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, 10 authors discuss everything from casual racism to cancer to healing. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Tara Sim, author of Timekeeper
Last year, I went to India for the first time with my mother. She was born and raised in Patiala, and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 13. She’s always wanted me to discover more of the culture we tenuously share, to see how she once lived and what I wouldn’t understand now, being half white and fully American.
But strangely, it did feel familiar. It was like another extension of myself I hadn’t really paid attention to until then. After a week, it almost felt like home. These were sights and smells and foods I’d grown up with, but now in a greater context.
I got stares. When you look white and you’re traveling in India, this is totally normal. When we visited the Taj Mahal, I overheard my mom talking to the guy taking our photos. He asked her a question about me. She answered.
His reply: “Nehi! Beti?” (“No way! That’s your daughter?”)
It was joking, lighthearted, curious. I’d gotten it all my life. But standing there in my mother’s country, staring at one of the seven wonders of the world, I felt very unknowable.
Shortly after, a local family wanted to take a picture with me because I’m tall and pale.
“You do realize I’m one of you,” I wanted to say, and didn’t.
They wouldn’t have believed me anyway.
Timekeeper is about many things: grief, isolation, love, magic. In one character in particular I explore this theme of being both Indian and not—and we’ll see more of it in book two for sure, this strange culture shock—but at its heart, I hope the story speaks to those who may be lost and not sure how they want to relate to the world. And that it’s okay to take your time.
Michelle Krys, author of Dead Girls Society
When I was 12, my mom called me into her bedroom. She told me that my dad was dying. He wouldn’t die today, and probably not next week—it was impossible to know exactly when it would happen. But he wouldn’t be getting better.
Of course, I knew that he was sick. My dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis when he was just 17. At the time of my mom’s revelation, he’d just been moved from an assisted living apartment into a long-term care unit at a hospital. So I knew things weren’t good. Still, I was surprised, and cried every day for weeks.
But soon, death lurking in the shadows became just another part of life. While other kids played at the park with their dads, I helped mine to get dressed, combed his hair, and fed him his pureed supper. Teachers allowed me to skip classes so my sister and I could help him eat his meals. He always ate better for us.
He didn’t die when I was 12. Or 13, or 14, or 15. But he slowly got worse. Before long, he couldn’t use his wheelchair and was confined to a bed. Even though he was in rough shape, he spent every visit trying to make us laugh. Some of my fondest memories are from inside a hospital.
I applied—and got into!—several of the best universities in Canada. I imagined exploring the big cities, making new friends, living in a dorm…and then I accepted a spot at the local community college, so I could be close to my dad.hjj
My dad died when I was 17. When I was 22, I became a nurse.
Marina Budhos, author of Watched
I grew up in a garden apartment complex built for UN families, in Queens, New York. I was naïve and idealistic and thought, arrogantly enough, everyone wanted to be like us: worldly, mixed, all different backgrounds. I just thought we were cooler.
But it wasn’t hard to bump up against the attitudes of our surrounding neighborhoods. My best friend’s brother used to be taunted with “Chocolate bunny!” When a black family moved near our junior high, someone tried to set fire to their home through a basement window. My own boyfriend’s father used to mutter when I walked in the door, “Ah, the Indian’s here.”
In high school, I got a fast food job at a local fish and fries place. One day I told the manager about a friend who needed a job. She was a single mother and I knew she could use the work. When I explained she lived in Jamaica—the traditionally black neighborhood—he asked, “She’s not black black, is she?”
I remember my heart pitching downward to my feet, like an elevator that had broken its cables. I had liked this guy—he had a Greek immigrant background and a girlfriend with my same name. Now he wasn’t the same. I looked at him, confused.
“You know,” he prodded. “Does she talk black?”
Shame and fear flooded me. I could not put together the delicate-boned, whimsical young woman with this dreaded specter.
“She’s, she’s—“ I stammered out her name.
My manager never interviewed my friend. Only later did I fully understand what was going on: he was conjuring up a tough black girl, who would offend his patrons. That’s how prejudice worked: through muttered remarks, turned down job applications. It was my first painful lesson in what the world was really like.
Sara Shepard, author of The Amateurs
I used to be a liar. I told my mom that my best friend and I walked to Wawa alone instead of hung out with the boy who’d been expelled from school. And that I didn’t shoplift that shirt but bought it with money she didn’t remember giving me. I went to smart-kid camp in Rhode Island and told everyone I lived in inner-city Philadelphia (I didn’t). I went to swim team practice and said I’d done lots of drugs over the summer (totally not true). And then, one night, I lied about having sex. I was at a party. The boy who’d been expelled was throwing it. I sat on the porch with a girl I sort of knew and bragged that I’d had sex with this boy I’ll call G in a parked boat.
