16 YA Authors Discuss Eating Disorders, Family, and More in February’s YA Open Mic
YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series, above all, is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers wouldn’t necessarily find on their websites.
This month, 16 authors discuss everything from pranks to eating disorders to racism and beyond. All have YA books releasing this month.
YA Open Mic runs on the first Thursday of each month. Check out previous posts here.
Tanita S. Davis, author of Peas & Carrots
I was determined to never hear another melon joke. But no amount of skipping meals or layering big shirts camouflaged that I was sporting major “assets”—though my bust never felt like much of an asset to me. Instead, it felt like a neon sign bleating, Look Here.
I hid my body until 9th grade P.E. started eight weeks of swimming, and I ran out of excuses. When I finally showed up in the loosest swimsuit I could afford, the coach said, “Oh, honey, don’t worry about not being able to swim. I know black people have a hard time.”
She continued through my shocked silence, “Your people have such dense bones, you sink. You just…do your best, all right?”
I’d spent whole summers in my Aunt Norma’s pool—not sinking. Though positive Coach was wrong, I hesitated to contradict a teacher. Mom, on the other hand, went DEFCON1. She ranted words like “racist” and “stereotype” and marched off to make phone calls. I pleaded, “Nooo!” I didn’t want her making waves. I just wanted to sink into the background.
But sometimes, kids, you’ve gotta bust out.
That week, I went to P.E., jaw set, armed with my truth. I cannonballed into the middle of the pool, making the biggest splash I could. And then I swam. I didn’t stop moving, didn’t touch the bottom that whole hour. I floated and I did not sink.
I never confronted that teacher, never corrected her ignorance in words, but from then on, I thought twice every time I wanted to fade into the background and die when someone looked sideways at my body. It’s something I still have to tell myself, but at least I know my truth: I am what I am. And what I am is unsinkable.
Karen Bao, author of Dove Exiled
Here’s the dress code for marine biology field research: wetsuit, fins, mask, fifty-pound air tank. In my undergraduate studies, I’ve learned ocean life can naturally do so many things—like gas exchange and buoyancy control—that we clumsy land mammals can only accomplish with a ton of equipment. Spending time above and below the ocean’s surface has also taught me about other differences between the two worlds.
On land, I’m a young Asian American woman. I’m proud of my identity, and it often guides my writing, but it comes with some unpleasantness. I’ve had my own research explained to me (mostly by men) and had my ideas discounted or stolen in class. People on the street holler, “Where you from, honey? Ni hao or konichiwa?” and are enraged when I roll my eyes and walk away. I almost never go outside alone without earbuds in.
In the water, I’m not tethered by race or gender anymore. I’m just a big, warm-blooded thing, a smokestack spewing bubbles. Sixty feet underwater, seven-foot-long Moray eels open and close their mouths, seeming to yawn; nocturnal sharks shake themselves awake as I approach; and rainbow ribbons of parrotfish and damselfish wrap around me on all sides. Every sight fills me with wonder, respect for nature, and inspiration to write: Dove Arising and Dove Exiled are saturated with my love of the ocean and my fear of its decline. Sometimes I joke that I’d become a mermaid if I could. Sometimes it’s not a joke.
One day soon, I hope that everyone—whatever their race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability status—can move through the streets as freely as I swim in the sea.
Victoria Aveyard, author of Glass Sword
It was September 2000, and I was a 10-year-old in a small town. I spent a lot of time listening to NSYNC, roaming the neighborhood with my friends, riding scooters, and admiring my Pokemon card collection. The latter two got me my worst and funniest injury. For the record, I was not stealing Pokemon cards. One of the neighbor boys told me the pile of cards in the middle of the cul-de-sac was up for grabs. So my best friend and I went to town, hunting for sparkly cards. Then a little girl comes tearing out of her nearby house, screaming that the cards were hers. We panicked and bolted, stuffing cards into our clothes. My friend got away, but I got snagged, and handed over the ill-acquired cards. When I scootered away in shame, I hit a pothole in the street, flipped over my handlebars, and ending up crying in the gutter. Cut to about six hours later: my left arm was broken. Cut to three days and a checkup later: my right arm was also broken and I hadn’t noticed. Needless to say, fifth grade was great.
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, author of The Smell of Other People’s Houses
I come from a family that loves practical jokes. We show up at restaurants in wigs or airports dressed as superheroes (although heightened security has curbed this particular event for us). In Fairbanks, my cousins and I might see each other’s car parked outside a coffee shop and make sure to leave it covered in toilet paper, or filled to the brim with balloons or a six-foot stuffed pig. It’s so much a part of how we interact with each other, we sometimes forget all families are not like this. Either people think we’re crazy or they join in—it’s gone both ways.
