15 Authors Discuss Loving Yourself, Immigrating to the U.S., and More in February’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, 15 authors discuss everything from self-love to immigrating to the U.S. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.

Renee Watson, author of Piecing Me Together

Growing up, I often felt invisible.

I attended a predominantly white middle school, and sometimes I felt like my white schoolmates and teachers only saw parts of me. Many times my friends would say things like, “I don’t see you as black, you’re just a regular person to me.” Boys would say, “You’re cute…for a fat girl,” and some of my teachers seemed shocked that I was smart because their assumption was that kids from my neighborhood weren’t capable, intelligent, and hardworking.

I was proud that my mother’s black southern heritage and my father’s Jamaican roots ran through me. At home stories were passed down from one generation to the next about how, as a people, we survived slavery and Jim Crow, and how I came from a people who made a way out of no way, who stood up for what they believed in. My family ate curry goat, rice and peas, and Jamaican beef patties. In our house there was always a gospel, R & B, or reggae record spinning. In our house black was beautiful, and my mother called me beautiful and brilliant—without any disclaimers.

To not see me as black was to erase my identity, was to say that where I came from did not matter.  But it did. And I had to remind myself of that constantly. I learned how to affirm myself and not let other people’s judgments and stereotypes define or limit me. I was not beautiful for a fat girl. I was beautiful. Period. I was not so different from my black friends who also loved to learn. I was not an exception to a rule.

This internal knowing has kept me focused on what matters most, which is not how people see me, but how I see myself.

Ibi Zoboi, author of American Street

I grew up being afraid of other girls. I remember one of my birthday wishes when I was nine years old was to have a best friend—like how Punky Brewster had Cherie. My overprotective, immigrant mother didn’t let me play outside with the other girls in our Brooklyn neighborhood.

They were too wild, she’d said, unlike the quiet, well-mannered girls in Haiti. I thought the girls in my neighborhood were simply being free. They jumped rope, played manhunt and freeze tag, argued, fought, and cursed as I watched them outside my window.

When I’d go out with my mother and one of them would spot me, they’d immediately start teasing me. I was the new girl on the block who wore ribbons in her hair and Sunday church dresses to school. I had a funny name and a mother with an even funnier accent.

So I’d walk outside past these girls with my head held down. All throughout middle and high school, I avoided those free girls—the ones who would see something different and foreign in my eyes even if I dressed and sounded like them. And as I became less new and less immigrant, I started to free parts of myself. I argued and fought and spoke my mind just like they did. I was less afraid once I realized I had always been just like them.

In 2010, I visited my native country of Haiti to teach a writing workshop to teen girls. After a few hours of ice breakers and writing exercises, the girls became more comfortable and were soon loud, cheerful, wild, and free. I saw myself in these girls. I also saw in them the girls in my Brooklyn neighborhood. They were indeed quiet and well-mannered at first. But once they unfolded their free selves, I could certainly envision them on a Brooklyn block playing manhunt and freeze tag, arguing, fighting, and cursing.

American Street is, at its core, a story about girlhood. My main character, Fabiola, brings with her to America Haitian culture and traditions. When she’s confronted with African American girlhood through her cousins Chantal, Pri, and Donna, she immediately recognizes the cultural differences. But in the end, she and her cousins are all strong and resilient in the same ways. They are reflections of each other regardless of the language and cultural barriers meant to divide them.

Heather Demetrios, author of Freedom’s Slave

It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m sitting on my boyfriend’s living room couch, watching a romance about two people falling out of love and I can’t help but think, of course. It’s my senior year and we’ve been together forever and I want nothing more than to get off that couch, walk out the door, and never see him again. But I’m scared. He’s told me that nobody will ever love me as much as he does, that I’m lucky he’s staying with me—I’m a downer, too uptight, a (insert expletives and whatever awful things a guy can say to a girl here). He watches me sleep at night and once threatened a boy at my school with a baseball bat because he was convinced I was cheating on him. He spied on me at work, screamed at me, cried, threatened. I hate you, he’d say to me. And then: I love you, I want to spend the rest of my life with you, let’s get married.

