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, 16 authors discuss everything from being autistic to dealing with guilt. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Carrie Mesrobian, author of Just A Girl
I didn’t know my dad was different until a lady at church told me. She wasn’t being mean, but instead smiled when she said, “Your dad has such a cute accent.” I was about 11 and I had no idea. That was just how my father sounded. From that point, my aperture to how the world viewed my dad widened. I knew he was Armenian; I knew he had told my mother when they started dating that he was a Christian, though he was born in Aleppo, Syria. I knew our name was trouble for others to spell and say.
As I got older, I saw how strange it was, growing up in Southern Minnesota, having a blond Norwegian mother and my black-haired father, in a place where everyone’s dad hunted deer or joined a beer softball league or hit various watering holes every weekend, where they fell off barstools beside the people they went to high school with. My father didn’t hunt, or go to bars, or play sports. He worked a lot, swam at the YMCA on his lunch hours, watched boxing on Saturday nights on the black & white in the kitchen and made foods that scared my friends but which I coerced them to eat: hommos, lamacun, sarma yalinche, falafel. We teased him when he mixed up idioms—“That’s the way the cookie bounces, Carrie”—or used weird phrases: “Open the light” and “Make your room.” Despite being born from people fleeing violence of the Turkish genocide, despite living in an enclave of German and Scandinavian people, my dad managed to do this most American thing: to belong to one place and come to love and live in another, and to teach his children how this was perfectly unique and perfectly ordinary all at once.
Rin Chupeco, author of The Bone Witch
“What if” is the most important question authors ask. It’s a gateway trigger into fictional dimensions to stimulate ideas. “What if elves exist?” “What if black holes lead into an alternate bizarro world?”
In my case, it’s also remorse.
As a teenager in Manila, a boy I knew died for exposing corruption in government. I had a lot of what-ifs regarding that.
What if he had never joined the military?
What if he had never been investigating the military for fraud in the first place?
What if he had chosen not to investigate? This is the question I often feel the guiltiest over—that sometimes I wish he could have sacrificed his values and ethics just so he would still be alive today.
He was the first guy to tell me I was pretty. But I was shy, nerdy with low self-esteem, extremely sheltered, and convinced he was only being nice, only realizing too late that he had meant it. What if I’d been more courageous about my own feelings?
His death affected me more than just as a relationship. Before that I had been a conformist, obediently choosing a safer degree in computer science over investigative journalism (ironically, we held the third highest mortality rate for journalists then, and my mother was terrified.) I don’t think I would have chosen writing as a career, no matter how much I enjoyed it, if this wasn’t the push that made me question everything about being obedient and sheltered, to completely go against everything I was expected to be.
And just as dark is this: what if the general who had killed him, who came away scot-free, was standing before me today? What would I do?
I don’t think I ever want to answer that question.
Jen Wilde, author of Queens of Geek
I was 26 when I first realized I might be Autistic. I was on a stopover in Singapore, and so overwhelmed by being in a new place that I was hiding in my hotel room instead of exploring the city with my partner.
Flicking channels, I landed on the only thing that wasn’t about stock markets or shopping shows: the Glee concert movie.
In between performances by the cast of Glee were interviews with hardcore fans of the show. One of these fans had bright red hair, glasses, and a passion for Glee. I related to her instantly. She even twirled her hair like I do! And then she said she had Aspergers, and it was like a lightbulb went off. I actually gasped.
You see, I always felt different. I spent my whole life up until that point trying to figure out why. I’d heard of Aspergers before, but I had a limited, stereotyped idea of what it meant to be Autistic. I had no idea females could even be Autistic—all I’d ever seen or heard in the media was about males on the spectrum.
By the time the credits rolled on the Glee concert, I’d started reading anything I could find online about Aspergers and Autism…which, unfortunately, wasn’t much. But after finding blog posts by other Autistic girls and a few lists of Autistic traits in women, I was convinced.
Finally, I saw myself. Finally, I knew who I was.
Alwyn Hamilton, author of Traitor to the Throne
When I was 3 ½ I was dropped into French Kindergarten with a very limited understanding of the language. The assumption was that I would pick up French as I went. Which I did eventually, though there was a bit of trial and error on the way.