But nobody was ever a better sport about our little idiosyncrasy than Melissa, a friend of a friend who was visiting Alaska from Indiana for the first time a few winters ago. I got a call asking if we could introduce her to Fairbanks. She really wanted to do something that “only Alaskans do. Something traditional, not touristy.”
And that’s how traditional salmon sledding was born! (Or the more technical definition: slide down a hill at -40 degrees on a piece of frozen salmon.) We gave Melissa a plank of freezer-burned salmon from the back of the freezer and she sat down on it wearing an insulated snow suit, convinced she was going to slide down the hill having the time of her life, as ice fog whipped her in the face. Even when her fillet just stuck to the snow, she believed us when we said “normally we use whole salmon and they tend to slide better.”
“I thought, that makes sense,” she said later, “you know, thinking maybe the scales on a whole salmon would make it more slippery. I wanted to keep an open mind about everything and I thought salmon’s great, sledding’s great. Why not put the two together?”
We love laughing at ourselves and we love people who can also laugh at themselves because life is way too short (and so is the daylight in winter). So maybe, as Melissa says, “You Alaskans just have nothing else to do up there when it’s cold and dark all day, except sit around and think of ways to pull one over on people.” She may be right.
Hands down Melissa wins the award for “most gracious person to ever endure one of our practical jokes.” She even supersedes the understanding prom dates who got a pink gorilla sent to sing to them at a restaurant. But that’s another story…
Natalie C. Parker, author of Behold the Bones
When I was 16 years old, I was 5’8” tall and I weighed 91 pounds. I enjoyed 400 calories on a typical day accompanied by no more than 4 grams of fat. I counted everything. The minutes between meals, the steps it took me to get to school, the number of pages I was allowed to read in a book. I was anorexic and even though I now write about it in the past tense, it is an experience that has continued to shape my daily life.
It has been a long time—years upon years, in fact—since I physically recovered from anorexia, but my struggle was harder after my body recovered.
If anorexia is a beast, it has found a permanent shelter in my mind. It lurks and starves and every so often it takes a bloody bite from the body confidence I work so hard to maintain. I look in the mirror and I see 35 years, I see 5 feet 8 inches, and before I know it I start counting all the calories I’ve eaten that day, the day before, and the day before.
My strongest defense is not to feed it the numbers it craves and to actively look for the beauty in every body I see. I cannot tell you my weight, though I would if I knew it. I have a guess, but it is only a guess because I decided years ago that knowing that number did more harm than good. I turn my back when I’m weighed at the doctor’s office, I do not own a scale of my own, I refuse to count and catalogue my person whenever possible. And some days it works. I’m able to quiet the hungry taunts of that beast, and when I look in the mirror I see my muscles, I see my fat, and I see my smile.
The best, hardest thing I’ve learned from anorexia is that I may not defeat my demons in a single glorious battle, but I do get better at the fight.
Ruta Sepetys, author of Salt to Sea
At a recent book event, a reader approached me and said, “It’s so funny, I used to work with someone in the music business who had the same name.”
“Ruta Sepetys? What are the chances? Maybe it was me in another life,” I suggested.
“No,” the reader laughed. “Literary, she was not. I worked with her on a ‘Monsters of Rock’ tour. I think this woman was much older, you know, the big and brutish type.”
Big and brutish. Interesting.
After a bit of conversation, the reader confessed that he had never actually met the other Ruta Sepetys, had only communicated via email and phone. He continued to describe this “she,” not realizing that “she” was indeed me.
Prior to becoming an author, I spent 22 years in the music industry. I worked in artist management and represented songwriters, recording artists, musicians, and film composers. We were telling stories, but through music.
After confirming inside information from the ‘Monsters of Rock’ tour, the reader realized I was, in fact, the person he had communicated with. “Wow, you’re so short,” he exclaimed. He then became very concerned. “Wait, in your presentation you said you like secret stories. You’re not going to write any music business stories…are you?”
I assured him I would not. After all, that would just be big and brutish, wouldn’t it?
Lauren Nicolle Taylor, author of Nora & Kettle
When I was 11 my Nana slapped me. I was in my bedroom talking and then out of nowhere her palm came at my face with such force I fell backward. Her handprint created an instant red mark, blaring like a stoplight. Only I didn’t stop. I stood up, faced her raging expression and challenged her. A small Chinese woman, she was almost the same height as me, yet when I stood in front of her I shrank in her shadow.
