14 Authors Discuss Gentrification, Divorce, and More in January’s YA Open Mic

YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers won’t necessarily find on their websites.

This month, 14 authors discuss everything from gentrification to divorce. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.

Veronica Roth, author of Carve the Mark

When big changes happen in my life, I get my hair cut. I’m not sure why, but I think it has to do with wanting to register my insides on the outside. If I lose something, I want every accidental brush scrape on my now-bare neck to remind me that it was real and, like a bad habit, will take some time to unlearn.

After a breakup when I was 15, I went into the salon to get my hair cut like Mandy Moore in How to Deal—a long, flippy pixie cut. While I was in the waiting area, an older woman asked me what I was going to do to my hair. I showed her the picture I had brought in, and she clicked her tongue and said, “Boys don’t like short hair, you know.”

I did it anyway, and I loved it, but her voice stayed in the back of my mind. It was there when I got back together with the aforementioned boyfriend and he voiced some mild criticism of my short hair. It was there when I grew it long for him, telling me it was normal for him to influence my appearance. I wore less makeup for him, and flat shoes. I became more typical for him.

I want to say I realized that wasn’t right and broke it off soon after that, but the truth is, it took a while. But when that relationship finally ended, at the cusp of young adulthood, I cut my hair again.

And again.

And again.

Now it’s blonde, it’s orange, it’s brown, it’s gray, it’s whatever color I want it to be. And I’ve changed more than my hair, too—I wear heels when I want to. I wear lipstick in pink and red and navy blue. I am 28 and I’m reclaiming my body as mine, mine, mine.

So: hair salon lady? Maybe you’re right, most of the time– maybe boys don’t like short hair.

But I do.

Tiffany D. Jackson, author of Allegedly

JFK Airport is not far from my house, about a 20-minute Uber drive through Brooklyn, but it’s my favorite part of any trip. A chance to ride aboveground instead of on the subway, heading deeper into the Borough of Kings that I love, basking in the remnants of what we born and raised kids now call, “Old Brooklyn.”

Gentrification has stripped most of the city’s luster, leaving my old neighborhood in downtown unrecognizable, and yet there are a few pockets that remain symbols of our past—those old corner stores, street names, homes, and housing projects that survived the real estate war and subsequent pilgrimage of our culture. I appreciate being able to drive down Atlantic Avenue and point to buildings where my remaining family members still live in East New York, where I spent weekends drenched in love. I cling to the moments so that I never forget all that has made me…me. Thus, I look forward to balancing my checkbook of memories before hopping on a plane to the next country or literary conference. It keeps me grounded.

During my last drive to JFK, preparing for my 14-hour flight to South Africa, I passed a construction site on Pennsylvania Avenue and Atlantic. The skeleton of a new condo towered in the sky, a Trojan horse in the middle of the hood. It has been heavy on my mind during my current two-week stay here in Cape Town.

Yesterday, I visited the District Six Museum. The district was a neighborhood established in the 1800s, mostly made up of former slaves and immigrants from various countries. But in the early 1970s, during the Apartheid era, the government declared it a whites-only area and violently forced over 60,000 people out of the homes they lived in for decades, just because of the color of their skin. The bulldozers erased memories and history, leaving the area undeveloped and vacant. Currently, those who were forced out are trying to reclaim and rebuild, but the decimation left the community forever changed. There is no comparison to the devastation that people of District Six have suffered, but as I walked up Russell Road, where one side is a University (that until 1994 was an all-white school) while the other side is vast vacant lots…comparing the current scene to the old photos that hung in the museum of happier times….I can’t help thinking of Brooklyn.

Corey Ann Haydu, author of The Careful Undressing of Love

I was 13 and it was the day before Thanksgiving and I was in a too-big grey fleece jacket.

Sometimes the tiniest moments that mean nothing attach themselves to you and then it’s 20 years later and you realize you’re still carrying around something a stranger said to you when you were just barely a teenager.

She worked at the bakery counter at the grocery store. “You’re going to be a heartbreaker,” she said. It didn’t sound like a compliment. It sounded like an accusation.

I have a weakness. If someone says something confidently enough, I take it as gospel. When this woman said these words, I blushed and hid inside my jacket and decided she was an oracle and I was a terrible person. Her anger made me sure that I was a cursed girl.

In a year, I would break up with a kind boy in a cruel way.

It was so cruel my mother could barely look at me.

The woman’s words became larger, more haunting, more terrifying. She was clearly onto something. I broke up with another high school boyfriend. Then a college one. A post-college one.