The memory that stands out most clearly from that in between period, where I sort of understood French but sort of didn’t, was kindergarten “gym class,” where we had to move around a gymnasium following instructions like “knees to your chest” or “do a silly dance.” If I didn’t entirely understand the instruction, I could just copy the other kids. But inevitably, after every exertion came the instruction to “marche.” I knew the English word “march” and so, dutifully I would snap into a military kind of walk like I’d seen in cartoons of men in uniform. And as I looked around I found myself getting frustrated that all the other children were so visibly lackadaisical, just walking normally instead of marching.
It was only later, that I understood that the English “march” comes from the French word, which just means to walk. Essentially we were being given the kindergarten equivalent of the yoga teacher telling you can relax into child’s pose. And through a quirk of linguistic crossed wires I was the only one doing chair pose and wondering why no one else in the class seemed to be doing it with me.
That memory defines what growing up as an expat was like for me, full of linguistic faux pas as I learned my second culture. And it’s probably also the reason why I am totally inoculated to feeling any kind of embarrassment when I do something vaguely ridiculous.
AdriAnne Strickland, co-author of Shadow Run
When my friends all started talking about boys and sex, I had to pretend I was interested too. I heard terms like “late bloomer,” “abuse victim,” or even “lesbian,” that could maybe explain why I wasn’t into those things. I didn’t yet know the term that would have been most useful, that I wouldn’t discover until my late twenties, that would light me up from the inside like the brightest light bulb.
I just thought I was broken. Other people didn’t fantasize about the hot guy or girl walking up to them and wanting…to go for a walk! To snuggle on the couch! To hold hands and maybe, just maybe kiss! Everyone—or so it seemed—always wanted to go to the next level, or base, or whatever. But not me.
I just needed to be fixed, apparently. I heard it all: I just needed to get over what my stepbrother had done to me; I just needed to mature; I just needed to meet the right person; I needed to come out of the closet; I needed therapy.
But I grew up and matured, met wonderful people, dated girls, and even tried therapy. Nothing changed. My attraction to others—boys and girls and in between—never related to their sex appeal. Relationships failed when my partners couldn’t understand me. I hurt the people I was with, which only reinforced the thought that I was broken.
And then…I met the One. The person I wanted to spend my life with. I still desired sex less than a bowl of ice cream—if I was in a sex-positive mood—or—if I wasn’t—less than doing the dishes. I could go without it forever. But the One definitely couldn’t, and liked it a helluvalot more than ice cream (though I don’t know how that’s possible).
Searching the internet, desperate to find something that could fix me and save my relationship, I came across the word:
I learned that it wasn’t a problem at all. That I didn’t need to be fixed. That I was whole. That there were many others out there like me. That I deserved love and happiness like anyone else. That I could even be in a relationship with someone who wasn’t like me, if we were both understanding and compromising.
We’ve been married for almost eight years now.
Eva Darrows, author of Dead Little Mean Girl
My dad and his husband hosted the world’s most amazing Halloween parties. I remember the first time I took my now-husband to one (the nun pictured) and he was definitely not prepared for the fabulousness. The attendees took their costumes seriously; we’re talking investing hundreds of dollars to out-awesome one another. My dad was part of that, one year going as the Wicked Witch of the West in a costume that could have come straight from Margaret Hamilton’s closet. His hubs went as a wicked tree, with apples he could lob at guests as they passed.
Dave and I weren’t at that level, see vampire fangs and habit, but it was cool to sit back and appreciate the artistry. In particular: the Vegas show girls. I often joke I peaked when a drag queen told me as a teenager I had to-die-for eyebrows. The reality is, I peaked when the Vegas Ladies showed up at Dad’s party. Three queens arrived with feathered fascinators and fuchsia silk robes covering their bodies. At first, they only teased at the splendor hidden below.
An extended leg with a glittery heel. A hint of wrist with sparkly bangles. Blood red nails.
It took an hour for them to reveal, and when they did, I thought I’d have to pick my husband’s jaw up from the floor. The ladies wore padded body suits, flesh colored, with cartoonishly enormous breasts and butts. Huge ones. Like, Jessica Rabbit on steroids, watermelons in their cups huge ones. Their boobs had super-sized pasties, their thongs could not contain so much badonk, and they proceeded to shake and shimmy their way into showgirl infamy.
Needless to say, they were amazing and remain the Halloween costumes I hold all other Halloween costumes to for fabulousness to this day.
Lamar Giles, author of Overturned
I love horrible ’80s movies (bonus points if there’s a ninja in it). Some of my go-tos include 1986’s Solarbabies, starring Jami Gertz and Jason Patric a year before The Lost Boys (a great ’80s movie—I love those, too). The remake of The Blob. Carl Weathers’ Action Jackson. My wife says I was wise to hide this quirk early in our relationship.