For a moment.
Then outrage bolstered my own shadow. I shouted at her, Why? Inside and outside I screamed the words. How could someone I trusted and loved hurt me? When she couldn’t answer, I ran from her, a blubbering mess. She followed me to the front door, still unexplainably angry. Braced against the frame, I demanded an answer.
She slapped me again. Harder.
Shoeless, I ran from my home, tearing through a muddy creek and the swirl of blackberry bushes surrounding our property. I sat on a rock a few blocks from home and waited for my parents to find me.
Nana didn’t speak to me for six months.
When she did come back into our lives, all was forgiven and we returned to our former close relationship. We never spoke about it and I’m still not 100% sure what I said to upset her so much. But my hazy childhood memory brings forth a look of confusion from her and a teasing tone from me when she didn’t understand my English very well.
To this day I still don’t have the real answer as to why it happened. Only that it caused a rift that after six months was repaired. I guess sometimes life is like that. Questions don’t always get answered and eventually time does heal.
Tarun Shanker, author of These Vicious Masks
My name has always felt a little unstable. Every first day of school, I had to recognize a mispronounced version during attendance and awkwardly correct the teacher. When I was nine, a nickname I got became my default name for years because it was easier for others to remember. When my parents divorced, I didn’t know whether to change my last name because both choices felt like picking a side. And on top of it all, I don’t even pronounce my own name correctly. I use the American sounding “Ta-Roon” rather than the “The-Roon” that Indians use.
So when I decided to be a writer, a pen name seemed like the necessary solution to my confusing name problems. I saw that M. Night Shyamalan and Kal Penn altered theirs to find success, and I’d internalized the idea that an Indian name on a book cover was reserved solely for literary fiction about Indian people dealing with their Indian heritage. Knowing that wasn’t my genre, I spent years brainstorming alternatives with initials and abbreviations, smushing my first, middle, and last names together in strange combinations, and conjuring up entirely new names that were generically English. Nothing ever felt right, but I kept planning for the day I’d need one.
Then the book sold. During “The Call,” I half-expected a tactful suggestion about pen names, but it never came. During the cover process, I was convinced someone would say the name looked out of place there, but they said nothing. Finally, we got through the pass pages and I figured our proofreader would catch the mistake at the last second, but the finished copies arrived with my actual name still intact.
And it was nice. Nice I didn’t have to change it and nice I didn’t have to fight for it. I’ve gotten kind of used to the name. And it seems other people can, too.
Heidi Heilig, author of The Girl From Everywhere
When I was a kid I lived on a farm full of animals. A dozen cats. A pack of dogs. Horses and peacocks and even a llama, for a while. I was an awkward kid, and I had very few human friends, but I loved those animals, and they loved me. They were happy and kind and never judged.
I also had asthma when I was young, which I hated. My asthma was actually one of the things that led to me being awkward. It made it hard for me to keep up with the rest of the kids. I wheezed when I played. I heard a lot of Piggy jokes when our class read Lord of the Flies.
But I thought my asthma was just a part of my life, and I learned to live with it. It was only when I moved to a small apartment in New York City, where our landlord forbade pets of any kind, that I learned I wasn’t asthmatic, but allergic.
It’s strange, how the things you grow up with affect you in ways you can’t always understand until you leave them behind. I think often about how even the things you love can impact your life in terrible ways, although there’s no blame on either side.
Nowadays, I no longer carry or need an inhaler. I run. I even have a pet—a snake named Zeppelin. Sometimes only a drastic move can give you the chance to breathe free.
Tara Sullivan, author of The Bitter Side of Sweet
I grew up all over the world. I was born in India and, by the time I started high school, I had lived in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic. I landed in the US the day before 9th grade started and, for the first few years, I had trouble having conversations with people because my experiences were so different from those of everyone around me. I found that I could only talk about something, or somewhere, that was unknown to my friends for about ten minutes, and then I would have to change the topic to something they could relate to. Homework. Holidays. The weather. It was a tough two years. But I found, as time went on, conversations became easier because I had more in common with those around me.
I learned a lot from those two years, but key among what I learned was that people need to share some part of the same story before they can really connect with each other. This is one of the many reasons I think fiction is so important. When we hear statistics, or read something very factual (especially if it’s about somewhere we have no personal experience of, or about a type of person we don’t relate to or have never met), it’s easy to let go of it. It’s easy not to care. But when we’ve spent two or three hundred pages experiencing another reality, we carry that character’s experiences with our own and it becomes a part of our life. It becomes a part of the narrative we can have in common with others.