I didn’t know I was in an abusive relationship: there were no bruises and no bloody lips. I didn’t see that this boy I loved was grinding me down, day by day. Nobody at home helped or seemed to care and I wouldn’t listen to my friends. I’m finally ready to tell my story, to help other girls who might be hurting like I was. So I wrote a book and it comes out in June: Bad Romance is fiction, but it’s the truest thing I’ve ever written. If you’re in a relationship like this, get help. You can go here.

Oh, and that movie? It was called Here on Earth, and I had no idea at the time that my future husband was in the opening scene. We met less than a year later, at college. True story.

P.S. February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: There are so many stories like mine, they had to dedicate a month every year to it. You’re not alone.

Stephanie Elliot, author of Sad Perfect

“You have ARFID.”

My daughter and I looked at each other, neither of us knowing what that meant, but both of us feeling immense relief that finally a doctor had given us a name to the eating disorder she had for most of her life.

I have a book coming out this month about this unique eating disorder, ARFID, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. I wrote Sad Perfect because for almost fifteen years, my daughter struggled to eat food. She didn’t like a wide variety of foods—never ate fruits, vegetables, or meat, and stuck to a menu of about eight to ten foods only, and was very particular about how these “safe” foods were served.

When a person has ARFID, being around food is like being in a situation where you don’t want to exist. A person with ARFID doesn’t have much desire for food, doesn’t get excited about going to dinner, doesn’t think about food as being pleasurable. ARFID brings about panic attacks, feelings of despair, and causes extreme stress whenever food is involved.

And food is all around us—we need to eat usually three to five times a day; it’s the nature of our existence; it sustains us. Food is the center of our lives. We celebrate, socialize, grieve, and connect with food. At school, parties, weddings, sporting events, birthdays, holidays, and even funerals, we eat.

ARFID may sound like picky eating but it’s more than that. Symptoms can include gagging or vomiting if being forced to eat an unsafe food, anxiety, depression, and isolating oneself from friends and family. In extreme cases, a person with ARFID may self-harm or consider suicide. Different from anorexia and bulimia, there is no body image piece—those with ARFID aren’t interested in losing weight. ARFID people don’t choose not to eat. They fear the foods because of a childhood trauma or another inciting incident that led them to this disorder.

I wrote Sad Perfect because I am hopeful that it will help teens who might be struggling with some of the same issues the main character struggles with, and I want to spread awareness about ARFID.

Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education of Margot Sanchez

Anxiety crept in as we drew nearer to my destination. Although my friend lived in the Italian and Irish neighborhood of Morris Park, her mother still insisted on driving me home. She said it was too dangerous for a 13-year-old to hop on a train by herself. I really didn’t have much of a choice.

“You live here?” she asked. My friend wasn’t very good at masking her shock.

“Yes.” I could feel the heat rising on my face as we drove on in silence.

I grew up in the Twin Parks Housing Projects in the South Bronx, New York. Twin Parks is comprised of three buildings conjoined by long hallways with roughly 500 apartments. Whenever someone asked me where I lived I would brag about our duplex apartment with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. I would never admit to living in the projects.

Still, Twin Parks was where I played kick the can with a crew of kids. I learned how to roller skate and bike. When the hydrants were open on those scorching summer days, I would run right through the sprinkles. Not everything was ideal. There was that time I saw a man drag a woman by the hair across the hallway. There were other disturbing moments but those I kept to myself.

When they pulled over, I thanked them for the ride and jumped out before witnessing that familiar “look.” I wish I had told them about what life is really like in the projects. How mothers showed off their newborns. How people fell in love. About the kindness and inside jokes. As much as I tried to deny my home, Twin Parks still shaped me into the person I am today, both the good and bad parts.

Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give

Picture it—Jackson, Mississippi, December 2010. (Shout out to the Golden Girls.)

I was a senior in college, and a majority of the time I was the only black student in my writing classes. Like Starr, the main character in my book The Hate U Give, I was always afraid that people would only see me as “the black girl from the hood.”

Unfortunately, sometimes our biggest fears rear their heads at the most embarrassing moments.

One of my professors held a Christmas party. There was cider, hot cocoa, pecan pie, and a pile of gag gifts, wrapped and waiting under the tree. We could randomly choose whichever one we wanted. Some people ended up with whoopee cushions and old romance novels with Fabio-looking dudes on the front. When it was my turn, I picked what looked like one of the biggest gifts in the pile. I could only imagine what was inside.

No, I take that back. There’s no way I could’ve imagined what was inside—a prescription drug book and a water gun.

At first I was disappointed (I wanted a giant whoopee cushion, honestly), but then someone said, “Ohmigod! The black girl got a drug dealer’s starter kit!”

Cue the snickers. Cue Angie wanting to disappear.

But even with the snickers (and the endless apologies from my professor. He still apologizes), it didn’t sting as much as I thought it would. Yeah, it was embarrassing. Yeah, it was probably the worst gift that I, the only black girl at the party, could’ve randomly chosen. However, those two items didn’t define me.

But even though I knew that, I was still a tad bit pissed. So I went home and angrily worked on the short story that would later become The Hate U Give.

Lemons? Meet lemonade.

Rhoda Belleza, author of Empress of a Thousand Skies

I had a boyfriend in high school who came from a different social circle, and it never really felt natural being with him unless we were alone. This probably added to the “romance” of it—like no one else truly understood our connection, and life only made sense in that private world meant for us.

This was in fact a piss poor justification for something unhealthy and duplicitous. It was a fundamental inability on my part to admit the obvious: my friends didn’t like him, and if I kept them separate, I wouldn’t have to see why. So I went out with his friends.

One Friday night at an Applebee’s, his best friend joked that I should order the Oriental salad. Everyone laughed, including my boyfriend. I was shocked and humiliated; without thinking I smacked this friend on the head with my oversized, laminated menu. The table went quiet.

I was used to all of them being low-key racist. This comment had come after months of “jokes” my actual boyfriend made—about the slant of my eyes, my family serving dog for dinner, my parents’ accents. Up until then, I’d shrugged it off and probably even laughed to seem agreeable, cool.

So slamming that menu down on this guy’s head had a whole history of hurt behind it. I was pissed at him but also at my asshole boyfriend, and he’d served as a proxy. In the wake of silence I hit him again. And again and again, each time harder than the last. My boyfriend had to stop me; he pulled the menu out of my hand and gave me a look. Then I realized: he was embarrassed. The look meant to convey that I’d been the one out of line. They could be casually racist but I wasn’t allowed to react to it. (Though for the record I wish I’d handled it more maturely.)

It was a pretty pivotal moment. I saw them for what they were—petty and insecure—and I saw how I’d wasted my time, sitting in an Applebee’s with people I barely liked when I could’ve been with my own friends. The ones who respected me, the ones who could have fun without constantly belittling everyone else. So I left to find them…

C.J. Redwine, author of The Wish Granter

“Once upon a time . . .” Four words that opened a gateway out of my painful childhood and into realms full of heroes, villains, and magic. I was a voracious reader as a child. My mom took me to the public library every Tuesday, and I’d spend an hour gathering old favorites and new adventures. Books became my friends, my escape, and my salvation from a reality I no longer knew how to face.

The first time my grandfather forced me to touch him sexually is burned into my brain—a moment suspended across decades of time, still fraught with confusion and fear. The moments after are a kaleidoscope of pain, horror, and the loss of the girl I’d once been. I became withdrawn and isolated, losing friends and mystifying my teachers as their straight-A pupil began failing. I was still too young to have the proper words to describe the things that haunted my nightmares. I walked through my world feeling branded. Inescapably different. And terribly ill-equipped to win a battle I should never have been forced to fight.

That’s when books became my refuge. In books, the villain is clear. The heroine steps up, learns how to fight, and finds the villain’s weakness. Good wins the day, though the cost of the battle leaves scars.

My battle left scars. Some days I still have to pick up a weapon and fight the fear and despair that creep up on me when I’m not prepared. But I’m no longer the girl I was. I know how to reclaim the ground my abuser took from me. And I write books for teens because somewhere out there is another girl or boy curled up in a library, withdrawn and isolated, hoping to lose their pain in a story where the innocent defeat evil and find their happily ever after.

Catherine Alene, author of The Sky Between You and Me

I was in a coma. This sentence can break a conversation in half. A car accident? Always the first guess. No, I say. I came off a horse. But I can’t leave it at that, so I fill in the parts I remember. I was working a round-up, chasing cattle between clumps of sagebrush on a horse that wasn’t mine when a cow turned, breaking away from the herd. I lifted my reins to cue my horse. His head went down. His back went round and I flew.

They said I regained consciousness during the ride to the hospital. That I had to be held down when the nurses cut my clothes off in the emergency room. They said I pulled the IV’s out of my arm as they put me in the ambulance that carried me to the next hospital. A bigger hospital with a neurologist on staff. I slid into a coma before we got there. I don’t remember any of this, but I remember the sound of my head hitting the ground. I wish I could erase that sound but I can’t.

The fracture of my skull was six inches long and a quarter inch wide. The hematoma cast a shadow on the left frontal lobe of my brain on my MRI. I had headaches and absence seizures for a year. I was afraid to fall asleep. I would lie in the dark, picturing the blood vessels in my brain exploding, certain that if I fell asleep I wouldn’t wake up again.

The crack in my skull is still there. My fingers slide around it when I part my hair. I don’t like to touch it. I wonder if I’m different than I was before the injury. I wonder if anyone would tell me if I was.

Brittany Cavallaro, author of The Last of August

I can’t see out of one eye. It means a lot of things you’d think and a lot of things you wouldn’t. I need help walking down the shallowest hill. I miss doorknobs when I reach for them, knock over vases with my elbows, trip over stairs when I’m hurrying. I fall, and it isn’t cute. I have to ask for help. I don’t like asking for help.

Those are bad days. There are good days, too, and thanks to surgeries and interventions and my parents and some luck, for most of my twenties I had those. Good days. I learned to respect my own limits. Didn’t take the subway stairs quickly, even when people were pushing behind me. Didn’t drive at night, when the lights haloed out until I couldn’t see. Didn’t hike, didn’t run. Didn’t fall. I asked for help when I had to. I went back and forth wondering if I considered my particular case a disability. I couldn’t make a decision.

Then I started doing events for A Study in Charlotte and noticed a new problem with my eye. I’d be talking about the book, answering questions, and there it went—wandering off, lazily, pulling attention with it. It happened week after week. When I was excited, or stressed, anything other than at home alone.

I had my first surgery in years to straighten it out. Then I woke up. All that independence I’d fought for, the control I’d gained over how I moved through the world—it’d been washed out while I was under anesthesia. The vision in my good eye got worse, as it adjusted to the alignment. Got better. Got worse. Got better again. I banged into doors. I walked slower, and still fell.

Time waxes and wanes, that way. I dusted myself off and kept going.

Emily Albright, author of Everyday Magic

The first time my world spun out of control—and wouldn’t stop spinning—I was newly pregnant. In case you were curious, extreme dizziness and morning sickness don’t pair well together. I’m sure my husband has now seen things he would rather forget, but can’t. It was terrifying. I managed to make it through the pregnancy with only one other instance of vertigo. After giving birth I thought I was in the clear and wouldn’t have to deal with it again. What I didn’t realize was this would turn into an unending battle for the next 10-plus years with a foe that would randomly pop up unannounced.

I started seeing doctors, trying to find the cause of my spontaneous vertigo that would take me out of my life and set me on the sidelines for a solid week. When blood tests and MRIs didn’t show anything, I was sent to a psychologist, being told it was all in my head and I was making it happen through my anxiety. That answer wasn’t good enough for me, because the vertigo never happened in moments of anxiety. Every time I’d get hit with my world spinning and not having solid answers as to why, it made me fearful that something was seriously wrong with me and that I wouldn’t get to see my daughter grow up.

