Last night I attended yet another brilliant event at Children’s Book World of Haverford. I want to hug them close, those ladies at CBW. They get the best authors, they’re absurdly kind in ways that we rarely see in the world, and they produce very well run events considering their very small space. (I totally want to hold my first YA launch party there. I’m actually kind of sad that Serenade can’t launch there because I adore them so much.)
At the event last night, Sarah J. Maas was on her tour for HEIR OF FIRE and joining her were Susan Dennard (SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY series), Tiffany Schmidt (SEND ME A SIGN, BRIGHT BEFORE SUNRISE) and Elizabeth Norris (UNRAVELING series).
I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah for the first time back at YA Runs a 5k and Susan, well, Sooz is the reason my critique partners and I know each other. (This time, I had to avoid hugging her because I’m sick with a somewhat terrible cold.) Tiffany’s a Philadelphia area writer and seriously one of the most genuine and kind people you’ll ever meet–and also Send Me A Sign is one of my favorite YA contemporaries and it has a treasured spot next to my bed because I reread it so often. I haven’t read Liz’s books yet but I’ve added them to my TBR list!
Per usual when you get Susan and Sarah in a room together, it was an event full of laughter and hilarious stories about high school (Tiffany, you’re still terrible for that, you know) and it was lots of fun. It’s been a long week here in my life, on top of getting sick, and I almost didn’t go to the event. I’m glad I did.
One of the things that came up thanks to awesome moderator Kim from Midnight Garden book blog is how the four authors got their start in writing YA in particular. And all four of them said that first, they started writing as young adults and so it came naturally out of that. (Like Liz, I wrote my first book in my 9th grade science class!) And all four of them said that the books that they read at that age were hugely influential.
In the room, there were girls who were clutching Sarah’s books to their chests, nearly hysterical with anxiety about what they were going to say to her. There were girls who audibly sighed whenever Sooz said Daniel’s name. There were girls who giggled right along with Liz as she talked about the swoony boys she wrote into her books. And there were girls who nodded right along to Tiffany as she said that she wrote Brighton to be the nice popular girl who has no idea who she is because she’s working so hard at being nice and that means conforming to others’ expectations of her instead of her own identity.
With every generation, there’s a new set of books that young readers clutch to their chests. When I looked around last night, I thought about what it would have meant to me to meet Tamora Pierce or JK Rowling as a kid. I nearly wept at the thought of it.
One summer, my parents were sick of me rereading Tamora Pierce books on an endless loop and they gave me a stack of Adult Literature that was Better For Me and Important to Read. (With the exception of Austen, all were written by cishet old dead white men. Because canon!) I resented them, a lot, and in a fit of fury only teenagers can possess, I read the whole stack in a few days. I just sat down and read straight through. I retained almost nothing, dumped the books back on their bed, and went back to trying to being confused right along with Alanna about why Liam couldn’t handle her being a woman who wears a dress and a woman who is also a knight.
I learned more from Anne of Green Gables, Laura on the prairie, Meg Murray, Alanna, Daine, Aly of Pirate’s Swoop, Harry, Ron, and Hermione than I learned from whoever the main characters are in Sense and Sensibility and no, I’m not looking it up, I can’t be bothered. That’s how much I dislike that book and yes, I’m coming clean about it. (To defend myself, I adore Austen’s Emma like nobody’s business.)
The books we read as kids do shape us. As a kid, I was fearless. I spent most of my young childhood wandering around in Southern New Jersey with our neighbor boys, never once worrying about a thing. Mom rang a cowbell on the front porch at dinner time. I always had a book with me and my best friend Jessie and I believed we were half dragons, and then Animorphs, and then both dragons and Animorphs because why the hell not and the abandoned rotting car in the swamp behind my house was the best place to hunt monsters.
I remember the first time I felt crushed into a gender box. I remember the first time that I felt little pieces of me flying away because I could no longer live in fantasy land anymore. I remember the first time I felt nostalgic. Children aren’t nostalgic. Adults are nostalgic. Nostalgia’s about freedom at the heart of it. And we have turned twelve year olds into people who experience nostalgia. We bury them in standarized tests and gender expectations and societal norms. We ask them what they want to do with their lives when they just want to know how they’re passing their math test, if their best friend is going to speak to them again, and if Kevin, or Alexandra, is ever going to ask them to the Mistletoe Ball.
Books give us back freedom. When we’re young, they teach us to dream. When we are middle schoolers, they teach us to hope. When we are high schoolers, they give us space to breathe and be free again. They let us break out of the expectations and pressures that crush us into little boxes (on a hilltop, little boxes made of ticky tacky) and let us be who we’d be if society wasn’t so goddamn twisted these days.
The girl next to me at CBW last night was all legs and arms, her long blonde hair reminiscent of Celaena’s, braces on her teeth, and Heir of Fire trapped between her arms. She hummed with energy. She videotaped the whole thing, and she watched the Q&A with shining eyes. The world won’t be kind to her. It just won’t. But if for a few hours a day, she gets to be Celaena who lives in a cruel and unfair world but finds moments of beauty, truth, and friendship all around her, then we’ve done right by her.
This probably rambled on quite a bit, but anyways. It was a great event, and I finally (yes, I know, I’m late to the bandwagon) read Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas last night. And yes, yes, yes, it totally lived up to the hype and it was incredible and I must have the next books asap.
“You could rattle the stars,” she whispered. “You could do anything, if only you dared. And deep down, you know it, too. That’s what scares you most.”
-Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas