13 Authors Discuss Mental Health, Blink-182, and More in March’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, twelve authors discuss everything from Blink-182 to mental health. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.

Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone

In the first story I ever wrote, I was the star. Well, I was the star(s). You see, when you’re writing The Parent Trap fan fiction set on a horse farm with outfits from your favorite Bollywood movie (shout out to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham), you let yourself go crazy.

My twins started out being named “Marilynn” and “Carolynn,” but by the end of this thirty-page masterpiece, the text reads along the lines of “Tomi galloped the black stallion into the storm to save him from himself! And she called out to her twin, also named Tomi, ‘Tomi, help me!’”

As a kid, I had no problem imagining myself as the star. I loved myself so much, I put two of me into my first story.

But when I look back at every single story I wrote from the age of six to eighteen, I wasn’t the star. I wasn’t even the sidekick. In the stories I was writing—stories no one would ever see—I couldn’t picture myself as the protagonist because the world told me I couldn’t be one. 

So for twelve long and formative years, my stories only had white and biracial protagonists. Protagonist who got to fall in love and have adventures because even in my wildest imagination, I didn’t think black people got to have that.

I’ve come a long way from the girl that wrote The Parent Trap. I’ve come an even longer way from the girl who couldn’t picture herself within the pages of her own book, let alone on the cover of it.

I am so proud of Children of Blood and Bone, and I hope it saves girls twelve years of wondering whether they’re fierce, beautiful, and magical to be the stars that they are.

Ashley Woodfolk, author of The Beauty That Remains

I fell in love with music alone.

I was 13 when I heard a Blink-182 song on the radio for the very first time. This may not sound remarkable. But for me it was.

As a black girl (from a black family, enrolled in a predominantly black school), I’d never heard the riff of an electric guitar until that day, and it moved me in a way I couldn’t really put into words. And because I didn’t have cable, and my parents were pretty strict about what I was allowed to watch on TV anyway (and Youtube didn’t yet exist), I’d never seen a music video.

My black family and (almost exclusively) black friends didn’t listen to pop-punk music. My parents listened mostly to classical, jazz, and gospel, and my older cousins and neighbors were fans of R&B and hip-hop. I was never that into either. And I’d assumed that since I didn’t like those kinds of music (the only kinds I’d ever heard), I just wasn’t that into music at all. Until that afternoon.

It was the first time I’d owned my very own radio, in my very own room. On my thirteenth birthday I was gifted with both, and suddenly having a door I could close against my parents and my little brother was a blessing I couldn’t wait to test out. So I shut my door and sat on my floor in front of my new boombox. That afternoon was the first time I could tune into any station I wanted.

Turned out, I freaking LOVED music. I blasted Blink and Death Cab. N.E.R.D. and *NSYNC posters soon plastered my walls. I knew entire Weezer and Yellowcard and All-American Rejects albums by heart. I went to concerts on my own and nearly cried in ecstasy when the bands came onstage, surrounded by strangers who were just as enraptured as I was.

I fell in love with music alone. But I had no problem loving it all by myself.

Elsie Chapman, author of Along the Indigo 

When I was 13, I switched from drinking full fat to skim milk. I can’t remember why the change. It hadn’t felt momentous at the time. And my immigrant Chinese parents had us drink milk every day, because that was how Canadian kids did it, and didn’t we want to grow up strong?

A few weeks later, while we were standing outside my locker after school, my friend said: “Wow, you’ve lost some weight, Elsie. You were so chunky before, too.”

Had I been chunky? I’d had no clue. Up until that point, I’d pretty much eaten whatever I wanted, whenever. I loved food. I loved eating. I already had other worries—I hated school (the best days were the days I went unnoticed), the town felt too small and too racist, I was already longing to get older, to get away, to simply be elsewhere—and the last thing I’d ever worried about was my weight.

I have worried about it ever since.

I gained an awareness of my body that day I haven’t ever been able to completely shake, a new voice in my head I could no longer un-hear. It told me if I got skinny I’d have more friends. Boys in school would like me, the way they liked the white girls. I’d be funnier, prettier, better, my skin somehow less yellow, my eyes wider, my last name no longer a joke. It told me if I got chunky again, I’d be noticed, but not in the ways I wanted.

I began a food diary, and it went on from there.

I’m mostly okay with food now, and with my body—marriage, two kids, the machine that is writing have mostly quieted that voice, keeping me too busy to think about what I’m eating. But I’m never going to regain the freedom I once had with food. I talk with my teenage daughter a lot about it, so it’s my voice she hears and not that other. I hope she has kinder friends in school, ones with kinder words.

