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, eleven authors discuss everything from hopping cities to dealing with tree snakes. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Justina Ireland, author of Dread Nation
Growing up poor feels like being trapped. I grew up in a trailer, the kind most people take camping. Seriously, I had a Tiny House before it was cool.
I couldn’t have sleepovers or invite friends over, because there wasn’t any room. Not that I would if I’d had any. Because I was deeply ashamed of how we lived.
I knew I was poor, but the worst part was that other people knew it as well. Poverty is a double-edged sword. There’s the pain of not being able to afford the things you want and need, and then there’s the scorn and judgment of those around you, like lack of opportunity is your own damn fault. I burned with the embarrassment of it every time someone made fun of my shoes or my clothes.
In middle school, this shame hardened into a tough outer shell of not giving a fuck. By the time I got to high school I was adept at giving folks a vacant stare whenever they’d try to say something to me. Shitty comment about my hair? Joke comparing me to one of the Neanderthals in a biology book? Comment on my out of fashion pants or shirt? Vacant look, like I didn’t even know they were there. It became a goddamn superpower. One I still cherish to this day.
There will always be someone, somewhere, waiting to tear you down. To make you feel bad for no other reason than because they can. And this shouldn’t be confused with people who are trying to help you become a better human being, but the people who exist for no other reason than to relish the emotional pain of others. The trick to surviving in this world isn’t to just ignore those people, it’s to look through them, to continue to live your life as though they don’t exist or matter.
Because they don’t.
Veronica Roth, author of The Fates Divide
Not to spoil anything, but in The Fates Divide, Cyra Noavek has a moment in which she thinks her chronic pain, brought on by the unique ability her world refers to as a “currentgift,” is gone.
And then it comes back. And it’s devastating.
I’ve had that moment over and over again since I got my chronic pain diagnosis. I had a good day, or I tried a new treatment, and I let myself hope. Maybe I could be normal, now. Maybe I could forget—for just one second—about my body. Because that’s what chronic pain does. It takes up permanent residence in your mind. Takes up space you want to use for other things. God, I want that space back.
But here’s the true, hard thing that I have realized in the time since I finally got a diagnosis: that perception of normal—that base line that I desperately wanted to find, and get to, and stay at—doesn’t actually exist.
In The Fates Divide, Cyra says, after her pain returns, “I’m—dealing with it. As always.” Everyone has to deal with things they hate, in life. Things that don’t feel fair. Things that definitely aren’t fair. And “dealing with it” often means fighting for something better. I fight with my pain, too, every day, doing the things that keep it manageable, that might help it, maybe, someday.
For Cyra, the pain sometimes makes her strong. Sometimes, it makes her weak. But mostly, she just bears it. Like I do.
Farrah Penn, author of Twelve Steps to Normal
I’ve always had a fiery temper when I get angry, and it showed up in full force when I was fifteen in Creative Writing Club.
The teacher in charge allowed us to critique each other’s writing each week, but the rule was you had to say at least one nice thing about the work. “You can find something good in everything,” she’d said. I still believe that’s true.
There were identical twins in the club who were a bit pretentious, but the real problem was they were very condescending and had nothing nice to say about anyone’s work. In fact, it seemed like they verbally pulverized it to death. When it came to critiquing each other’s writing, they only sung the highest of praises. I remember looking around our critique circle one afternoon thinking, “is anyone else hearing this?” as the teacher graded papers in the corner.
By the fifth degrading critique, I could feel the anger pulsing hot through me. I was enraged. I was convinced they were terrible, awful boys who didn’t care about anyone but themselves. And when I realized I didn’t have to sit there and listen to another word that came out of their mouths, I grabbed my backpack and abruptly walked out of the classroom.
I didn’t set out to make a scene, but I knew I had when my friend came after me. We both agreed it was unfair for those twins to sit there and put down people’s writing. When I walked into the next meeting, I could tell my unintentional dramatic stormout had made a difference. The teacher made a very strict point about reenforcing the rules of critiquing, but she was clearly speaking to the twins.
They got the message.
I know now that writers have to have thick skin and learn how to process criticism. But back then, all I knew was that I was fifteen and angry that two boys had nothing nice to say.