After a doctor argued with me, telling me vertigo episodes couldn’t possibly last a full week, and refusing to believe me that they did, I finally stumbled upon an amazing doctor who put me through a barrage of testing. We discovered I have an “almost hole” or a very thin area in the bone of my inner ear canal. Just knowing what’s going on and that there’s a way to fix it has been a miracle. It took over 10 years to get it sorted out, and I’m glad I never stopped fighting to find the answer.

Trust your gut. In all facets of your life. If something feels wrong to you, don’t force yourself to accept it. Fight for yourself and what you believe in. You’re worth it.

Rhiannon Thomas, author of Long May She Reign

I was 19, standing in a cafe in Princeton, NJ, with my then-boyfriend.

“You go order,” I murmured to him. “I’ll give you the money.”

“Huh?” He looked confused. “I haven’t decided yet. Why don’t you just do it?”

I couldn’t do it. But I also didn’t know how to explain to an American (the epitome of confidence in my mind at the time) that I was too scared to speak. If I ordered, I would have to speak to the person behind the till, and I genuinely, physically couldn’t. My heart was pounding. My throat had already closed up. No words were getting out, even if those words were just “tomato soup.”

My move to the U.S. from England had already given several shocks to my shyness. Shop assistants greeted me when I walked in through the door (oh, god, did that mean I couldn’t go in shops any more?). I was being graded on my ability to speak in class (I kept a tally in my head, terrified I was failing, and if I spoke even once per hour, it felt like a victory). Baristas started remembering me (clearly, I could never go back there again). And that day, apparently, my brain had had enough. It would not let me interact with these friendly human beings, no matter what I tried to do.

I think people who aren’t shy see it as a gentle feeling, associated with soft blushing and a quiet voice. If shy people just decided to speak, they’d be fine, right? But shyness for me has always been a rush of overpowering terror. Not just my brain saying don’t speak, but my body taking steps to make sure I couldn’t possibly get out any words, even if I wanted to.

I wish I could say “and then I found the magic cure and all was fine,” but it’s more like “years of noticing that I didn’t drop dead when I spoke to people gradually made it easier.” I still get awkward in shops and have days where self-service checkouts seem like history’s greatest invention. Turns out, that level of social anxiety doesn’t just vanish. But I can order my own soup, at least. And me from 10 years ago would have seen that as nothing short of a miracle.

Cristina Moracho, author of A Good Idea

When I graduated from college I firmly believed, like so many 21-year-olds before me, that I had everything figured out and I knew exactly what I was doing. A year later, I’d proven I was woefully unready to be a grownup; my postgraduate life was in ruins. I’d lost my job, sabotaged my relationship, and racked up $14,000 in credit card debt. I moved back into my parents’ house, where I promptly fell into a pitch-black abyss of soul-crushing depression.

A few months later I was on a Greyhound bus, headed toward my new home—a dude ranch in Idaho, where I would be a housekeeper and server. People don’t move to Idaho to clean toilets if they’re happy where they are, so I quickly learned I was not the only one seeking escape. My boss was a Jewish born-again Christian and recovering meth addict from Texas. Housekeeping was headquartered in a windowless basement; we were chain-smoking, foul-mouthed misfits. I was supposed to be there for five months; I stayed for a year and a half.

After my first guest season I was promoted to head of housekeeping and allowed to hire my own staff. I handpicked a scrappy team of juvenile delinquents as stubborn and difficult as I was. They were hilarious and maddening and impossible to control; it didn’t help that I drank Jagermeister and went skinny-dipping with them, compromising any authority I might have had. The ranch was surrounded by national forest; every morning I went hiking in woods that felt as vast as an ocean.

Gradually, the sting of my post-college failures faded, and New York City beckoned once again. For our final outing together, my housekeepers and I got tattoos. I wore a vintage ballgown to my homecoming party, which I threw at a dive bar in Alphabet City. One of my friends handed out T-shirts he’d had made for the occasion, a picture of Idaho in a red circle with a line drawn through it.

It’s not that I didn’t make any more mistakes; I made plenty. But it turned out the damage wasn’t irreparable, and I was equally adept at fixing whatever I had broken. I got a job, an apartment, and a therapist; I paid off my debt and went to grad school; I wrote a novel and the novel was published. The appeal of Jagermeister faded. Being a grownup wasn’t so bad after all.