She has asked me why? Sometimes loudly, with her fists clenched, and head tilted toward the heavens right before a rewatch of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. The answer: because I was allowed to.
As a kid, I was often alone. Awkward. I felt most comfortable with a book, but in a pinch, a movie would do. Especially on a Friday afternoon when a trip to my town’s video rental store—imagine a giant RedBox with people in it—meant no less than three VHS tapes (no metaphor here, I’m just old) were coming home to occupy the weekend. My mom worked a lot, sometimes on the weekend, leaving me with my grandparents. They didn’t have the necessary membership to rent films. So, in 1987, she got me my own movie rental card. And, perhaps in the midst of job-induced exhaustion, she checked the box that allowed for Rated-R rentals. I did not correct her.
With the proper credentials in place, my trash movie adventure began—despite the clerk’s stink-eye over a little black kid taking the only copy of Charlie Sheen’s The Wraith. And it never really stopped. This was the time when I was falling in love with stories, and horrible movies are stories, too. See, I was learning. Were they great lessons? My critics would likely debate that. I’ll tell you this much, without Henry Thomas’ Cloak and Dagger, there might not be a Lamar Giles’ Overturned. If you don’t know what that means, drop by sometime, I’ve got something you need to see!
Whitney Gardner, author of You’re Welcome, Universe
I was the weird kid. The kid that dressed in strange and out of date hand-me-downs. Not savvy enough to realize they weren’t fashionable. At all. I was the kid who would lay on the slide in the sun, talking to herself or possibly a dandelion, while the other kids ran around playing kickball or tag. I was the kid who had to wear orthodontic headgear to school. The kid who was eventually given the nickname Smiley because of it. But I was aloof, so I didn’t know that I was being teased. I thought Smiley was a fine nickname. I embraced it.
Then I grew up a little. And slowly but surely I started questioning myself. My worth. My weirdness. I wondered if I’d be better off if I just pretended to fit in. Funny how pretending to be something you aren’t only lasts so long. How you don’t need to pretend once you’ve found your people. Once you realize you’re not the only weirdo in the world.
Sometimes I look back and envy that kid. The one who was too busy dreaming up her next project to care about what anyone else thought of her. Who assumed the best in people even when they might not have deserved it. And every now and then, when I get bogged down or stressed out, I look in the mirror and try to remember that weird confident kid and I are the same person. And I smile.
Emma Chastain, author of Confessions of a High School Disaster
I made a glib joke about sexual harassment in the first draft of my book, and I didn’t even realize it was there until Donald Trump ran for president.
I’m a feminist. I’m a lifelong Democrat. I went to Barnard College, where you can’t escape enlightenment even if you try. I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale more times than I can count. And yet it never struck me as particularly noteworthy that, like literally every woman I know who lives in New York, I’ve been grabbed, humped, and flashed dozens of times. When my friends and I talked about these incidents, it was with an air of caustic amusement. Someone ran up and grabbed your boob on Broadway and 103rd? That’s nothing! I saw TWO penises on the 9 train last week! Laughing about these offensives was a way to feel impervious to them. And taking them seriously would have seemed whiny, or weak, or maybe just beside the point. Yes, it sucked to see someone furiously masturbating while you tried to walk to the deli to buy Doritos, but what were you going to do? That was the cost of living in a big city, right? It was like watching rats dash around on the subway tracks, or finding cockroaches in your silverware drawer: disgusting, but unavoidable.
Then we all heard the “grab ‘em by the p*ssy” tape, and I’m embarrassed to say my first reaction was weary non-surprise. Of course he’d said that; it was just like him. But then everyone on my timeline freaked out, and slowly I realized that even if it’s normal to be sexually assaulted on the sidewalk, even if it happens frequently to every woman I know, it shouldn’t be normal, and laughing it off is part of the problem.
Soon afterward, as I was editing my manuscript, I found a part where the swaggering jock smacks the protagonist’s butt, and she thinks, “I guess now I’ve been sexually harassed. And I liked it!” Why did I ever think this was funny? It’s not—it’s appalling—and although I wish I’d figured that out years ago, at least I know it now.
Natalie C. Anderson, author of City of Saints & Thieves
The first time I stole something I was so nervous I threw up in the store parking lot.