Kaityln Sage Patterson, author of The Diminished
The thing I remember about the vigil I sat through in my Iya’s final days is her fluttering hands. Her knob-knuckled, thin-skinned, white hands gathered pleats in the fabric of her sheet. Pleating and unpleating in ceaseless, shaking industry.
Sometimes, that’s how my anxiety feels. Like my brain won’t stop folding and unfolding problems, working through the dark hours of my sleepless nights to find just the right angle of some imagined thing I’ve done wrong that will needle at me until I collapse in a heap of tears and self-loathing.
I wasn’t prepared for the blackness to settle itself around my neck after Iya passed. In retrospect, I should have geared up for it. I should have had a plan. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
My life was GOOD. My incredible boyfriend loved and supported me, and he didn’t mind that I spent most weekends holed up in my office working on my novel. And the novel was good! It was about grief and depression and otherness and I felt in my gut that this was the one.
I kept repeating it like a mantra. Life is good. You are lucky. Like the fact that life was good should have somehow protected me from grief and depression and anxiety.
That ain’t how it works. Every night when I went to bed, I was plagued by an endless list of my faults. You’re mean. You’re petty. You’re self-involved and a terrible writer. You don’t work out enough. You should eat less. You’d be better if you were skinnier. You don’t spend enough time with your friends. You don’t do enough for your family. Over and over and over until the only thing I could do was weep into my boyfriend’s arms while he played Steven Universe for me.
I don’t know why I was so afraid to get help, but making a phone call to a therapist seemed like the most impossible thing in the world—but I did it. I made myself call. I made myself go and talk and get the medication and the tools I needed to battle this tireless, spiraling anxiety. And, slowly but surely, it worked.
And I still have anxiety. And that’s okay. Because now when I start beating myself up, I think of Iya, teaching me to pleat tulle to make a tutu when I was a little girl, and of the way that our bodies remember those gestures. And I remind myself to practice the gestures I want to remember. I remind myself to be kind to myself. And sometimes it helps. And when it doesn’t, there’s always Steven Universe.
Paula Garner, author of Relative Strangers
I will never forget the first time I went to Taco Bell. I was maybe seven or eight, and when my neighbors invited me along, I didn’t even know what a taco was. But when I bit into one, everything changed. I ate another, and then another, and I think even another, despite my awareness of my neighbors watching me with concern (or maybe it was just awe). I remember feeling a little embarrassed, even apologetic, about my appetite, but I was so captivated by the flavors and their newness I couldn’t stop.
My mother was from a generation that seemed to regard canned and frozen food as glamorous, a miraculous relief from the chore of cookery. Our dinners rarely strayed from a weekly rotation of boring standards: frozen Salisbury steaks, pork chops with applesauce, Campbell’s soup. Breakfast was doughnuts, sugary cereals, and orange juice from concentrate. Lunch was cold cuts (usually bologna) on Wonder or Butternut bread. We did not eat out, so the only variations from the usual were found in the homes of other people.
In the homes of other people, I discovered things like blue cheese and liverwurst and pickled herring—things kids were not supposed to like. In the homes of other people, I quickly learned to wonder what they might be having for dinner, and what they had in their refrigerator, and if we might have a morsel of it. I was a willing babysitter in the neighborhood, partly for the money and partly for those golden words: “Help yourself to anything in the fridge.” Who knew what treasures might be waiting there! When I was fifteen, I got a job at a Chinese takeout and discovered vegetables that were not canned or frozen. Friends with cars opened even more doors. I could scarcely believe the seemingly limitless range of things to eat in the world. I wanted to taste them all.
In Relative Strangers, Jules shares this passion for tastes, for eating, for expanding her world. Otis and Meg in Phantom Limbs also are food lovers, and Zoe, my character in Starworld (coauthored with Audrey Coulthurst and out in Spring 2019) is obsessed with spicy things (including, hilariously, Taco Bell). I am not sure I could write a character who was not excited about food, but fortunately I don’t have to. My books will always be rich in food. Unapologetically.
Makiia Lucier, author of Isle of Blood and Stone
Back home on Guam, we had a snake problem. Not a python problem, or a king cobra problem. Ours was the brown tree snake, a spindly, homely thing, its venom dangerous only to the smallest of creatures. Still made you scream, though.
I didn’t have any pets growing up, but the snakes were almost like pets. They kept me company. Slithering along in the grass during the walks to school. Hanging from the tree branches while I played hide and seek with the neighbor kids below.
