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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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“Dear Patricia McCormick, Honestly, I personally wasn’t too fond of you at first. But now that I’ve read your book, I want to get to know you as a friend and not just what the press has to say.”
“Meeting you would be beyond the walls of imaginable. Not as good as meeting Stephen Curry or Katy Perry. But almost.”
As many young adult authors will confess, the best part of our job isn’t the riches or the fame. It’s the fan mail.
That’s because young readers will tell you exactly what they think—with blunt, undiluted honesty or wild, unselfconscious love. I think of the former as Trip Advisor reviews: if a reader says my book has the equivalent of bedbugs, I want to know. But it’s the latter—the mash notes—that always surprise me.
What’s so touching is the way these readers fall openly, unabashedly in love: with a book, with a character, with an author. In a world where kids are under so much pressure to be cool, to be cynical, to be critical, these kids are daring to be just the opposite: unguarded. In a world that asks them to be adults far before they’re ready, they have found, in books, the one place where they can still be kids. Privately. Whether they’re at home with their stuffed animals or a cell in a juvenile-detention facility. And in a world where one offhand comment can bring down a hail of withering public shame, these readers are willing to do something dangerous: admit that something really matters to them. And that something is a book.
I don’t know for sure about adult readers, but I think they are more restrained in their affections. I don’t think they ask to be friends. And they definitely don’t ask for help with their homework. Many young readers, on the other hand, feel like they know you after they’ve read your book. This isn’t just because your words have lived inside their heads for days—it’s because they read with an intensity and an abandon that “sophisticated” adult readers often don’t allow themselves.
But it’s precisely this kind of intimacy that I hope for when I write for young readers. That my work—words that somehow bubble up from the deep, sometimes dark wellspring of my own childhood—will reach another human being just in the nick of time. It’s what the late, great Leonard Cohen called the moment when “the emergency becomes articulate.” When something that I’ve written—out of my own emergency, my own need to express myself—ministers to someone else’s emergency.
What’s miraculous is that this actually happens. Just about every time a child closes a book. As many YA authors will attest, kids come up to us all the time and whisper, “You told my story.” I’ve heard these words from kids in prison for gang-related activity who’ve read my book about a child soldier from Cambodia. And from sexual-assault survivors who’ve read the story of a girl from Nepal sold into a brothel. As well as from kids in white-picket-fence homes. These young readers have imaginations so powerful and unrestrained, it’s as if they’ve joined me as collaborators in creating a story.
And when I write for readers whose hearts are so wide open, I open myself. I make them my confidantes. I bare my soul, my sometimes lonely, often gloomy, occasionally ecstatic, always messy, stubbornly teenage soul. Adults who don’t have the privilege of writing for kids may not understand the gift it is to have that kind of trust in your readership. Nor do they, I suspect, appreciate what an honor it is to be a kind of tour guide through that lonely, gloomy, ecstatic, messy passage known as adolescence.
But then, they might not get the e-mails we do. The ones that say, “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” Or even, “Your book saved my life.”
How incredibly lucky we are, as authors who write for young adults, to connect with such honest, unguarded readers. Even if the fan mail also sometimes reads like this: “Dear Patricia McCormick, I liked your book but, to tell you the truth, you are not my favorite author. James Patterson is. Do you know him?”
Patricia McCormick’s Honor Roll
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (1974)
I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This, by Jacqueline Woodson (1994)
The Language of Goldfish, by Zibby Oneal (1980)
A Step from Heaven, by An Na (2001)
Tell Me Everything, by Carolyn Coman (1993)
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