Read, and read widely. It will introduce you to people you never knew you needed to know, and places you never dreamed you’d fall in love with. And slowly, book by book, your conversations will become limitless.
Jeff Garvin, author of Symptoms of Being Human
The thing I wanted most when I was 11 was a T&C Surf T-shirt. All the cool kids—especially Jim and Tyler—wore them, the screen-printed yin and yang logo emblazoned on their chests like a Badge of Belonging. One glorious afternoon, my mom brought one home; I was ecstatic. The next morning, I ran to the bus stop. I couldn’t wait to finally fit in with the crowd who seemed so self-assured. So whole. When I arrived, I inched my way toward Jim and Tyler’s group, puffing out my chest so they couldn’t miss the T&C logo stamped over my heart. For five minutes that felt like five hours, none of them noticed me. Then, suddenly, Jim turned around, glanced at my shirt, and wrinkled his nose in disgust. “What a poseur,” he said. “I’m not a poseur,” I replied. I didn’t know the word, but I could tell what it meant. Jim grabbed my collar and yanked hard, almost choking me. He stretched the fabric until the t-shirt’s tag was inches from my face. It read: Hanes Beefy T. “So?” I shrugged. “So,” Jim said, “Real T&C shirts have this.” He pulled back the collar of his own shirt, displaying the real T&C tag, which bore the yin and yang logo intricately embroidered and outlined in gold.
The air rushed out of my lungs as though I’d been punched in the gut; my shirt was a fake. A bootleg. I’d thought it looked right on the outside—but on the inside, it was wrong.
Jim shoved me away and rejoined his laughing friends, leaving me standing alone on the curb, fighting back tears. In that moment, I realized (decided) I was a poseur. A faker. A misfit. And no matter how hard I tried or what clothes I wore, I would always be wrong on the inside.
I refused to wear anything bearing a name brand logo until my early thirties.
Kim Savage, author of After the Woods
In a 1999 Rolling Stone article, Mike Myers said his father was “like the cashier window at the casino. Things that would happen were just chips, but when I told my dad, it would turn into money.” Things only became real when he would tell him, Myers said.
The fathers in my novels tend to be inconsequential or impotent. My own father is neither. A WWII vet, he fudged his age and entered the army at 17. He earned his advanced degree on a troop transporter crossing the North Atlantic into Germany, and inside the walls of the Dachau concentration camp, as an Intelligence officer during the Nazi War Crimes Trials held there. He shared his affection for the great American poets, especially Frost. He read to me nightly, and made reading a ritual I associate with love. He praised the books I wrote, bound with construction paper and staples.
Today, the moment anything happens in my writing life, I report in to my 86-year-old father immediately. As with Myers, much of the work I do is for him, and because of his age, I often feel as though I am writing against the clock.
This gift of time that I’ve enjoyed for so long is like a poker streak. I know it has to end; the House always wins. I just hope I can find the will to return to the table after losing. And that my own children will experience such an a blessedly long run with a parent who will exchange every chip of their news, however tiny, for gold.
Linda Davies, author of Longbow Girl
It can be tough figuring out who you are, forging your own identity, especially if the one you seem to be saddled with is not that great. I was born in Scotland and moved to Wales when I was four. When I started school at five, I was a skinny girl with round glasses, long braids, and the wrong accent. I got called Skinny Linny, Twiggy, and Praying Mantis. I wasn’t cool, I wasn’t adorable-looking, and I didn’t fit in.
Skinny Linny was not a good identity. Rebelling against the pigeonhole my peers were trying to cram me into, I decided to forge my own identity, one that would give me strength; I would be Linda, the fighter. I had a powerful ally, my father.
Some of his best and most memorable lessons are:
How to make a fist so you don’t get your thumb broken if you punch someone.
Always memorize the way out of any building you enter so that if there’s a fire or a power cut you can find your way out in pitch dark or thick smoke.
Always be able to carry your own body weight. This means you could carry someone and help them escape if need be or, be able to haul yourself up a dangling rope to escape.
These were useful lessons.
It explains my long-term fascination with warrior girls. Merry, in Longbow Girl, is a supreme archer and has to become a fighter on many levels.
I think a strong sense of identity, forged by you, not forced on you by birth and upbringing or circumstance, is vital to our happiness and well-being. This philosophy does away with concepts of either victimhood or entitlement, both of which are damaging and hindering in forging a happy, successful, and useful life.
Be courageous. Take risks, forge your own identity, write your own life story.
Lisa Maxwell, author of Unhooked
When I was 16, I got hit by a truck.