Windows and doors couldn’t keep them from the house. Once, I found a snake in the sink when I went to wash the dinner dishes. I was nine when that happened, and my shrieks brought my mother running, faster than I’d ever seen her run before.
Sometimes I would be sitting in a movie theater when the power would go out. The entire audience would groan; everyone knew what that meant. A snake had coiled itself around a power line and fried itself to a crisp. No electricity for us. And no movie. We had to return another day to find out how the story ended.
The brown tree snake ate most of our birds. It wasn’t until I left for college in Oregon and woke up in my dorm room to some godawful chirping that I realized what a bird-free childhood I had had.
Why am I writing about the brown tree snake? No particular reason. Only I live in North Carolina now and our backyard sounds like a bird rock band: robins and blue jays and cardinals and woodpeckers. It’s hard to concentrate on writing some days, and I find myself thinking, with some nostalgia, of my old snake problem back home.
Sandy Hall, author of A Prom to Remember
My first semester of college, I took expository writing. It was a requirement for all incoming freshmen at Rutgers and it was hard. So much harder than any class I’d taken in high school. I didn’t understand what was required of me and I didn’t try to understand.
My teacher was intimidating, the reading was painful, and the work felt nearly impossible. I ignored the class the best I could and figured no matter what, I would get a C. I was a decent writer. I could wing it. As the semester wore on, it became apparent that “winging it” was not an option for this class.
I did not expect to fail. But fail I did.
My parents were horrified when I had to confess this to them. Was I partying too much? Doing drugs? Did I need help? The truth was that I was mostly staying up late to hang out with my dorm-mates and playing way too many rounds of Snood. (Side note: Turns out Snood still exists. When I looked it up, the tagline on the website is “Forget life…play Snood!” Truer words have never been spoken.)
Before I failed expos, I really liked to write. I didn’t do much creative writing, but I was a diligent journal keeper and I always took the essay option for class assignments. But not after I failed writing. My whole style changed. I wrote only when I absolutely had to and I was shocked anytime I didn’t fail.
It took me a solid decade to get over that failure. It wasn’t until I found fanfiction as an adult that my confidence in my writing ability was restored. And thank goodness for fanfiction, because without it, I wouldn’t have three published novels and one more on the way. But that’s a story for some other time.
Amy Spalding, author of The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles)
For my entire adulthood, one of my biggest sources of shame has been that I feel like I’m the Kool-Aid Man. I burst into rooms, too loud, too big, spilling liquid all over the place. Why can’t I be different? Why can’t I be one of The Cool Girls? You know those girls! They’re effortlessly quiet, they never laugh too loudly, and they never look like they’re trying too hard.
This shame has kept me from attending events, continuing friendships, and, on bad days, leaving my home. Not too long ago, I had a really tough week that involved a lot of crying over how badly I wish I could change myself. But I’m forty years old, you know? I am who I am. When I work hard to keep my mouth closed and my laugh internal, I’m miserable. But so is the alternative, right? What woman wants to be the Kool-Aid Man?
At the end of this hard week, I lamented to my friend Nadia about this. She said, “Amy…your takeaway of the Kool-Aid Man is that he’s loud and spills liquid? EVERYONE IS ALWAYS SO HAPPY TO SEE THE KOOL-AID MAN! They all want what he’s bringing to the party!”
And, I have to tell you, this was a major revelation for me. Because she’s right! The kids in those ads are never like “HOW DARE YOU DAMAGE MY WALLS!” They’re just like, “heck YEAH, Kool-Aid!”
Lifelong anxieties don’t go away overnight. And, yeah. Some people WILL care about property damage, figurative or otherwise, and whatever else comes with the territory. But up until that point I hadn’t seen anything positive about my Kool-Aid identity, and now—spilled liquid and all—it doesn’t seem so bad.
Caleb Roehrig, author of White Rabbit
The year I graduated from college was a defining period in my life. I dated a guy for the first time; I went to Europe on an overseas study; a newish friend was moving to Chicago (the Big City!) and asked if I’d be her roommate. After years of structuring my life around school, I was suddenly a full-fledged adult, full of new experiences, preparing to dive into my future.