I liked the look on her face when I said it, though. Respect. Maybe even envy. I felt good. Finally I wasn’t the sheltered kid who until recently couldn’t watch R-rated movies. But here: I had a story. I was in the club. I was cool, even if I had to invent stuff.
A few days later, I saw G at the pool. He gave me this strange look, and I could just tell he’d heard what I’d said about us. His laugh carried through the air. I heard him say, “I don’t even really know her.” Everyone laughed at me from their towels that day.
The next year, I got a boyfriend. He wasn’t as sheltered as I was, but he wasn’t the type of kid who’d ever be expelled, either. He played guitar. He rode a unicycle. He was good at calculus. I took a leap and didn’t lie; I told him I’d never had sex—not in a boat, not ever. He just shrugged. “Okay.” The world didn’t implode. People didn’t pop out of the woodwork to laugh. I’d told him the truth, and we were fine.
I want to say that’s the last lie I ever told, but of course it wasn’t. However, none were ever quite as monumental; and I tried very, very hard not to lie to make myself feel better anymore. Baby steps, you know. Baby steps.
Ryan Graudin, author of Blood for Blood
When I was 18 years old, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Diagnosed: such a tidy word for seizure foam and ambulance wails. Earlier that evening I’d been stringing lights on the Christmas tree, but as night slid into morning, I found myself sitting in a hospital waiting room. Waiting. My fingers matched the Styrofoam cup I was holding. Coffee lit my nerves.
“There’s a tumor,” a doctor told my father. “We’ll know more soon.”
We did. The cancer in the left frontal lobe of my mother’s brain was a grade three oligo-astrocytoma. It was operable, though the odds of survival were slim. Her first brain surgery took place the week before Christmas. By Christmas Eve, she was back home with a head full of staples. That holiday was a tentative one, everything held the possibility of a last. Was the cancer completely gone? Would it return?
We’d know more soon.
There was a second brain surgery. Rounds of chemotherapy. Bouts of radiation. Countless MRIs. The cancer receded and there was an end in sight. It seemed that my mother was a survivor. Five Christmases came and went.
I know how this story ends—I hear you thinking to yourself—The cancer came back, didn’t it?
No. The healing did.
Radiation treatment not only killed the cancer cells in my mother’s brain, but the healthy ones around it. The effects didn’t emerge until five years later. Speech, balance, coordination, vision—all of these began to decay. At 60 years old, my mother’s body is bound to a walker. In a few months, the walker will become a wheelchair. There’s no end to this story, no more to know soon.
I will always be in that waiting room.
Brie Spangler, author of Beast
When I was growing up I always assumed the same things about myself: I was a bubbly, funny, smart kid. The world was my oyster, right? School wasn’t easy for me, by any stretch, but it was manageable and got me where I wanted to be, the Rhode Island School of Design.
I was so excited to get in. I was going to do all the art, draw all the naked people, paint all the fruit and drapes, and be a super duper illustrator once I was done. The stage was set.
Then sometime halfway through freshman year, something snapped in my brain. Letters would reverse themselves when I wrote them. I couldn’t be around humans, I forgot how. Making eye contact became very difficult and I would flee rooms when some of my favorite people walked in. Actually saying “Hey, what’s up” became a painful experience. I closed my world to only a few and by the time I graduated, I felt like a bad person. A wrong person.
In the years that followed, I eventually found my footing. The letters went back to normal. Making new friends was good but slow. Life progressed, but if I ever looked back on my college years, I felt guilty. Everything I thought I knew about myself collapsed and I missed out on so many amazing friends and experiences because I lost the ability to people. Truth be told, I still don’t know how to people sometimes, but what I’ve learned during those sleepless nights beating myself up for the past is that it’s okay. Sometimes you might lose track of what you believe is true about yourself but inside that lonely well, you might find a brighter light to follow on your way out.
I like to write about flawed, messed-up characters, like Dylan in Beast, who are often wallowing in holes of their own making. It gives them a reason to really study the walls surrounding them. Whatever struggles you might encounter, forgive yourself. You will find the way out that’s right for you.
(For the record, I still love to draw naked people.)
