The question this go-round was very simple - what novel (or novels) do you wish you had read the summer before your senior year in high school? (Consider this post a letter to your teenage self.) This is a question that hit very close to home for me. I spent that last high school summer working a couple of jobs and hitting the beach as much as possible. I read a lot of books, few of which I can remember now. My favorites were the same ones I had loved for years: Little Women and A Wrinkle in Time. Unfortunately, as I was not living through the Civil War nor seeking my lost father on the planet Camazotz, neither book was necessarily helpful to me. I loved them but as far as providing guidance on planning the coming years, they were sorely lacking.
There are many books I wish I had been able to read that summer including Pamela Dean's wonderful collegiate fantasy, Tam Lin (a title I still return to every year). Mostly though, I wish Sara Ryan's amazing Empress of the World was available in July 1985. For so many reasons I love this book but most particularly it is the way Sara shows teenagers working things out on their own - falling in and out of love, making friends, making academic choices and most importantly, viewing their parents with eyes both shrewd and wise - that makes me wish it was there for me as I was turning 17. Empress is a book about four teens finding their ways in the world and realizing that those individual paths are theirs to choose, regardless of the actions and expectations of others. The road might be tough and involve some bruising to the heart but it is still their road to choose.
That's what I needed help with back then - owning the choice of my future.
Sara wrote a sequel to Empress, The Rules for Hearts, which is also quite lovely and two companion mini comic books, Click and Me and Edith Head. I have copies of both the comics and love them but Me and Edith Head - well, that one is really special. Set before Empress this is all about the flamboyant character Katrina and how she learned to tap her inner fashionista and emulate the abundant creativity of Oscar winning costume designer, Edith Head. Seeing your parents as someone separate from yourself is a key element to Katrina's story. It is again about making your own choices and seeing where they take you. These are not stories about being wild or foolish (although there is a little bit of that, of course,) but rather being wild and brave and smart. Mostly though, Sara writes about being who you are. That last summer I didn't know how to figure that out and I think her characters would have helped me; they would have saved me many years of frustration until I finally got brave enough on my own.
Here then are the books the group wish they had read back when they were about enter the wide wide world:
Beth Kephart: "Dear Beth, The world doesn't conform to your own ideas about it. It leaks. It scrambles out toward unseen possibilities, and between the cracks, beauty lies. Read Michael Ondaatje. Read Coming Through Slaughter, his pastiche of a book about Buddy Bolden and New Orleans and crimes of the heart. Watch for how Ondaatje himself walks onto the page and stays there. That's what writers must do. That's what you must do, when you begin to write for real. Open yourself and leave some of it behind. Let the world know how you loved, let it see how you hurt."
Neesha Meminger: "That summer before final year high school was rife with confusion and a lot of pain. The guy I'd been involved with turned out to be a jackass (actually, he was a jackass all along - it just took me a while to figure out what everyone else already knew); the misunderstandings at home were at all time highs with my parents blaming me for everything that was going wrong in my life; and I was the primary witness in a court case I did *not* want to be a part of. I also had signed up for therapy at the local Youth Clinic (yes, at fifteen) and discovered that some of the things I thought were normal in my childhood actually were NOT. So, yeah. My plate was overflowing and I was having a hell of a time keeping it all together. The support I received was not from my parents, or any family members. All the support and guidance I got then was from school folks - teachers, guidance counselors, librarians - and from the counselors at the Youth Clinic where I had weekly sessions. I can honestly say these adults literally saved my life. The direction I was headed before I sought these folks out was not a good one.
Part of what made everything so tough was all the different realities hitting me all at once. I always understood patriarchy and its role in my life as an Indian girl. I understood that men and boys had certain privileges and this was widely accepted (and enforced), without question for the most part, by the women around me. I understood that to be a good girl meant being soft-spoken, obedient, "feminine", compliant. I also understood our role as Indian people in Canadian society - to be good brown folks meant being quiet, invisible, knowing our place, and not wanting more than the powers that be thought we deserved. I also understood class - I knew that the people who were most popular in school were not the ones who were most intelligent, or most generous, or the most kind. They were the ones with the flashiest cars, the trendiest clothes, the newest gadgets.
All of these things I knew in my bones, saw all around me, and understood at my core, but I did not have words for them yet. And the injustice of it all became a bitter pit in my belly. An anger I didn't know how to voice. So, rather than express it - because I was supposed to be quiet as a brown person, and soft-spoken as an Indian daughter - I swallowed it. And it almost destroyed me.
The books that would have helped me at that time are works like Hidier's BORN CONFUSED, Dessen's DREAMLAND, Anderson's SPEAK, and Sapphire's AMERICAN DREAMS. The romance novel I wrote, JAZZ IN LOVE, was written for the me of that time, and the paranormal my agent is shopping now is written in the same vein. As an author, I write to that broken place in myself, knowing that I wasn't alone then, and all of the things I was struggling with haven't been resolved - which means there are oodles of teens still battling those very same issues, and still with no validation or acknowledgment of their struggles. A few years after I moved to the U.S., my mother told me about several news stories that had broken out in Canadian news: they were of a string of Sikh teen suicides, one after another within a six-month period, all across the nation. I knew I could easily have been one of them during those same years in my life. The isolation, the extreme disillusionment, and the lack of validation, understanding, and reflection - ANYWHERE - of one's reality is maddening--and sometimes unresolvable--if there's nowhere to turn to."