This was after. As instructed, I’d casually examined the racks of drugstore lip glosses and nail polish, picked up a bunch all at once, and slipped one in my jacket pocket. I’d been sure to stay away from the fish-eye cameras in the corners. I didn’t rush. The sleepy store clerk had barely blinked when we walked out.
My mentor in crime, a popular girl who I thought was my best friend (but with whom I’d lose all contact after a year) laughed at my retching. I was mortified, and secretly I vowed I’d never steal again. A tube of glitter gloss was not worth the sour taste in my mouth and the crush of guilt in my gut.
But I did do it again.
It stopped being terrifying and started being an addictive rush of adrenaline, a delicious secret. BFF and I never stole because we needed to; we did it because it made two straight-A middle-middle class girls feel alive and wicked. My friend moved onto bras and t-shirts from department stores. She’d wear them out under her clothes. My specialty was nail polish.
You can probably see where this is going. BFF and I got caught on a Tuesday afternoon. The store called my mom and she had to leave work to come get me. BFF and I were shocked to find out that the manager had actually been watching us for weeks. We got off with a store ban and a citation. Since I was a juvenile it soon disappeared from my record.
A few years later I read an article about a single mom whose kids were being taken by the state because she’d done what I did—shoplifted. But unlike me, she was going to spend three months in jail because she couldn’t pay the fine. The difference between us? She was 20 and black. I was 16 and white. She stole soda and cookies. I stole lipstick. And seeing that story, I got the same sick feeling I had all those years ago in the parking lot. I may have thought then that I got off easy, but it wasn’t luck. It was because we were two white, middle-class girls. We were silly and young and the manager decided she’d give us second and third chances. Privilege comes in all sorts of sneaky guises. The trick is to see it. And start paying it off.
And yes, it’s going to take a long, long time.
Danielle Mages Amato, author of The Hidden Memory of Objects
I’d made a choice to quit the baseball team. I’d joined the drama club instead. This way, I could come out as gay, something I was quite sure wouldn’t work in the locker room.
It was a choice that brought with it so much anguish. A mother who couldn’t handle the news at all. Lost friends. Lots of nasty names in the hallway. I felt like people were staring at me as I so visibly suffered, shaking their heads. Thinking: What a drama queen. He didn’t need to do this, you know.
I wondered sometimes: why? Why did I have to do such a stupid thing as come out?
In my novel Honestly Ben, Ben Carver has to grapple with what happens when he veers away from his expected path. Ben learns that the world rewards those who stay within the lines, and there are repercussions when you go off track.
Ben isn’t me. But that choice is one that comes directly from my life. I still feel it in my bones to this day. And in reality I’m not sure it was a choice. I wasn’t made that way. To stay on the path of expectations would have meant selling part of my soul. So, faced with the loaded choice of certain trauma while trying to be authentically, honestly me versus an easier life as someone else, I veered. And it was hard, and there were tears, and there were days I thought I just might not make it.
But I did make it. And in the end, it turns out I made the only reasonable choice. Because unbeknownst to me, I was making a life decision to be happy. The road was bumpy, sure. But today I’m me. And that suits me pretty well.
Katherine Webber, author of The Heartbeats of Wing Jones
When I was a freshman in high school, I ran for student council. I’d come from a smaller middle school, and didn’t know that many people in my new, huge 2,500–person high school. The week of the election, I put up posters that had my face and slogan on them. Since I didn’t know many people, I was going for name recognition so I had something silly like “Freshmen should stick together with Webber!” with an image of a spider web.
One day, after cross country practice, I got a call from a friend (on my Nokia, because this was 2001). “You need to go look at your posters,” they said. So with trepidation I went to where I’d hung my posters. One of my cross country teammates came with me because I was nervous to go by myself.
It was clear from a distance that someone had drawn on my face. I forced a laugh. “Oh well,” I said. And then we got closer. I was a pretty naive 14-year-old, and so was my teammate, so while we could both tell there was something on my face, we didn’t know what it was. “Are you…smoking?” said my teammate, as we scrutinized the oblong shape someone had drawn on my mouth. “I don’t get it,” I said.
Of course, now I know what it was. But at the time I didn’t. And whoever it was hadn’t just drawn on that one poster, they’d drawn on almost all of them. So I took them all down, and that night I made new ones. I got to school early the next day to put them back up.
I knew that I wanted to be on student council, and I knew to do that, I had to put myself out there. Risk getting rejected and humiliated. But I learned a trick I still use now, over 15 years later. I took a deep breath, and willed myself to be confident. I put on my confidence like armor.
