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.

17 comments:

  1. Hear hear. Writing for the girl I was--I do it too.

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  2. Oh Stephanie, what a GORGEOUS post. That's exactly how I feel about writing for teens (and, weirdly, a girl who can't stop reading, lives in books and - ! - hides behind her hair is the heroine of the next book I'm writing).

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  3. Keris, I HAVE to read that book!!!! :)

    And Mer, I love that you do it, too!

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  4. Wow, how touching!!! I really felt like I'd written that post and just stumbled across it after not remembering I'd posted it!!! I was litearlly called "Rusty Webster's Dictionary" by my friends and got caught reading (Judy Blume, Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, whatever) behind my math and sciene books ALL the time! I tell people all the time that one of the reasons I love writing YA is because with every poem, story or book you get to rewrite your own young adulthood; just this time with the chance to be cooler, say smarter things and, oh yeah, fight vampires or become zombies. SUCH a great post and I'm so glad I stopped by! The 43-year-old me -- and the 12-year-old me -- thanks you for this...

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  5. It is so good to hear that, Rusty! Thank you! And I LOVE your line about getting to rewrite our own young adulthood to make it cooler, smarter, and way more magical. :)

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  6. Oh, I love this post! And if we'd been able to be 12 at the same time we'd have had EVERYTHING to talk about because I always had my nose in a book. (I also had bangs & was exceedingly awkward). I'm sending messages back in time to both of our 12-year-old selves saying, 'Hang in there! You will find your people one day!'

    Also: Kat is one of my fave characters ever. She rocks.

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  7. Oh wow, Stephanie, this is exactly why I want to work with teens, too. I remember so well being 12 and feeling out of place and the books and plays and directors who helped me all through it, the ones that gave me a place where I could be distinctly myself and still valued. At that age it's so hard, the pressure to be exactly like everyone else is so crushing, and having a space, whether in fiction or (like me) away from your normal one, where someone reminds you that the qualities no one cares about now are going to be the ones the right people treasure in the future is so hugely important. Thanks for the great post!

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  8. Trish, I SO wish we had known each other as twelve-year-olds!!! *HUGS*

    And Cassandra, you're so right - what's most important is having that safe space, whether it's in books or in theater or anywhere else that WORKS. (And I love your username! I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite books EVER!)

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  9. Love this post! I can't say that I was shy when I was a kid but the rest of your description could be me. When I finally got my drivers license, I had no idea how to get anywhere because when other people were driving, I was reading. :) I brought a book with me EVERYwhere.

    I love that KAT is like a book written for that past you. Sort of a message in a bottle, sent back in time. :)

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  10. It's weird, but the person who's opinion I care about most is myself as a child. I often look back and wonder if the girl I was would like the woman I am now. Amazing what a hold our childhood has on us.

    I think she'd think it was very cool that I know Stephanie Burgis. She'd have enjoyed AMIM enough to reread it as an adult and love it even more, what with all the irony that probably would have flown right over my head when I was ten.

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  11. Renee, I totally empathize with that driving dilemma! :) And I love the imagery of Kat as a message in a bottle.

    Emily, you're so right about the hold childhood has on us - we never totally outgrow it! But I have to say, if I had told my 12-year-old self that jeweler Emily Mah would be making gorgeous jewelry based on MY books, I would not have believed it. I would have known it was too cool to possibly be true! :)

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  12. I completely agree. I write for the 12-year-old me.

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  13. Oh, Steph, do you know the ONLY time I got yelled at in elementary school was because I was writing under the desk instead of paying attention to the teacher? I was ten and mortified. And yet...I'm not entirely sorry, now. :)

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  14. Marcia, I love that so many of us do this!

    And Jess, I love that story - because look at you now! Aren't you glad you learned to write no matter what distractions were going on around you? ;)

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  15. Steph, we were the same 12-year-old! I'm so glad you had the courage to write this post.

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  16. Loved this post, Steph. :)

    I wonder sometimes what our 12-year-old selves would of our grown-up selves.

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  17. Thanks so much, Ying and Sheela!

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