Audrey Coulthurst, author of Of Fire and Stars
The adage about bleeding onto the page never resonated with me until I started working on Starworld, coauthored with Paula Garner. Starworld is the story of a friendship that transcends social boundaries as two very different girls learn to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. To write my half of the narrative, and my main character, Sam, I resurrected excruciating events and emotions from my teenage years. Sam embodies everything I hated about myself in high school, and the hardest part of writing her story was doing it not to mock her, not to make her something she wasn’t, but to show the ways that she was worthy of love exactly how she was.
Like I did as a teen, Sam feels she is only noticed for undesirable qualities—nerdiness, homeliness, awkwardness. Because of the negative ways she believes she’s visible, all Sam wants is to disappear. In Starworld, her new friend Zoe sees Sam in ways she can’t see herself—all her goodness, uniqueness, intelligence, and worth. And through that mirror, Sam learns to see it, too.
The girl I used to be is still with me every day. To write Sam, I had to tell that girl who only knew how to see herself as invisible or ugly that she was seen and loved. My coauthor was my Zoe—the dear friend who saw me and loved me as I was, even in the darkest moments of struggling to put Sam on the page.
These days, I’m proud of my nerdiness and can laugh at my social blunders. Things that caused me suffering as a teen shaped me into the author and person I am now—and I am better than teen me ever believed possible.
In reading Starworld, I hope teens who feel like ugly ducklings might begin to believe that being different from everyone else is not cause to feel unworthy. Sometimes it’s the things that make us different that turn out to be the greatest gifts of all.
Simon Curtis, author of Boy Robot
On April 2, 1996, Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ character, Randy, encountered a cancer scare on Home Improvement. I watched as his entire family huddled around him and waited for the doctor to let them know his test results. It wasn’t cancer. He was fine.
Just then, a doctor entered the hospital room where my family and I were waiting, where I had only seconds ago watched Randy receive his good news, and told me:
“You have cancer.”
It was less than two weeks after my tenth birthday, and even now at 30, I can still smell the sterile, saline scent of the room where he said it. My family sobbed and held me at the very moment Tim Allen and the cast of Home Improvement held Jonathan Taylor Thomas and cried tears of an entirely different nature. I didn’t even cry myself at the time because the twisted irony of it all astounded me so much.
The cruel serendipity of the moment was not spared on my parents either; my father’s first wife died of leukemia, and my mother’s first husband died of leukemia as well. My parents met in the hospital waiting room where both of their spouses were being treated before they passed. They developed a friendship through the course of their trauma, and later, got married and had me.
I believe my mother when she tells me that her hope was truly lost the day she learned her child would face the same disease that took her husband, her love.
Only this time, cancer didn’t take another life from her. I survived.
During my time on chemotherapy, I fell in love with musical theater. I defied the adults around me and signed up to audition for every musical that came to town. Rigorous rehearsal schedules should’ve weakened me, but performing made me come alive. I was filled with so much of some strange energy, something that had been stripped from my parents for so long that it took me years to even realize what it was.
I was filled with hope.
Hope, more than any other force on Earth, gives life in the presence of death, and sheds light where there is dark. It is the purest form of our ability to love, which ultimately lends us our very humanity.
The most beautiful thing about hope, however, is that once it is found, it can be shared, endlessly. It isn’t finite. It can’t be depleted. As long as there is life, there is hope.
If you ever find yourself running low, just think of a little boy, bald from chemo, singing and dancing onstage, living more life than any doctor ever thought he would. He’s still out there, filled to the brim with hope, and he’ll happily share all of it with you.
S.J. Kincaid, author of The Diabolic
When I was younger, I had my first studio apartment. It was tiny, and I loved it, but there wasn’t much room to do anything in there. I was working, and I was taking classes, so I found a nearby bookstore/coffee place. I didn’t go everyday, but I went often enough to be familiar with the barista.
She was this redheaded girl about the same age as me, and she was friendly enough. I tipped when I could. I always got water with no ice on top of whatever else I ordered.
One day, I walked into this place, and the girl smiled at me as I approached to give my order. She said she already had the water-no-ice ready. For some reason, something felt ‘off’ about the way she looked at me. She smiled yet practically radiated animosity.
I shrugged it off, thinking I’d imagined it. I got back to my seat, looked at the water, and saw that there was a giant glob of spit floating in there.
It was the strangest thing. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and in retrospect, I wished I’d actually gone to her and said, “Why the hell did you spit in my drink?”
I didn’t. Instead, I left and never returned.
The thing is, for a while afterward, I really wondered about it. What caused that? I couldn’t pinpoint any aberration of mine that might’ve upset her. I didn’t leave messes, I tipped, I was friendly, yet one day she just spit in my drink. No harm was done, since I spotted the spit and didn’t drink it…but it was just odd.