I know, that’s a weird way to open, but it’s true. Don’t worry—it was a small truck. I said for a long time after that nothing could ever hurt like that again. (I was wrong. Labor totally hurts just as bad.) But I also thought being hit had given me a different kind of perspective—I could have died, but hobbled away with only a cracked vertebrae and a twisted ankle. I thought I understood how important it was to live each day.
Maybe for a while I did that, but the truth is, I’ve always been the good girl. The one who would do pretty much anything, tamp down any desire or whim to make my family proud. To fit in. Then I went to grad school, and somehow that impulse got even worse. I lost myself even more. I worked hard at becoming a professional, at wearing the right things and being a Grown Up. Then I didn’t get a job and realized that being a Grown Up sucked. And I’d become someone I didn’t recognize. So I started writing, and because of that I think I’m finally starting to become the person that 16-year-old wanted to be when she was under the front grill of a Ford Ranger, numb with pain and so, so thankful for a second chance.
Emily Skrutskie, author of The Abyss Surrounds Us
I graduated from Cornell eight months ago.
I thought a lot of things when this happened. I thought this was finally it, the start of my adult life. I thought I’d have a job offer in the film industry within the month. I thought I’d be able to move to L.A. by mid-July and from there on out it would be ~the day job grind~ and weekends on beaches and writing in all the in-between moments and everything my unpaid internship summers were. I thought all the time and effort and tears during four years in the weird and lovely hell of Cornell University would get me where I wanted to go.
Instead, I moved back home. And I waited. I sent out hundreds of applications. I had two interviews. I wrote a couple more books. I got a seasonal job at Barnes & Noble. Nothing went the way I thought it would. Nothing moved forward.
And all the while, I had this book deal—this amazing thing was happening, only it didn’t feel amazing. It felt like a distraction, like something I was using to prop the rest of my life up. It was something that impressed people, especially because I’m very young to be doing this sort of thing. But it was difficult for me to convince myself that it mattered when nothing else in my life was going anywhere. It still is.
Now the book comes out this month, and I’m honestly not sure where I go from here. I keep telling people I’m moving to L.A., and I’ve been saving up for it. And it’s probably time to make that leap. Because I think 2015 might have been the year of waiting for things to happen, and 2016 is gonna be the year I strike out and make them happen myself.
Brianna Baker, author of Little White Lies
I was a crossing guard at Robeson Elementary School when I was in 4th grade. While I wasn’t crazy about the idea of arriving at my post an hour before school started, or staying an hour after school ended, I thought it was a small price to pay for being a pillar in the safety of my new classmates. I transferred to Robeson mid-year, because my older sister kept getting in trouble with the “it” girls at Booker T. Washington, the hip magnet school in town. While I was very outgoing at home, and would absolutely talk if someone engaged me, I was very shy at my new school. For the purposes of this story, you should also know this: I was rather androgynous in my appearance. Most people thought I was a boy. It was a confluence of my haircut, clothes, demeanor, and the fact that I went by the name “Bede.”
On a crisp spring morning, I stood proudly at my post, with my orange sash resting on my shoulder. I saw that the two coolest girls in my grade were approaching my post. Michelle Patton and Jen Staben. I was prepared for no interaction. I was simply ready to walk into the middle of the street, hold up my stop sign, and wave them to safety. The ol’ “wave to safe” as we called it.
As I walked to the middle of the street, I heard Jen ask Michelle if I was a boy or a girl. I heard her because she was speaking at full volume. My instinct was to act like I didn’t hear her, and smile. I had a sickness in stomach that was hard to ignore. The rest of the morning I gave the ol’ ‘wave to safe’ the ol’ college try, but if I’m being honest, my heart wasn’t in it. I was devastated. I knew I was at a new school, and that the kids weren’t going to get my whole “vibe” just yet, but it was still a jagged pill to swallow at 7:30 a.m. in central Illinois.
I dreaded the next day more than a nine-year-old thought they could dread something. I wanted to play hooky. I wanted to get hit by a car. I wanted to disappear. All weren’t likely. Oh God…I saw them walking toward me. My stomach clenched, my head felt pressure, I held my stop sign, and started to walk to the middle of the street. Michelle grabbed Jen’s arm and walked right up to me and said, “Jen, tell her. Right now.” Jen looked at Michelle, and then at me. “Bede, I…I wanted to say sorry for what I said yesterday.”
I smiled and looked at them both. “What? I didn’t hear anything, but thanks! Have a good day!” I don’t remember Jen’s actual last name. I’ll never forget Michelle’s.