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  • Sera Rivers

Why I Read YA and Write It, Too!


Settle in with a cup of coffee folks. This is a long one.

Last night, I went to the Odyssey Bookshop in Hadley to hear Tony DiTerlizzi speak. The Odyssey was his last stop on tour for The Battle for Wondla. He captured the audience from the moment he jumped to the front of the room, and he managed to keep their attention (little kids and all) as he spoke about his childhood and his dreams to write and draw. It was very inspirational.

One thing that really stood out was Tony's discussion on entertainment. He showed stills from movies and video games of his youth and compared them to stills of movies and video games of today. He pointed out the vast differences in quality and technology used to create them. Then, he showed stills of books written hundreds of years ago. He picked a book up off a shelf and opened it up. No change.

Why is that? he asked us. Tony explained that books ask us to participate. That when we read symbols on a page in order, we see visions of other worlds. We are transported by imagination.

Now let's transport back in time to my childhood. I was brought up in a fundamentalist religion. My parents were so strict, everything was a sin. And I mean everything. Smiling at a cute boy meant I had impure thoughts. Walking around my house in my little-girl undershirt with the bow on the front meant I was immoral—even when it was 90 degrees outside. We had no air conditioning.

I used to sneak books. Books like Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, Starring Sally J. Freedman, As Herself, and Behind the Attic Walls. Books that I knew would get me in big trouble if my father knew what they were about. And I used to sneak writing. I wrote tales of talking animals and little old ladies who were best friends their whole lives.

My mother left my father and the religion, and moved my sister and me to a new town when I was fifteen. Books helped me deal with my own grief and anger at losing the only world I ever knew (even if it was a constricting, fear-mongering one). Lois Lowry's The Giver was the first book I read that helped me understand the cult mentality of my father's religion. I also read a lot of horror at that time—Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine. Reading helped me escape reality. Let me step into a scarier world that I knew wasn't real because the real world was too scary and difficult. I wrote a lot of bad poetry (in the vein of horror) in my teens, but didn't we all?

Fast-forward to my adult self. I had become a wife, a mother, a responsible working citizen. I didn't read or write a single word for the first five years of my son's life. And I felt a longing, an incompleteness during that time, but I didn't understand why. Didn't I have everything I had always dreamed about? A family?

The first book I read when I picked up a book again was Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. I read it in one sitting. I fell in love with his words and the simple yet complex way they were arranged on the page. I started writing the very next day. The next book I read was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I was hooked.

Sometime around 2007 (maybe 2008?), my friend Loretta dragged me to New York for its annual Teen Author Festival. The whole train ride there Loretta kept insisting that I write YA. I hadn't really read much of YA, save for Harry Potter, since my Judy Blume and R.L. Stine days, so I argued. "There's sex in my writing, and drugs, and not so nice things. I do not write YA."

We walked into the NY Public Library's auditorium. It was packed full of teens and adults, packed to its fullest! Somehow we managed to find two seats in the front row. David Levithan, John Green, Libba Bray and E. Lockhart were sitting on stage. "Who are they again?" I asked Loretta. (I know right? So embarrassed at my past self!)

"Trust me, you'll see," she said with a smile.

David Levithan started reading. Expletives flew out of his mouth almost immediately. My eyes grew wide as I looked out into the audience at all the teens. No one asked him to stop. Everyone was smiling, even the adults. The authors read about tough topics, about real teen issues, and their characters were resilient, angsty, strong with real-life issues, much like the issues I had growing up.

I grabbed Loretta's hand and squeezed tight. "Oh my god," I whispered in her ear. "I write YA."

And now I read YA almost exclusively. I joke that a "grown up" book better impress the hell out of me if I'm going to read it. Not many make it on my to-read piles that are littered all over my house. I read YA because the characters feel so real to me. YA characters all go through real issues that many real adults don't want to talk about and their worlds are scary, difficult places. I think we never truly escape adolescence so going back in time through the eyes of a fictional character helps me make friends with my demons that still haunt me. Or, at least it gives me a better understanding of them.

As for writing, the characters that pop into my head are all teenagers—with the exception of Eddy, the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (but I'm guessing Poe was a grown up kid like me). It's just the nature of my imagination. Maybe I'm trying to reinvent a time in my life when the world felt too big and I too small. Maybe I'm trying not to get swallowed whole by the world around me.

Or maybe, as Tony DiTerlizzi said last night in his talk about why he writes and illustrates for children, maybe my grownup self is writing the books my teenager self wanted to read.

Why do YOU read YA?

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