It was a slim little paperback. Dark cover. A boy on the front standing in the mist holding a football helmet. It was The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. I started reading it in my high school's library, slightly embarrassed because everyone else I knew had already read it years before. See, in those days, reading YA was not done by actual young adults – teens, that is – but by younger kids. And I was a senior! This was a kids book, and I read adult books – The Sun Also Rises, War & Peace, The Handmaid's Tale, that sort of thing. As far as I was concerned, The Chocolate War was a kid's book.
But everyone had read it, and I guess I felt like I was missing out. So I picked it up, started reading, and was instantly drawn in. “They murdered him,” it begins, and the story and I were off and running. It's a book about something seemingly trivial – the annual chocolate sale at a school – but the suffocating politics, not to mention the emotional shifts of day to day life, were palpable.
It was the sequel, though, Beyond the Chocolate War, that really got me. Cormier takes Archie, the villain of the original, and goes into his perspective. He was able to take this despicable character and make him sympathetic. Not pitiable, that would have been easy to do. He was still conniving and manipulative, yet I liked Archie. I wanted to help him, to save him. The language of the novel was tight yet beautiful. The pacing perfect. And it really made me think – not just about the issues, but the language, the characters, the plot development. Reading it worked my mind in the same ways that my favorite novels by adults did.
Robert Cormier opened my eyes to what YA could be. I had wanted to be a writer for many years, but it was after reading these books that I declared that I was going to write smart books for smart teens.
Now if only the path had been so straight. Instead, I got a little diverted. I went to college. My protagonists aged along with me. My senior year I took an honors fiction seminar, and explained to my peers my desire to write for teens, and yet my thesis was not YA at all. Perhaps it was my teacher's nonplussed reaction to my statement, or maybe I just needed to do some other kind of writing, but for several years my writing veered away from young adult.
I wrote two novels – one a mess, one that was decent if not great – and many short stories. Some of the stories were published online or in small journals. But really, I was not getting where I wanted to be. Then in the space of about a week, two people told me I should try YA. So I took the teen section from the mess of a novel and tried shape that into a complete novel. Then I was watching Little Miss Sunshine, and thought, “What would happen if one of those girls got fat?” In that moment Dara was born and my novel, Secrets of Truth & Beauty took off from there.
Robert Cormier was my initial inspiration. He hit me hard in the gut with his prose. It took that second spark, though, the movie, to get me to finally write that smart book for smart teens.
Thanks so much Megan! :)