Sarah Nicole Smetana, author of The Midnights

Friday, sixth period, and the winners of the Associated Student Body elections were finally being announced over the loudspeaker. I thought I might throw up, my heart was pounding so hard, but I forced myself still, repeated the facts like a prayer. I clearly wanted the position more than my opponent. I had worked harder, too. I’d put up posters, and campaigned around campus, and written a simple but passionate speech. The other guy just ran as a joke. I was destined to win.

Except, when the principal revealed the new ASB Secretary, the name that echoed across campus was not mine.

The worst part? The guy who beat me was sitting in the exact same classroom.

His friends began cheering while I slid down in my chair and let my long hair curtain my face, hoping to hide my rising tears. I hated the thought of my classmates seeing me cry, but I couldn’t stop it, either. Losing that election felt like the end of the world; my pride was battered, my spirit stomped. I was humiliated. A failure. I wanted to disappear.

But, it turns out, my hard work made an impression. A few weeks later, when it came time for the new ASB to appoint a few final positions, I was one of the first to be chosen. And my new role ended up being pretty awesome, too. (Case in point: It involved getting two medieval knights to joust, on horseback, on our school’s football field.)

This is the truth: Not everything you do will work out. You might lose an election, be overlooked for a job, get rejected from the college of your dreams. But these things are not failures. The only failure is to not even try in the first place.

So don’t be afraid of taking chances, or embracing a path different from the one you always imagined. You never know what wonderful new opportunities might arise.

Jay Coles, author of Tyler Johnson Was Here

I’m not at all sure how vulnerable and awkward this entire thing will be for me, but here we go. One thing that I discuss in my book Tyler Johnson Was Here is my main character feeling like he doesn’t fit in with certain groups of people. This is indeed a feeling I’ve felt at several points in my own life.

Some of my earliest memories are of me feeling like an outsider in my own home, making it appear that I was the “other” in my family. My father was/is an alcoholic who was very abusive at times—verbally, physically, and emotionally. He’d call me homosexual slurs and make comments about the way I spoke that stung, like how I sounded “white,” which to me communicated, “you don’t really belong here.”

In high school, where I learned tools to fight against my past wounds in regards to what happened in my home growing up, I wrestled with questions about my own identity, faith, sexuality, and future career, among other things, I always felt “odd,” like I’d never quite understand myself, like the world would never quite understand me, like I was destined to be this person with no real sense of direction or understanding or sense of belonging. Then, I found myself forcing myself to fit in. I lived in a gang-infested neighborhood and I ended up joining one for a brief period. In it, I got affirmation. In it, I felt brotherhood. In it, I felt the illusion of love. In it, I felt…safe. An illusion of safety. Years later, after a bad shootout and my front door getting knocked in by this gang, I left it behind and moved far away from that neighborhood, taking many lessons with me.

I’m still wrestling with a lot of these things and am still watching some of these things slowly make sense as I get older. But it’s hard. And that’s why I write these feelings into everything I write. Because it’s cathartic for me. It’s healing for me. It’s a place I can bury myself in and can encourage others from, especially young people, who feel like I did, helping them feel less alone and noticed.

Elizabeth Acevedo, author of The Poet X

As the only girl and youngest child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, I was raised to be a good cook, a fine house-cleaner, a churchgoing girl: all wonderful attributes if those are roles you want to take on, but I struggled growing up in what I felt was a cage of ill-fitting expectations.

There’s a phrase in Dominican culture that was placed on my head like a coronet made of barbed wire. It crowned me with prospects I did not want to live up to: “Tú eres la niña de la casa. You are the girl of the house.” This was the excuse I was given when I asked why I couldn’t go outside like my brothers, why I couldn’t take boxing classes, why I couldn’t have a boyfriend as a teen or go away for college.

My mother was the one who used the stricture most often, and she unintentionally taught me a very important lesson with her famous phrase: my mother carried and often voiced traditions that she did not herself embody. I think when someone is an immigrant in a new country they hold their cultural heritage like a bouquet of wilting flowers in a too tight fist; they try to gift these blooms to their children, not knowing that not every tradition was meant to survive here.

And so, bumping against my mother’s mandates, I instead followed her actions, because she may have been pushing me to be “the girl of the house,” but all the while, my mother was a woman of the world.

She was the first one in her large family to emigrate, the one who always took my brothers and me on adventures in the new city she moved to, who enrolled us in free art workshops and book club groups, even when those classes encouraged us to dream beyond her walls.

My mother inadvertently taught me that it’s not only acceptable, it’s necessary for there to be new definitions of La Niña de la Casa, definitions that teach a girl she can turn her skin into a thick shell and carry home on her back.

Emily X.R. Pan, author of The Astonishing Color of After

When I was eight years old, I was a compulsive liar.

For example: I said that during a trip to Florida I met and went on a date with Jonathan Taylor Thomas. It buzzed around school so fast, I knew immediately that I’d made a mistake.

