Have you ever wished you could go back in time and share some wisdom or encouragement with your teen-self? Well, in the new anthology Dear Teen Me, coeditors E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally collect over 70 letters from young adult fiction authors who have written to their teen-selves.
From the book description, “The letters cover a wide range of topics, including physical abuse, body issues, bullying, friendship, love, and enough insecurities to fill an auditorium.” This is a wonderful collection of messages that are timely and speak to teens of all ages and walks of life with messages that can make a real difference to someone who is struggling to get through a difficult time. Underwords had a chance to interview coeditor E. Kristin Anderson, and we’re pleased to be able to share her answers with you here.
How would you describe Dear Teen Me for readers who haven’t yet heard of the book?
1 part remember the time, 2 parts it’s gonna be okay, and 3 parts retrospect is 20-20. Also, 100% hilarious/tearjerkery/fun/awww. I think that’s all one thing at this point, regarding the teen years.
What inspired the concept behind Dear Teen Me blog?
I went to see my favorite band from when I was a teen — Hanson — for the first time at 27. My mind was blown, as I suspected it might be. (They are still sooooo good. Probably better, actually.) I went home and wrote an epic blog post about the experience, addressing it as a letter to my teen self. The next day I was talking to my writing group at a cafe about starting a blog based on the concept. We emailed a bunch of our friends, Miranda Kenneally got on board to help put the site together and organize folks, and it just sort of snowballed from there. More like cannonballed. It was amazing.
This project started out as a series of online posts written by various authors, how did it evolve into a printed book? What triggered this idea?
The whole blog-to-book thing is one of those serendipitous moments in publishing where a publisher fairy-godmothers you by surprise at a conference. I met Hallie Warshaw from Zest Books at ALA Annual in New Orleans in 2011. I told her about the Dear Teen Me blog, hoping she might have authors who’d like to post on the site. I had no idea she was the publisher until she handed me her card and said that Dear Teen Me sounded like it would make a great book. Miranda’s agent, Sarah Megibow (the other fairy godmother of Dear Teen Me) got us all on the first of many conference calls and before we knew it we were editing this wonderful anthology. It just goes to show — publishing may not be about who you know (seriously, it’s totally not), but it doesn’t hurt to be at the right place at the right time with the right concept.
What has been the most rewarding aspect(s) of the Dear Teen Me project? What did you enjoy most?
Aside from sharing these amazing letters (on the book and the website) and hearing things like “I feel less alone” and “I feel like I can talk to someone about this crappy thing that happened to me now” and “wow that’s hilarious, I laughed so hard I peed,” I have to say the single best moment was having a girl come up to me at a school visit and show me one of her poems about a toxic friendship. She opened up to me, and showed me something that was not only personal on a writer level, but personal on a feelings level. It made me feel amazing. Oh, also, the second best thing, was when a girl at a school visit told me I reminded her of Garcia from Criminal Minds. Totes awesome.
Do you have any Dear Teen Me stories that are especially near and dear to you? What is it about these stories that affected you so much?
I almost cried while editing Nancy Holder’s story (in the book). And it’s not just the deep emotional content — her story of having to leave ballet school, her hard work choreographing a dance piece to a Rolling Stones song, her father’s passing — but the lyrical nature of her writing. This stuff makes me cry more than sad stories or scary stories. It’s the beauty of the writing. Kind of like Nancy’s stepmother said to her, in the letter — If it makes you cry, why do you listen to it? Because it’s beautiful, Stepmother Holder. Duh!
I’m also consistently touched by P.J. Hoover’s letter. P.J. (or Tricia, to us) is a personal friend who is pretty private bout a lot of things…and when she opened up to talk about her struggle with bulemia, I was so proud of her, and so genuinely honored to be the editor of a story that I know was difficult for her to share. There are many many stories like this in the book, and I’m honored by them all.
I’ll also mention Carrie Jones’ and Don Tate’s stories here. Carrie I’ve known for years, and her story about epilepsy has always been one that I’ve loved to hear, because she uses it to empower herself. Don’s letter about trying so hard to be a “bad boy” and hanging with the wrong crowd shocked me, because Don today is one of the most sweet, gentle guys you’ll meet. And I think that’s important for teens AND adults to read. You can turn that around, embrace something (like in Don’s case, art), and put good into the world. In turn, this good brings good things back to you, which I know Don will attest to. He’s an amazing author/illustrator — a prolific one at that — and if he’d stuck to stealing jeans instead of painting, who knows, right?
If you could say one thing to a teen who is struggling in some way, what would you like to say to him or her?
Talk to someone. A friend, a coworker, a parent, a teacher, someone on the end of a hot line. Even if you think there’s no one you can trust, talk. Get it off your chest. Find help. There IS help out there and you DESERVE it, whether you’re struggling with your grades, your friendships, bullying, substance abuse, mental health, or trouble at home. Someone can help you, and it might not be who you expect. Take Buffy for example: Her tormentor in season one (Cordelia) helps her save the world several times before Season 3. Her mentor is the librarian, her best friends are the class nerds, and when she finally tells her mom her secret about being a slayer, there’s a total blow up…but eventually, the dust settles, and her mom becomes an ally. I know it’s TV, but I think it’s genuine. And I wish I’d followed Buffy’s example better when I was in high school.
Literature can have a powerful influence on readers. What kind of feedback/response have you heard from teens, their parents, or the authors involved?
I think the biggest thing is the “you make me feel less alone” response. Of course, people also tell me how hilarious certain stories are (Geoff Herbach, Tom Angleberger are favorites). But I think that while people love the comedic interludes, they are personally touched by the raw, openness of the letters. One radio host told me that Dear Teen Me put her back in therapy, to finally confront the issues she realized she was still dealing with as a kid who had been bullied. That’s powerful stuff. I write books first and foremost to entertain. But when you hear something like this, it’s amazing. It’s amazing to feel like something you made with your friends is changing someone’s life.
We could all use a little extra advice from time to time, even as adults. Using the same idea behind Dear Teen Me, if you could travel forward in time, what would you most want to know from your older adult-self?
I think I’d tell her that everything happens for a reason. Not in like a God way or in a predetermined prophecy way. But in a don’t-worry-so-much way. I’ve made mistakes, but like I tell myself in my letter, I live without regrets. Silver linings exist, you just have to stick around long enough to realize them.
Looking back at the road to publication for Dear Teen Me, what advice would you give to the yourself when you were just beginning this project?
You know, considering that Miranda and I edited this book without ever meeting in person, I think we did a great job of not going crazy. We used a lot of Google Docs and Drop Box to stay organized, and that was amazing. The people at Zest, including our editor Dan Harmon, were fantastic. And we were very lucky in this respect. I think I’d tell myself that every late night is worth it. I think I knew it would be, because I have delusions of grandeur (every artists needs these delusions to survive, I think), but I want to reinforce that. Stay up late. Keep watching those Buffy reruns. Things will get turned in eventually, and it will be okay. And someday a teenage girl will show you her poem and it will make everything so so so worth it.
What is next on your list of projects?
Right now I have a novel out on submission (fingers crossed) called August Tides. It’s a magical realism novel that takes place on a small island in Maine that is drenched in nautical folklore. The main character, Claire, has just returned home from boarding school to help her sick dad, when a strange boy from the ocean shows up on her front porch. I had a lot of fun writing it and I hope folks will get to read it in the near future! I’m also working on a chapbook of poems about crytozoology, paranormal happenings, and ufology…and a novel about two teens dealing with the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994.