The friends I’d made at college, a group I’d felt knitted into after months and years of shared experiences…stopped calling. They weren’t angry with me, though. I wasn’t being “snubbed.” Simply put, it was that they had never been that into me in the first place. Our connection, it turned out, had only ever been one-sided, and what they had meant to me I had never meant to them. I was gone, and they didn’t miss me—and the blunt truth of it took me completely by surprise. I was confused, crushed, and utterly demoralized.
And then the boy I was dating ended things, and the girl I was moving to Chicago with changed her mind, and my life stalled completely. It took several lonely and embarrassing months before I accepted that my old friends were truly out of reach, and that my wounds would never heal if I kept holding them open. Surrendering to that pain was ugly, but in unplugging a phone that was never going to ring anyway, I finally gave myself permission to move on.
I got a job; I made new friends; and some bonds I’d forged on my overseas study proved deep and durable. A year after we returned home from Europe, a girl I’d met on the program—Kasey—told me she was moving to LA and needed company for the road. Joining her was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Our adventure was the stuff of legends, a story in its own right, and it gave me the courage to trust myself again. When I got back home, I packed my things and moved to Chicago, a city where I knew no one, by myself. It was a little scary, but I wasn’t afraid of being alone anymore.
“Alone,” it turned out, was something I could survive.
Stephanie Tromly, author of Trouble Never Sleeps
I’m a woman who immigrated to the United States in the bad old days before Anita Hill and long before the racial discursive grey area was mapped and named microaggressions. Visible minorities like me walked around taking gut-punches all day long. I have stories…oh, boy, do I have stories.
But when I was asked to share a formative past experience, I decided to write about something that seems relatively trivial but haunts me in a way the racism I’ve encountered has not: namely, I want to talk about my frenemies.
Because even though racial harassment hurt each and every time, I’d immigrated prepared for attacks from outside. With my two frenemies, it was an inside job. I invited them in and, worse, collaborated with them as they wrecked me from the inside out.
They mocked me for being a nerd and trying hard at school, and when I acted hurt, they’d claim they were just kidding and gaslight me. So I decided to hide my grades and play dumb(er) and, predictably, they accused me of being fake. And whenever I detached and did my own thing, they accused me of being a bad friend. I spent six years of middle and high school marinating in this toxic soup.
And today, I don’t trust people. I sat on this three-hundred-word assignment for weeks because of how closely I relate the products of my intellect with rejection. It makes me sad that I’m unable to enjoy my achievements. It has been decades since high school, but still, when I say I’m happy to see my book in stores, the truth is, I feel afraid people (who?!) might think I’m showing off.
And what makes me think about this is a question I frequently get about whether the unconventional friendships of the characters in my high school novels are something I re-created from my own past. The answer is no. I never had the moral courage to stop trying to fit in. I let the wrong people in because I gave in to the need to appear socially successful.
And, by the way, my main two frenemies? They’re both working in education. One of them even partnered with Malala Yousafzai to advocate for girls’ education. The gaslighting continues…
Anne Greenwood Brown, author of Cold Hard Truth
I am obsessed with family history and the lessons of the past. In fact, I come from a long line of genealogists and people whose mission was to preserve family stories. The sadder, the weirder, the better.
For example, there’s an old coin in my jewelry box. It was the only thing found in the pocket of a long-buried uncle who blew up in a California mine when he was eighteen. It was sent back to his mother in Massachusetts, and she continued to carry that coin in her pocket every day for the rest of her life.
My favorite story, however, is a nineteenth-century morality play performed by my great-great-grandfather and costarring an ominous pair of wool socks.
The old man lived in a house with three generations of family, and he was exceedingly devout. Never missed a day of church, not once in his whole life. Until he did.
After eighty years of devotion, he decided to stay home while the family attended services. Reveling in the unusual quiet, he embarked on what we’d now call a “spa day.” He bathed and shaved and even gave himself a pedicure. When he was done, he put on a pair of brand-new socks made from wool that had only recently been dyed.
This is where the story turns dark.
Apparently he trimmed those toe nails a bit too short. The unset dye leaked into a cut, and the poor man developed an infection that later turned to gangrene. His decomposing foot stunk up the whole house, and for weeks the family had to burn scented oil to keep the the stench of rot from settling into the upholstery.
The gangrene quickly spread, wicking up his leg. And then the poor soul died.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” my grandmother would say.
I took that to heart. I think she might have been talking about the importance of going to church, but instead, to this day, I’m terrified of new socks.