Dan Wells, author of Ones and Zeroes

Let me tell you about the worst time I ever put my foot in my mouth.

It was the summer after my senior year of high school, when everyone was gearing up for college. I worked in a family-owned business—not my family, though they always treated me like one of their own. It was a local business that worked with canvas, for things like awnings and boat covers, and I basically just helped out at the front desk, taking calls and ringing up orders and passing customers along to the employees who actually knew what they were doing. The shop in the back was one branch of the family, and the front desk was another, and over the year or so that I worked there I became very good friends with them: a husband and wife, and a daughter my same age.

One day, with only a few days to go before I left for college, I went in pick up my last check only to find this family ecstatic. They greeted me cheerfully and told me the good news: their daughter, with only a few weeks left, had been offered a scholarship by one of the two local universities. Wasn’t that great? That was great, and I congratulated her. And then the wheels started turning in my head: Why had the scholarship come so late? That university had offered me a scholarship months ago, though I’d opted to go for the other local school instead. Why were they only getting to her just now? Maybe, I thought, this was a second wave: they’d offered scholarships to some students first, like me, and when we said no they reallocated that money to different students.

Two things. First: No. That’s not what had happened. Second: Like some kind of rampaging idiot, I SAID THAT WHOLE THOUGHT PROCESS OUT LOUD.


This girl, this good friend of mine, had just gotten an incredible reward for her academic excellence, and I had just pooped all over it, implying—in front of her parents, no less—that she’d only gotten a scholarship because the better students had already said no to the money. Aren’t you grateful, poor foolish child, that I in my excellence decided on a different school, so you can eat from the scraps I rejected?

Ugh. It makes me want to go back in time and smack myself in the head.

My friend and her parents stared at me, trying to maintain civil smiles, or maybe just trying to comprehend how someone could be so catastrophically clueless and/or insensitive. I was so shocked at my own idiocy that I couldn’t speak either, and eventually just mumbled some kind of congratulations and walked back out with my head down.

I’d love to say that I’m smarter than this now, but I still blurt out stupid things pretty much all the time. It’s something I’m working on. But man, sometimes I look back at on younger me and really wonder how he managed to survive to adulthood.

Lance Rubin, author of Denton’s Still Not Dead

I started writing my first book, Denton Little’s Deathdate, as a way to feel creatively empowered during a miserable time in my life, seven years out of college, when my acting career was hitting wall after wall. I’d known I was going to be an actor since I was six. I was good at it. It was who I was. So the fact that I wasn’t landing any jobs, that I was generally terrible at auditioning, that my agent and manager had dropped me in the same month, that my bank account was dwindling, was alarming. Because if I wasn’t able to succeed as an actor, who the hell was I?

It didn’t occur to me until much later that the story of Denton Little’s death—of which he’s known the date since he was five years old—was also me writing about the death of my career as an actor. It was a grieving process; even once I had finished a draft of the book, it was hard to refer to myself as a writer, as if that would be a betrayal to all my earlier selves who were so sure I was going to someday star on a TV show.

The book’s premise, too, which I’d thought was just a fun sci-fi idea—a world where everyone knows the day they’re going to die—now obviously seems like me wrestling with the idea of certainty (I’m definitely gonna be an actor when I grow up!) vs. uncertainty (Holy shit, what if I’m not?). Which was the better way to live? Those parallels continue into Denton Little’s Still Not Dead, as Denton survives—sorry, spoiler’s in the title anyway—and must now grapple with the groundlessness of life, just as I was grappling with officially being paid to write but not yet feeling fully comfortable in that life.

Nowadays, I encourage all writers and actors and artists not to box themselves in, to cling less to a fixed professional identity and instead think of themselves as fluidly creative people. Though embracing uncertainty is scarier than hanging onto that illusion of control we have when we’re certain, it’s also a more thrillingly awake and, yes, alive experience: we’re not bound to a preconceived notion of what should be but instead open to all the possibilities that could be.

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