The ex before my husband took our breakup hard. He said horrible things about me. He painted me as strong and brutal and himself as small and victimized. Again, I felt the weight of that woman’s words, the shame of being a girl who was destined to hurt the people she loved.

Her words stayed with me so long that I had to write a book to untangle what it is they meant to me and why they had such a lasting impact on the way I saw myself. Did I stay in an abusive relationship for three years partly because I was afraid of living up to her expectations? Did I stay with someone who treated me poorly and chased other women for two years because I was afraid of the way her prediction was coming true? Did her words make me forget that it was often my own heart that was broken, even if I was the one who left?

The Careful Undressing of Love is about girls who are told their destinies—to be certain kinds of heartbreakers—before they’ve even had a chance to love. It’s about expectation and its dangers. It’s about the things we hold as true, and what happens when we start to question those truths.

Stephanie Garber, author of Caraval

I’m not as outgoing as I pretend to be. If you ever meet me in person, there’s a good chance I’ll give you a hug, I might smile at you, even if I don’t know you. If I see you and you’re standing by yourself, don’t be surprised if I go over and start up a conversation. But it’s not just because I’m friendly.

Growing up, I wasn’t just the kid who was picked last in school, I was the kid who wasn’t picked at all. Whenever there were teams, the captains would make their choices and I was always left standing there, watching as everyone else was chosen until it was only me. Since neither team actually wanted me, the captains always said, “Pick whichever team you want.” Which doesn’t sound like an awful thing, but it always made me feel unwanted.

After a while I acquired a fear of social activities, since they usually involved me standing alone in a corner, hoping someone would notice me. I remember hoping to break an arm or a leg, or contract some horrible disease, just to get out of going to events at school, or at church.

This all changed the first time I went to a writers’ conference. I was terrified. I think I sweated the entire four-hour drive there. Then I arrived, and rather than hoping someone would notice me, I began to notice everyone else. And they all looked as terrified as I felt.

Before that weekend, I always wanted people to pick me, to notice me, to talk to me. When what I should have been doing was noticing other people, talking to them, picking them, regardless of whether or not they picked me.

Being outgoing isn’t natural for me, it’s an intentional choice I make, so that there will always be at least one friendly face when I’m around.

Kristen Orlando, author of You Don’t Know My Name

Have you ever been scared to be good at something?

I scribbled down this question on a scrap of paper as I studied for an AP Biology test, an anxious knot sitting like lead in my stomach. That knot tightened every time I thought about the future that was planned for me, and the life I secretly wanted for myself.

I had applied to Kenyon College as a Biology major. I said I wanted to follow in my parents’ medical footsteps and become a doctor, just like we’d always talked about. But I was lying. To my college counselors, to my parents, but mostly, to myself.

I wrote down the words that I could never say aloud. I was head-over-heels in love with writing. And I feared if I showed any talent for it, it’d take me far off the path of becoming a doctor. Following my heart meant disappointing the people I loved the most. And that scared the crap out of me.

I ignored the crushing weight of fear in my chest my entire senior year. But as I sat in my first Biology lecture, that weighty knot anchored to my gut broke free and panic clawed up my throat. “You hate this,” my mind whispered. “What the hell are you doing here?” In that moment, my mind confirmed what my heart always knew. Medicine wasn’t my passion. Writing was. This was my life, my future, and the thought of it shouldn’t make me physically sick.

Telling my parents I wanted to switch my major from Biology to English wasn’t easy. But just like my main character in You Don’t Know My Name, I realized I couldn’t live my life for someone else. And forging my own scary path was the best decision I ever made.

Kate Hart, author of After the Fall 

In high school, I ran with a high-achieving crowd. We formed a student-led seminar, ran the literary magazine, became National Merit Scholars, and hiked the Grand Canyon for spring break. We challenged each other, and I was always trying to prove myself as “one of the boys,” both academically and on the trail.

Most of us went to fancy colleges outside of Arkansas. I couldn’t afford to leave, but luckily I got a scholarship at a small in-state liberal arts school, where I worked hard to prove myself, and graduated summa cum laude at the top of two departments. So when I went on to Vanderbilt for a master’s degree, I expected great things from myself.

After two months, I dropped out.

Academically, I was fine. But graduate school was more about prestige than working toward a goal I really cared about. Proving myself “the best” was no longer enough motivation. Far from family and friends, on a campus where I didn’t fit in politically or financially, my identity as Super Student slipped away. Depression pulled me under, and I left Nashville in humiliation.