At home I said worse things. I told my parents someone had brought a gun to school, and a student had gotten shot and died. I served up the real name of a kid I’d never actually spoken to but often saw on the sidewalk. My mother kept asking for updates: I made up details about a memorial, an assembly, students in all black. The lies built up layer by layer.

I struggled to keep track of all that I’d said, and had a meltdown when I started losing friends (who were demanding proof that I’d met JTT). I burst into the bathroom while my mom was sitting on the toilet, and I tearfully confessed all my lies. She was more bewildered than angry.

I’m not sure why I said these things. I’d had trouble making friends as an Asian American girl moving to a very white Wisconsin town—since I finally did have friends at that point, did I worry that I needed to keep people interested? And I must have heard about a school shooting on the news. Were those lies the symptom of some fear and anxiety that had wormed their way deep inside my head?

Luckily, we moved again that year. I turned over a new leaf, learned to catch myself when something untrue itched to come out. My parents like to say that was when they knew I’d become a novelist. I’ve definitely found writing fiction to be a much healthier way to explore my questions and fears.

Kiley Roache, author of Frat Girl

When I was in the seventh grade, I was “dropped” by my friends. One day at recess, I was informed I’d been cut from the group. After that, my IM’s went unanswered and my cherry red Pantech Matrix stopped ringing. I sat alone at lunch and cried in the school bathroom.

It was not until my junior year of high school that I was really able to make friends again, and the memories stayed with me. After all, four years is a long time to be lonely. It also happens to be the length of college.

Which made me that much more nervous to set off across the country, headed to a university where I didn’t know a single soul. What if I was bound to be alone again?

Two weeks into school, I found myself dancing to Tiesto with a girl from my dorm. Over the music I yelled, “Maddie, you are my best friend.”

I almost panicked right after the words left my lips. After all, we had known each other for two weeks. But something made me confident, despite my past experiences, that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And it was.

Over the last four years, Maddie and I have danced on tables, downed entire packages of cookie dough, and sent each other countless memes. We have switched majors, gone through breakups, and cried over Skype at 2 a.m. To quote the great Shonda Rhimes, she is “my person.”

When I was growing up, so many of the TV shows I watched were about best friends: Miley and Lily, Alex and Harper, Raven and Chelsea. But I was alone. It made watching these shows bittersweet, it made me wonder what was wrong with me, why I was not part of a dynamic duo.

I like to tell these two stories, of being dropped and meeting Maddie, back to back. Because if I could, I would go back and tell the girl sitting alone at lunch that she did have a BFF out there waiting, she just hadn’t met her yet.

Adam and Ryan tie the knot

Adam Garnet Jones, author of Fire Song

People tell me I don’t look like an Indian, which isn’t true. They just don’t know how lots of Indians look. I passed without even trying, until I came out in high school. Not “came out” as in queer—that would come later—but in my last year of high school something happened that made it impossible to “pass” as white anymore.

In 1999, my high school biology teacher was on a boat filled with environmentalists protesting the Makah people going on their first traditional whale hunt in 75 years. Emotions were high, and my teacher encouraged my fellow students’ outrage over what they saw as the unnecessary death of a beautiful animal. Students started saying that if Indians need to live their “traditional” ways so badly, why don’t they stop driving cars and motorboats and move back into tipis? Oh yeah, and why are they all unemployed homeless, lazy drunks? They should all get jobs and leave the whales alone…

I couldn’t breathe. I quietly left the room. At this point I was still hiding my queerness, mostly out of fear that my classmates would hate me if they knew.  I expected homophobia, but their racism blindsided me. It never occurred to me that my classmates hated Indians. And make no mistake—they really did hate us. The smiles on their faces as they joked about drunk welfare Indians made that clear. They felt free to show their ugliness because they thought everyone in the room was white.

The following day, I returned to class and commanded the attention of the room. I stood up and made it clear just how much their words hurt. I wish I could say that I was able to change their hearts that day, but in reality, that moment changed me more than it changed them. It showed me that I am a person who can stand up for something and stay strong while under attack. It showed me that a moment of fear can also be a moment of bravery.

Joelle Charbonneau, author of Time Bomb

Love what you look like. Embrace who you are.

God I love those words, but I struggle with them.

Self-image has always been a challenge. When I look in the mirror, I don’t always see the things people compliment. For whatever reason, it’s so much easier to see the flaws. Lots and lots of flaws.

In high school, I looked in the mirror and wanted to see the Hollywood version of the slim cheerleader with perfect blond hair and the careless, comfortable-in-her-own-skin smile. Instead, I was tall and awkward and not so slim. I worried about everything I said and tallied up every stumble or graceless moment in the halls all the while pretending I didn’t notice any of it.