The problem was, as I explained to my parents over a pepperoni pizza, I was having the absolute worst time of my life.
“What if I dropped out?” I said.
It was a question that had been spiralling around my mind for weeks. It took only a few days of ‘Freshers’ activities—drunken club nights and a frenzied friendship search that sent my introverted self spiralling into despair—for me to realize that “university life” was my own personal hell. The course wasn’t any better. The texts didn’t interest me, essay-writing was painful and dull, and I started attending lectures less and less, finding them pointless.
And all this I had spent seven years of secondary education working for.
“Just drop out, then,” said my parents.
“But I’ve already paid for the first year,” I told them. “And if I don’t get a degree, will I ever be able to get a job? And won’t it be disappointing for me to waste my academic potential?”
“Don’t drop out, then,” said my parents, chuckling as if I was choosing between pizza toppings.
That’s when I started to get angry.
In the end, my anxieties won, and I finished my degree, which was little but three years of boredom and misery. But, in that time, I also wrote a book. Radio Silence.
Radio Silence is a story born from my anger at what the education system did to me and to so many other young people. Teens are brainwashed into believing that academic achievement is the only thing that can make them happy, and young adults will destroy their mental health over the pursuit of academic perfection. Radio Silence explores all of that and sends the message that you are so, so much more than your school grades, and, as I tried to tell my parents and myself back in that restaurant, university is not right for everyone.
Hayley Long, author of Sophie Someone
When I was eight years old, I had whooping cough and was off school for ages. I don’t remember very much about the actual illness—just that weird wheezy whoop and a sense of surprise and confusion whenever an attack happened. But of everything else about that time, my memory is crystal clear. I remember the routine of waiting in the car while my mum went into our local library and watching as she came out again loaded up with books for me to read. I remember reading every single book she passed my way. I remember visits from my grandparents and the endless jigsaw puzzles they brought with them in scruffy boxes that were falling apart. I remember sitting by myself and fitting the pieces together. I remember my dad taking me to work with him and telling me not to run around among the stationary fork-lift trucks—and I remember running around anyway and then losing my breath to that weird wheezy whoop. I remember I didn’t care because I was just so happy to be outside. I remember thinking I’d had a brilliant day.
Ten years later, my parents divorced. It was as if a bomb went off. The fallout affected everyone and everyone fell out. Just like one of those scruffy jigsaw puzzles, my family was broken into bits. But this was one puzzle I couldn’t sort out, and crucial pieces of my family and my childhood got lost. All these years later, I still haven’t found them and I’m not quite sure I ever will. But at least I have those treasured memories of when I was eight. Of when I whooped and wheezed and ran around among the fork lift trucks. And of when my mum and dad took turns to sit up with me during the difficult nights.
Dustin Hansen, author of Game On!
I’m going to tell you something that you will blow your…expectations!
See, I already did it. You thought I was going to say blow your mind, but now you know, there are worse things to blow.
Ready. Here it is.
I hate reading.
Okay. I don’t hate books now, I LOVE reading now. I’m a book omnivore. But when I was younger, nothing filled my gullet with more anxiety than being assigned to read a book.
I hated math too. And science. And history, but that’s because my history teacher smelled like tuna fish.
And I couldn’t read music, which might not shock you, but right now my family of professional musicians is standing up, pointing at the screen and yelling, ‘I KNEW IT! HE WAS ADOPTED!’
Well, I wasn’t adopted. And back in 1985, when I was in high school (yes, I’m that old), I was diagnosed with something that shaped the rest of my life. It took a panel of educators and a fancy (time-wasting) test that required me to 1) read, 2) do math, and 3) fill in little round bubbles, for them to label me. And in the end, it was a label that stuck.
I was dumb. So dumb, in fact that I should just “be an artist.” No, seriously, people really told me this. I must have nailed the filling in the round bubbles part of that test.
But in the end I guess it was a gift, because I did become an artist. I’m pretty okay at it too. In fact, it’s led me all over this planet making video games for the past 25 years.
And guess what. Fifteen years after high school, my “clinical diagnosis” was finally corrected. I wasn’t dumb. I was dyslexic. I still am. It’s not the kind of thing you outgrow.
But I’ll tell you one thing. Nothing helps you slay the dyslexia dragon more than writing a million words, reading a thousand books, and smiling real wide when you see your old high school history teacher at your book signing.
He still smells like tuna fish.