Years later, I found my real calling. But publishing is a long process, and lacks the reassuring grades and frequent milestones of school. Every setback felt like a personal failure, and when my first book failed to sell, depression pulled me down again.

But this time, prepared with the right meds and a support system, I was able to address the underlying issue: I am not my work. My career is not my identity.

Today, I may be the only friend in our crew without extra degrees on the wall…but I do have a book on the shelf with my name on it. Meanwhile, a full life with other pursuits like art, woodworking, and of course hiking, reminds me there’s more than one way to succeed – and none of them define me or my worth.

Fonda Lee, author of Exo

I have no memories of my parents hugging, kissing, or ever showing affection for each other. Their 30-plus-year marriage was dysfunctional and unhappy. What I have are memories of endless arguments, being ferried between two houses during their periods of separation, and having to stoically endure their criticisms of and complaints about each other.

I was anxious and ashamed that all my friends seemed to have parents who actually enjoyed each other’s company. My mom and dad tried to keep their marital misery hidden. We treated it like a secret family ailment, something to never be admitted or discussed with anyone.

My parents were Taiwanese immigrants who moved to North America for college. They had no family support and no one to depend on but each other. They stayed together out of a desire to do what they believed was best for my brother and I, and also, I believe, out of a stubborn and prideful unwillingness to admit defeat. There were happy times of course, times that made it seem as if everything was fine. But they never lasted.

After both their children were grown, my mother and father finally divorced. It ought to have happened years earlier.

My latest novel, Exo, is about bioengineered teen soldiers on an Earth that has been under alien governance for a hundred years. On the surface, it’s an action-packed science fiction adventure. But as an author, you put something of yourself into each of your books, and at its core, Exo is about a broken family. The main character, Donovan Reyes, is a teen struggling with and shaped by the impassable rift created when adults in the family turn against each other.

The book is dedicated to my parents. Both of them, for though they didn’t find happiness with each other, they never failed to support and love me in their own ways.

Lydia Sharp, author of Whenever I’m With You 

“Your father wants to speak with you,” my mother said to me without explanation. “Go upstairs.”

I’d known this was coming since I was old enough to understand my parents weren’t in wedded bliss—the heated arguments; my earliest memories that still make me physically shudder; the fear that one of their fights would go too far—and what that would mean for me.

Writing fiction had become my escape. My stories had the happy endings I wished for.

I ascended the stairs, my hands and heart and breath trembling. I knew this was for the best, for everyone involved, but right then it felt like the worst.

When I saw him, despite holding it together on the outside, I crumbled inside. This was the man who’d braided my hair, who’d let me stay up late to watch Star Wars, who’d always encouraged me to just be me—from insect collector to interior decorator, from astronaut to actress, from veterinarian to violinist.

To this day, I don’t remember his words; just that they were emotionless, tearing me apart slowly rather than with mercifully swift, clean, sharp cuts. And he didn’t use the word “divorce,” but everything was leading to that inevitable conclusion.

He didn’t have to say it, though. A simple apology would have sufficed. “I love you and I’m sorry.”

Despite everything, I still wanted his warmth and affection, I still wanted a dad—however flawed—I still cared for him, and I just wanted to know the feeling was mutual.

I survived a broken family, and I’m here to tell you: it’s possible. You’ll find a way to keep going, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen, because, like a broken bone, you’ll be stronger after healing than you ever were before your world splintered. So just. Keep. Going.

Jenny Torres Sanchez, author of Because of the Sun

When I was in middle school, the world was divided into white kids vs. brown kids. The bus was an especially divided place.

Our bus driver’s name was Mr. Ed and he looked a lot like Freddy Mercury. He’d play all kinds of music for us and let us be loud. If the rest of the bus hated you, and it often felt that way, well you could at least take comfort in Mr. Ed being cool with you.

One day we were pulling away from school when someone yelled “Spic!” out the bus window. The bus erupted in laughter. No, it wasn’t the kid who drew swastikas on his binder, though that kid did ride my bus. It was another one who was usually less obvious about his hate.

I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. My heart started racing. My cheeks got hot. And I wanted to sink into myself and disappear.

Spic. That was me. That was yelled at someone like me. I had to ride the rest of the way home with someone who had yelled this at the top of his lungs, with a bus full of kids who laughed.