I was a theater girl. I’m good at pretending. Until the day the cast list to Into the Woods was posted and I saw my name next to the character of Cinderella.

Cinderella?

Me?

Disney painted Cinderella with a beautiful, blonde, petite brush and me…well, that wasn’t me.

It sounds stupid, but I thought about quitting the show. The idea of showing everyone how much I wasn’t like the Disney princess ideal was, to my high school self, humiliating.   I panicked when I saw the cast list. And I hate to admit it, but I cried. A lot.

I figured everyone would snicker at the mere concept of me as Cinderella. Some did. But most seemed to think it made sense. That’s when I realized that I was not supposed to try to be what I wasn’t. I was supposed to be the best version of me I could be. So, I decided to try do that then and it’s what I’m still trying to do now.

Too bad embracing me is easier said than done.

An Na, author of The Place Between Breaths

My brother passed away almost thirteen years ago, but his death still haunts me. He was my younger brother, an amazing, artistic, kind, gentle and troubled soul. My brother had struggled with depression and drug addiction for most of his adolescent years, but he overcame those demons and went on to study archeology and found a real passion for this field. So when he started to slip back into those difficult patterns again, we couldn’t understand what was going wrong. The ideals of career and family that speak of achievement, these are superficial markings telling us what we cannot know or understand of an internal life. My brother suffered from depression, psychosis and most likely schizophrenia.

What choices do we really have when we suffer from a genetic illness that might skip generations only to reveal itself in the most destructive ways? What do we hold onto when there is so much medical and genetic knowledge, but no cure or even consistently useful medication? We have uncovered so much about how our bodies and minds work, but we are still lost in the night with such distant stars as guides. When I gaze at my daughters, I know we must find ways to talk about mental illness, to support and aid sufferers and their loved ones. For without compassion and understanding, what kind of life are we living in the end? I believe we can make a better world, make better choices, make life as full and free from the hauntings, for the future, present, and past of who we are in this moment, in this unpredictable life. I believe in us as humans who love, grieve, battle, strive, win, lose, hurt, understand, empathize, and persevere for something better than ourselves. This is my faith.

Leslye Walton, author of The Price Guide to the Occult

The first time I attempted to read The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, I got to the part where Lucy discovers Narnia, and then I put the book down. As a child who struggled with anxiety, grabbing one of the fur jackets hanging in that wardrobe and marching off into the snow was such a foreign concept to me that it pulled me out the story. Even at a young age, I knew that faun wouldn’t have cared if I suddenly had an anxiety attack. And the White Witch would surely have used it against me—my anxiety was a weakness. It was the reason I couldn’t be the hero in the story.

They say one in five teens struggle with mental health issues. When I set about writing The Price Guide to the Occult, I knew I wanted to write a YA fantasy with a protagonist who struggles to fight her very realistic inner demons while fighting the external ones, too. I wanted to bring a voice to those one in five teens who see themselves as weak when they should see themselves as strong.

Because we should all get to be the hero in the story, we should all get to explore strange worlds, fight dragons, and save the princess—even those of us who might need a little more support in order to do so.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The #iamstigmafree campaign was started by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as an effort to change the way we talk about mental illness. For more information, visit www.nami.org/stigmafree. While you’re at it, check out www.depressedcakeshop.com, a platform that raises awareness about mental health issues through highly customize baked goods. Their philosophy? Where there is cake, there is hope, and there is always cake. And the cake is always delicious.

Randy Ribay, author of After the Shot Drops

I christened my first car “The Hulkamania-Mobile.”

But before that it was an old black Mazda. It had been passed down through every member of my family until it reached me, the youngest child, and nobody cared what I did with it.

So one fateful night, teenage me painted the bottom half red and the top half yellow (in honor of Hulk Hogan). I then covered the interior in champagne colored faux fur, lined the ceiling with dingle balls, and replaced the stick shift knob with a skull that had red crystals for eyes. To top it all off, I affixed four Britney Spears stickers evenly across the dashboard.

The inspiration for all of this was a friend’s old van that featured similar “upgrades.”

The friend was two years older than me and had been my brother’s friend before mine. He was in the second highest weight class on our wrestling team, while I was in the lowest. He laughed loudly and fought easily. He had Stories.

For whatever reason, we spent a lot of time together that summer. We watched and rewatched Cool as Ice, a terrible movie starring Vanilla Ice. We frequented a Jamba Juice knockoff that would eventually close down after the owner got busted for selling helium. And when my friend worked his shifts as evening security, we’d spend late nights walking across rooftops or wandering through deserted structures while the city slept.

But then summer ended, and my family was moving across the country. I sold the car, we said goodbye, and we fell out of touch.

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