Laurel Snyder: "I'm trying really hard to imagine the book I needed that summer, and I'm struggling. Most of all, what I wish I could give to my 18 year old self is a sense of home, of place, of how much Baltimore was/is worth to me. I was in such a rush to leave, so ready. From Grateful Dead Shows to weekend debate tournaments, I took any excuse to run away. Then I went faaar away for college. I don't regret the adventures I've had, or the places I've lived. I've had a time! But never made it back home and that will always make me sad. So I wish I could send back a book about the loveliness/history/decay/honesty of the Midatlantic. About a girl who appreciates that stuff. A book about someone who finds adventure at home. Does anyone else know of such a book? I spent high school searching out books that fed my need for wild adventure, books that encouraged me to roam-- books like Setting Free the Bears and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. But I never read books about the adventure of home. "
Sara Ryan: "The decision I most regret that I made the summer before senior year was to quit Theatre Guild. TG had dominated my high school life. There were weeks when I spent more time in the scene shop than in class.
But I don't think any book, not even E. Lockhart's fabulous theater-kid-centric Dramarama, could have talked me out of quitting. See, although I explained to friends that I had to quit, because I needed a job to save for college, this was not strictly true. I wanted to save for rent on an apartment with C., who was four years older, and of whom my parents did not entirely approve.
That said, I wasn't totally in thrall to my first serious relationship. Aside from clashes regarding the aforementioned C., I was mostly getting along with my parents, and talking with them about what I was reading.
Thinking about that led me to the books I could have sold to my past self: Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series. For so many reasons: the clear, straightforward prose style; the intricately constructed plots and reversals that compel you to reread to see just how many clues she planted that you missed; the complicated characters who change significantly while remaining essentially themselves. As a writer, I wish I'd had the books to learn from. As a reader and a daughter, I really wish I could've discussed them with my dad."
Lorie Ann Grover: "Dear Sixteen Year Old Self: What I say to you the summer before your senior year is to nourish hope. All this angst you are seeped in will go into your own novels. You'll figure out what has happened, and you'll find comfort and truth in: your folks divorce, your grandmother's cancer, and the end of your ballet career. You'll write novels about these pains and more, and they will touch others. What is happening to you will make a difference to them.
In the meantime, read for hope and read for pleasure. Find authors' greatest life works and listen. Expand your worldview. Find The Book Thief to relish the most beautiful words, and see hope in man's history in the darkest hours. Read Out of the Dust and see the tenacity that runs through a girl like you.
Take time to read backwards. Without embarrassment, hold onto those middle grade novels that you loved. Dip back into the Island of the Blue Dolphins, cry through Charlotte's Web again, and explore the universe further with Miss Pickerell.
Know now, that in the future, you will sign your own novels, "There's hope. Look." So, go read. Find hope. "
Zetta Elliott: "My senior thesis was on The Mists of Avalon, so it's no surprise that I went on to study medieval history in college. I don't regret that, and have vague plans of writing a novel set in the Middle Ages one of these days, but I wish someone had introduced me to Octavia Butler's writing before I went away to college. I think reading Kindred in particular would have helped me to negotiate the two worlds I lived between: English-speaking, working class black girl attending an overwhelmingly white college in a remote corner of Quebec. I was on scholarship and served beer at the campus pub while most of my friends were out on the dance floorâ€¦I think Kindred would have introduced me to the complexities of difference, whether it's based on race, gender, age, class, or region. Dana wanted to be a writer, refused to type her husband's manuscripts, and didn't worry about disappointing her family by following her heart; she was strong, but she had limitations and was humbled by the challenges she confronted in that "other world" (antebellum Maryland). Dana returned to her own world with a missing arm, and so was forever bound to the pastâ€¦I was still in either/or mode as a teen, and reading this book would have taught me a lot about hybridity and the impossibility of cutting yourself off at the root.
I just read Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer and then went looking for all the tweens I knowâ€”yet it's a compelling read for adults, too, especially if you grew up with a mother who didn't quite meet your expectations. It may not be fair, but sometimes what you get is what you getâ€”period. And the narrative doesn't begin with you, the daughter. Mothers have stories to tell, too."
Tanita Davis: "You know what would have been really great to have read before my Senior Year? STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES, by Chris Crutcher. Even when I read it as a college student that book was really pivotal for me, and I really longed for my own version of Ms. Lemry's Contemporary American Thought class, so I could refine my own ideas on abortion, suicide, religion, body image, and social justice. Despite not agreeing with everything said in that class, just the issues discussed made it valuable. I wished Ms. Lemry was real.
I don't think I knew how to think through the grays in life, even as a high school junior. In my conservative Christian school, everything was still so black and white, and my life was still so hemmed in by what I thought were hard-and-fast rules for The Way Things Must Be. Despite living smack dab in the middle of hypocrisy, I was completely blind to it. In spite of the tendency of my peers to put certain people on pedestals, I was still trying
to figure out what made the special people special -- and me so ordinary. On the homefront, I was still trying to have Hallmark Family Moments and didn't realize that most people simply don't live that way, certainly not such deeply dysfunctional people. It hadn't yet occurred to me that some battles you don't win... and that it's okay to walk away. I was reaching for something that didn't exist, based on rules that weren't really rules, and trying so hard to be perfect for reasons that aren't valid. Sheesh, I could have used some Crutcher. Reality check, for sure.