I remember being jerked around as the bus took a sudden, sharp turn and came to an abrupt stop. Mr. Ed whipped off his seatbelt lightning fast and stood in front of the bus. “No!” he yelled. “You never say anything like that on my bus ever again! Never.”

He was shaking. His face was red. He roared. The whole bus was stunned. We’d never seen him like this before. “I will not tolerate it. Never. Understand?”

I looked around. Everyone understood. Mr. Ed got back in his seat, slowly put on his seat belt, and drove us all home. It was a quiet ride. And on that middle school bus, where kids get eaten alive, where the world feels especially divided, it was never said again.

I was forever grateful to him. And I felt safe on his bus.

Merrie Destefano, author of Lost Girls

It’s natural to be frightened if someone pulls a gun on you. In fact, that’s probably how most people would feel. But that’s not how I felt—well, not until that one time when I was surrounded by many people with guns.

The first time it happened, I was a 15-year-old runaway teenager. I was attending a big party when a guy suddenly shoved a gun in my face and told me to get out.

Easy decision. I left.

The second time, I was in a grocery store checkout line and someone shoved me aside. I was about to say, hey, that’s rude! Then I realized this rude person had a gun and was robbing the cashier.

I waited quietly until he left.

Since then, I’ve analyzed both of these situations, wondering why I didn’t get scared. It’s not like I’m a brave person. Just the thought of elevators, airplanes, or driving on freeways can give me panic attacks.

Enter gun-related situation number three.

I’d just filled my car with gas, and noticed a woman standing on my left, a guy on my right and a third guy in front of my car, while other people scattered around the gas station suddenly froze in place, all of them looking in my direction.

Then a guy wearing a plaid shirt walked in front of my car.

At that point, every other person in sight pulled out a gun and aimed it at Plaid Shirt Guy.

It took about five seconds. It felt like five hours.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until Plaid Shirt Guy was on the ground wearing handcuffs that I saw a badge on the belt of one of the gunmen.

Cops. Maybe a SWAT team. Probably a drug bust.

But until I saw the badge, I had no idea who the good guys or the bad guys were. This was the only time out of the three that I was scared. Like my hands were shaking, I was so scared. This was also the only time that no one was aiming a weapon directly at me.

Fear is a strange thing. I’d like to say it’s part of a survival package, given to us at birth. In reality, I think I’ll live my entire life without completely figuring it out.

Alex Flinn, author of Beheld 

“Do you have new makeup on? It sure looks pretty.”

I ignored his sarcastic tone. Teachers had always said ignore bullies, though what usually happened was…

“Hey, I’m giving you a compliment. Don’t you know how to take a compliment?”

Ignoring.

“It won’t help, you know. The makeup.”

Every day at 7:30 a.m., I had to deal with this crap while my government teacher, not coincidentally Scott’s football coach, suffered convenient deafness. This was twelfth grade. Scott had apparently missed the memo about maturity. One day it was my makeup, the next, my top, hair, shoes, his own little edition of What Not to Wear.

What made me his target? I knew I wasn’t tragically ugly. Yet something made me a bully magnet.

After all, Scott was popular. Well-liked. He was on the homecoming court and was elected a Senior Favorite in the yearbook. Why was he so awful to me?

Fast forward. Years passed. I married, had kids, forgot Scott existed.

One night, at a diner near my house. My husband strikes up a conversation with the couple at the next table, because he does that. Eventually, I learn that the guy went to my high school.

“I had a brother your year.”

“Oh,” I say. “Who was it?”

“I don’t want to tell you. Whenever I tell anyone who my brother is, they say they hated him, he was such a jerk.”

“Oh, I doubt that. I didn’t hate anyone.” Though a thought’s forming in my mind. This guy is tall, handsome. There’s a definite resemblance. “Come on. Who was it?”

He tells me the name.

“Hmm, I didn’t know him,” I lie.

Everyone hated him. It wasn’t me.

That year, I wrote a book called Beastly, the first book in which Kendra, the main character in Beheldappears. It’s about a popular boy, looks-obsessed, a jerk. He leaves school and finds out that everyone secretly hated him. They were just scared to say so.

Sometimes people ask if my books are autobiographical. They’re really not. I mean, I’ve never been a witch like Kendra. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use my memories, like the ones of Scott.

Ellen Hopkins, author of The You I’ve Never Known

My husband and I just celebrated our 25th anniversary. With the seven years we lived together first, we’ve cohabited for 32 long years of love, hate, friendship, enemy-ship, and everything in between. Which means, I guess, that our relationship will survive until death manages to part us.

