Saturday, April 16, 2011
Writing for the Twelve-Year-Old Me
When I was twelve years old, in 1989, I was shy and geeky, with big glasses and a vocabulary that other kids made fun of, for being too much "like a dictionary". I hid behind my long hair and bangs. I agonized whenever I got less than an "A", and my friends and I competed for the highest grades. You might think I would be a teacher's ideal student...
...but there was one thing that got me into trouble all the time: I could not stop reading.
I read in class, hiding my books under my desk. I read while I walked down the hall. The thing is, I had discovered the most amazing authors: Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, and of course Tolkien, whom I re-read obsessively. They carried me to a place that was so much more intense, more exciting, more fulfilling, than my middle-school life, where I was either ignored or teased by the "cool" kids and bored by so much of what I had to study. Why wouldn't I prefer to escape into books?
Books showed me that there was an escape out there, somewhere. That life didn't have to be this mundane forever. That I could be a real heroine someday, and there would someday be people my own age - even guys! - who actually appreciated the fact I was smart and book-loving, instead of seeing it as a disadvantage.
Fast-forward to 2006: I was 29 years old, not 12 anymore. I had stopped hiding behind my hair, and I was married by then to a gorgeous guy (a fellow writer!) who absolutely loved my love for books, and my brains. I'd started publishing short stories for adults, so I thought it made sense to write novels for adults, too. I was midway through a book that made sense in every logical way. But I wasn't loving it.
And then one day, I heard the first few lines of Kat, Incorrigible whispered into my head, in a twelve-year-old girl's voice: "I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed in boys' clothes, and set off to rescue my family from impending ruin. I made it almost to the end of my front garden..."
I ran to grab a notebook. I scribbled down the lines. And what I came to realize, as I wrote with more joy than ever before, was that I didn't want to write for the 29-year-old me, or for other adults like me, who had already found their adult lives and their places in the world.
I wanted to write for the twelve-year-old me, the one who needed books like this: fun, funny, romantic adventures that filled her with excitement, made her laugh, but also reassured and empowered her. She needed books that reassured her that it was great to be smart and to have different interests than her peers, no matter what the other kids around her might say...and reassurance that there really were people in the wider world who would one day value her for exactly those qualities that made her seem "weird" to the kids around her.
It might sound odd to say that my ideal reader is myself, but it's almost true. My ideal reader isn't me, now; it's me in 1989, twenty-two years ago, when I needed these books most. And that's why I write middle-grade novels.