chair in history class at the end of the day, walked down three flights of stairs, through the main hall where everyone who had just been dismissed for home was palavering in groups, and headed out the front door, where a good friend promptly scooped her sweatshirt around my waist and tied the arms into a belt. You guessed it! Now turning 50 and the same thing just happened on my way out to dinner. Geez. To be a girl all of these years. 40 years of menstruating.

  • Suezette Given

    I have a daughter who just turned twelve. It is funny how many memories come back as she begins to have the same kinds of experiences. 

  • Michelle McEntire

    I had a huge crush on a boy on my high school swim team. One year at the state competition, everyone on the team had left for lunch, but to save money, I had brought my own and just ate it in the pool area surrounded by all the belongings of my team members. I snooped in my crush's things and located his wallet, and couldn't believe my luck to find three school dance pictures from one of his dates earlier in the year. I stole one as a memento (I cut his date out of the picture) and kept it in my own wallet for probably a year. Looking back, I can't believe I'd do something like that, but it was easy to see why nothing ever developed romantically between us. Can we all say "obsessed much..?"

  • Barbara Shallue

    So true. I can recall some things that happened in high school much more vividly than I could anything that happened to me yesterday!

  • Wynnie

    I'm almost 65, and I still recall many wonderful and not so wonderful jr. high and high school memories.  Band trips, like to the Winter Carnival parade and since I played trumpet, I had to keep my mouth piece warm in my pocket or mitten, so it didn't stick to my lips.  Or I can visualize even now, where in my high school I was asked to Prom in 1964. One really funny memory, happened in Jr. High again playing trumpet and having a crush on another trumpet player.  During part of the concert we had to stand, well when I stood up my chair fell.  Of course at the end of the number my "humorous" band director stated, "Some girls will drop hankies, we have one who drops chairs."  Had to have been one of my most embarrassing moments.

    I really enjoyed your post, and having taught Middle School (mostly grade 8 science) for 16 years, I know the angst both from my own perspective as a student, and my students' perspective.  I'm currently writing poetry and actually am planning on using a poem I wrote in high school in my next book, it managed to survive all these years, it should be published.

  • Misty Chavis Rosenfeld

    Boy, that was a long time ago - 43 1/2 years ago - My best memories are of my art teacher - he was good at getting his point across and getting us to understand the old masters - & my history classes. My nose was always buried in a book if some kind and more than likely it was a history book - usually of the 900's to 1400's - I'm still a real history buff - my book cases are filled with history books.

  • Karen Creamer

    High school memory: Not attending the wake for my good friend's brother when he was killed by a drunk driver. I still don't know why I was so afraid to go, and it pretty much cost me the friendship. Just one of the many stupid things I did (but don't know why!) in high school. :)

  • Renae B. Salisbury

    I am 63 - almost 64 - and remember with amazing clarity so many of those junior high and high school experiences. Okay, some make me squirm a little, but for the most part I LOVE reliving them through writing. As difficult as it was at times, I felt so alive because I felt things with such intensity. That's why they call it drama! ~ Thanks for sharing this perspective, and I'm sharing it with all my teacher and writer friends. rbs

  • Carrie Rogozinski

    I didn't have the greatest high school experience and there are many things I'd love to forget BUT it was also the time I really became feeling my "writerly" inclinations. Perhaps I wasn't the most popular but I was just as happy to be curled up in the hall with a notebook filled with story scribblings.

    I'm currently writing a YA book and I like to think that some of the angst I recall from that period might come in handy. But even if I can't remember the details exactly, the experiences stick with me in that weird "I'll influence you for the rest of your life" kind of way. Some for the good, some for the bad.

  • Patricia A. Hawkenson

    I remember my friends and I took a sample of our hot lunch mashed potatoes into the science lab and put it under a microscope.  Dead BUGS!  With our teacher as back up, we told the cook to stop serving them.  Sadly, this was AFTER the whole elementary school had already gone through the line! 

  • Pamela Olson

    I'm so happy to be an adult (32 is adult-ish, I suppose) and not a teenager, or even in my twenties, anymore. Perspective opens up a world of calm that I never could have imagined when I was younger. Then again, sometimes I do miss that intensity of life, when I wasn't quite so sure of myself... On the one hand, I was closer to a primitive state of mind... On the other hand, I was perhaps closer to a "primal" state of life, full of wonder and dread and dragons and shining castles of unreasoning hope. Is there any way to find balance, I wonder?

  • Heather Slee

    Great article.

  • Melanie Conklin

    Hi Melissa,

    I really enjoyed reading this post!  Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only person sitting at the grown-ups table with a high school narrative running through her head.  I've just finished writing my first novel, and am busy revising and seeking feedback from people with some experience in the genre.  I live right outside of NY in NJ and am trying to find a writer's group to gain that all-important perspective on my work.  Do you have any advice on searching for a group when you don't have classmates to fall back on?  Best of luck with your latest book!