However, before forever-love, there were the usual failed teenage hookups and a couple of Mr. Wrong marriages. One ended in divorce when I was 24, leaving me with a three-year-old son and a daughter who was just walking. I was running my own business, so was relatively secure financially, but after a while I hungered for romance. Thus, I was wide open for a rebound relationship that proved to be with a sociopath and world-class gaslighter.

We met in Waikiki. He was handsome and charming, at least until he had a drink or three. When we moved beyond kissing, he swore he was “safe,” and I assumed that meant he’d had a vasectomy. Never assume, ladies. I was five months pregnant when we married, and only after we signed the license did I learn he was not only a liar, but also an abuser.

I stayed way longer than I should’ve, but a severe beating convinced me divorce was a priority. He didn’t agree, and though a judge did, my ex plotted a vicious revenge, kidnapping our daughter from daycare. She was three, and I lost her for three years as he moved around the country. Eventually, he settled back in his hometown and his grandmother called. “It ain’t right what he’s doing,” she said. With her help, armed with court orders, and under threat of death, I was able to bring my daughter home.

People often ask what inspires my writing. This personal tale is at the heart of my newest book, The You I’ve Never Known.

Marie Marquardt, author of The Radius of Us

I will soon publish my second novel for young adults. This might lead you to perceive me as a legitimate YA author. Not so fast! Before you to decide, I should get a couple of things off my chest. We’ll call them my true confessions.

  1. I have not read Harry Potter.  (Gasp!)

Why? You ask. Why would I deny myself one of life’s great pleasures? I have no good answer, except that I’m a lover of love stories. You have to get through thousands of pages of the Harry Potter series before you’re rewarded with one, right? (At least, that’s what I’ve heard.)

Okay, that wasn’t so hard. Now, to my second true confession:

  1. I don’t enjoy Twitter. Or Instagram. Or Facebook. Or Snapchat. Honestly, I’ve never met any form of social media that I enjoy.

What does this say about me? (Yes, I’m old. But that’s not the only reason.)

I am a true believer in the transformative power of the face-to-face encounter. When we look a stranger in the eye, or fold a new acquaintance into a hug, when we sit across from another person and really listen as she shares her story, when we pay close attention to the way her eyes light up, when we hear her pauses and feel the energy in the room shift, when we listen to her joys and fears—something extraordinary happens.

I know, based on much personal experience, that these direct encounters have power to connect us across profound differences. They in no way erase those differences, nor do they erase the dynamics of power that imbue them with such significance. Instead, through grounded relationships—real physical presence—we begin to recognize (and thus develop the capacity to change) the insidious systems that work to keep us apart.

So, yes, I’ll tweet and post and “chat” with readers about my books, but I’d much rather sit down with you, dive into a good meal together, listen to your stories, and tell you mine.

(That is, if you can get past the whole Harry Potter thing).

Louise Gornall, author of Under Rose-Tinted Skies

*Trigger warning: self-harm*

I want to preface this post by saying, how I handle my panic attacks is not a solution. It’s an extension of my mental illness, another pattern my brain has latched onto and refuses to give up. This pattern is painful, dangerous, and disfiguring, not to mention soul destroying.

Deep breath.

Self harm wasn’t something I ever associated with anxiety. That is, I knew it was related to mental illness, but I’d only ever seen it depicted as a side effect of depression, so I was very confused when I turned to cutting as a way to combat panic attacks. Flashback to that preface. See, it didn’t really combat anything, it simply made one problem bigger.

After 15(ish) years of treatment, I’ve learnt to manage the majority of my panic attacks, safely. But sometimes, something so huge happens, I start to spiral, and I can’t get control. Ascertaining some control over the things that frighten me is how I manage anxiety.

I was 18 when I first discovered pain distracted me from panic. I was caught in the throes of one of those spiralling attacks, chewing my fingers when my teeth snagged hold of skin instead of nail and tore it off. The throb of the tear was so intense it snatched my focus, just long enough for my mental illness to catch the scent and convince me this cut, this pain, this new problem, was something I could control.

My head kept hold of this thought for the following 18 months. Fine tuned it, rationalised it, forced it to fit where it wouldn’t, until logic died and hurting myself became the only thing that made sense to me.

It took a while to be able to talk about this. I hated the thought. But I was in a mess, realizing too late mental illness lied to me, as it often does. The relief I felt when someone offered me help was definitely worth the anguish it took to get me to talk.

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