My teenage years were by far the most difficult period of my life, but reading was one of the things that helped me get through. I didn’t read light and fluffy books. Those kinds of stories didn’t speak to me. Instead, I was drawn to dark themes and troubled characters.
In my day, there weren’t that many young-adult authors to choose from, so even though I read the occasional Judy Blume book (thanks to her, I didn’t want to grow up too fast) and all of S. E. Hinton (her books opened my eyes to an even harsher world than I was accustomed to), most of what I read could be found in the adult section of the library. I loved World War II books and still do, and Watership Down by Richard Adams was—and will continue to be—my all-time favorite book. I also read a lot of poetry—the darker, the better. Some of my favorite poets include John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Theodore Roethke.
My absolute favorite poet is William Blake. When I was a teenager, his Songs of Innocence and of Experience spoke to me in a way that nothing else could. Blake was someone who knew how the simple act of living robs us of our innocence. If you don’t believe me, read his “Infant Joy” (from Songs of Innocence) and “Infant Sorrow” (from Songs of Experience).
That beautifully sad theme of innocence vying with experience has stayed with me since I first read Blake in high school, so it’s no surprise that my favorite young-adult books (Crank by Ellen Hopkins and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) delve deeply into that time in our lives when innocence turns to experience, whether we want it to or not.
Those are the kinds of stories I like to write, too. In my young adult novel, A Work of Art, the main character is an artist who battles with innocence and experience. And in the book I’m writing now (as yet untitled), the main character is a poet who longs to replace her own life’s experiences with someone else’s.
When I was a teenager, I used to fantasize about the kind of life I have now—never believing that such a life was within my power. But even though my life is full of joy, it’s the dark themes and troubled characters that speak to my heart. I know what it is to be unhappy. I know how it feels to glean slivers of hope from something you read. I thank those writers who helped me through my teenage years. My goal now is to pay it forward, to give hope to someone who’s maybe going through something and needs to know they’re not alone.