A friend told me: “She was probably just an asshole.”
Surely there’s more to it than that.
There’s no way I’ll ever know, but I’d like to think there’s more to it than that.
Marni Bates, author of Dial Em for Murder
“All the girls need to pull their hair back because bangs are unprofessional.”
I knew it was bullshit. Calculated bullshit. Targeted bullshit.
And I was in the crosshairs.
You see, I have something called trichotillomania. It’s a cross between an obsessive compulsive disorder and an addiction and to be honest, nobody quite knows how to classify it. Hair pulling was my personal monster and it filled me with self-loathing. But I couldn’t stop. I tore out my eyelashes, eyebrows, and bangs because the pain registered as pleasure. And in high school? There wasn’t a whole lot that felt good.
This particular authority figure knew about my hair pulling. He made a point of asking about it every time he cornered me in the school library. “Why don’t you have eyelashes, Marni? Why don’t you have eyebrows?”
The pit of my stomach would drop and I’d lurch away unsteadily. Wishing for the millionth time that I could just disappear.
So when he ordered all the girls to pull their hair back for the Mock Trial competition, I knew he wanted to expose my deepest source of shame. Anyone who says that teenagers can be cruel must not be paying close enough attention to adults.
I said no.
He pressured me. Then he pressured other students to pressure me.
I said no again and again.
Bobby pinning back my hair, exposing angry skin and stubbly growth, facing unhidden disgust—it would have destroyed me.
It didn’t feel like bravery at the time. It didn’t feel like I was fighting the patriarchy or asserting my rights over my own goddamn body or insisting that no absolutely, unequivocally means no. I felt weak. Scared. Ashamed. Broken.
My hair pulling hasn’t stopped, but writing about it cleared away the shame.
Today I share my story on my terms.
And I’ve got nothing but love for my bangs.
Neal Shusterman, author of Scythe
I go places sometimes. Actually I go places quite a lot. I take one look at my computer, and my fight or flight instinct takes over. Rarely do I fight. Usually I just run. The problem is, I take my computer with me.
This all comes from an inability to get any actual work done at home. I’ve heard other writers insist that the only way to write is to have your “writing place.” Your comfortable little office, with your little window, and your favorite stuffed animal, and your $300 ergonomic chair. I could never write in an environment like that. To me, being in the same room day after day is like spending my life in high school detention. So I go places.
The great thing about being a writer—and the curse—is that your office is your brain, and you take it with you wherever you go. On the one hand it means that you can never really escape it. You’re always working. I can’t tell you how many times my kids would wave their hands in front of my blank stare at the dinner table. “Dad? Are you in Everlost?” They would ask. “Are you being unwound? Have you gotten lost in Tesla’s Attic?” The answer is all of the above.
On the other hand, having your office in your head is incredibly liberating. It means you’re not trapped in that little room if you don’t want to be. I find that I get amazingly creative when I’m hanging out in exciting places. Even if they’re loud places, I seem to draw energy from the crowd, and can hyperfocus on what I’m writing.
I wrote 10 pages of Challenger Deep while sitting in the Sistine Chapel. Any time I needed inspiration, all I had to do was look up. I cracked a stubborn story problem while walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. But, my favorite thing to do to jumpstart the creative process is to go on a cruise. There are many reasons why I do this. A) Cruises are ridiculously cheap in the off-season. B) Food is included. C) Someone cleans up your mess twice a day. D) You get far better views than the one through that little office window, and E) You wake up in a place you didn’t go to sleep—but you actually know how you got there.
Usually I don’t get off the ship, though. I hang out in the coolest, most interesting places onboard with my laptop, or spiral notebook—and as hard as it is to get myself writing at home, when I’m onboard, I get into the zone in minutes! It’s ridiculous how much writing I get done on these trips—and now I travel with other writers who I’ve gotten hooked on the concept of a floating writing retreat.
Last December, I was working on completing my novel Scythe. Tight deadline, a lot left to complete, and I wanted it to be the best book I’d ever written. So I dropped everything and scheduled an emergency cruise at the last minute. Seven days, working 12 hours a day. I got the last 80 pages written, rewritten, and ready to submit!
In fact, I’m writing this on a 14-day transatlantic cruise during which I plan to finish Thunderhead, the second book in the “Arc of a Scythe” Trilogy. I’m looking out at a stunning sunset, I am in the zone, and, unless I hit an iceberg, I know that when I finish that last chapter, I’ll feel like I’m the king of the world!