"Dear High School Self: Don't go on a pot run with Steve Campo. You will get arrested, and he will still take Leslie Prat to prom."
— Lauren Myracle, author of Thirteen Plus One
"Dear High School Self: Following Duran Duran is not a good career option."
— Jennifer Ziegler, author of How Not to Be Popular
"Dear High School Self: Do not try to impress girls by writing them sonnets. This tactic last succeeded in the 1620s."
— Nick Earls, author of 48 Shades of Brown
My new YA novel, Gimme a Call, is the story of Devi Banks, a high school senior who, after accidentally dropping her cell phone into the mall fountain, discovers that she can call herself as a high school freshman at age 14. To help spread the word about the book, I came up with a promotion for Twitter, and asked fellow YA authors what they'd tell their high school selves if, say, they too had magic cell phones.
Sara Zarr (author of Once Was Lost) tweeted, "You are NOT FAT. You will be, but you're not now, so enjoy it. #gimmeacall." Her followers responded with advice to their younger selves — and retweeted to their followers. John Green (Paper Towns) and Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book), who have over a million followers each, jumped in with advice to their younger selves, until suddenly, for a fabulous 48 hours, #gimmeacalls were everywhere.
I wasn't surprised that YA authors all had advice for their high school selves. Rewriting our past is what YA authors do, right? We reread old diaries and recall our former obsessions (on my list: my high school boyfriend Andrew, my parents' divorce, my hair. Dear High School Self: Do not get bangs. They will make you look like a chipmunk and you will spend years growing them out.) Then we try to deal with these long-festering issues in our books. Yes, I realized, this is what YA authors do. That's what I do, isn't it?
I thought about Gimme a Call. What were the lessons in the book? On page one, senior Devi's life is a mess. She spends all her energy on Bryan, a boyfriend who dumps her a week before prom. When she gets in touch with her younger self, she orders her to never go out with Bryan in the first place, and instead to focus on schoolwork. Unfortunately, all freshman Devi wants to do is hang out with her friends and spend time with Bryan. By the end of the book, both Devis discover the importance of balance in their lives — they learn how to find the time for boys, friends, schoolwork, and extracurriculars. They learn to be well-rounded.
Something that I wish I had known when I was in high school, right?
Except... I was well-rounded in high school. Really. Sure, I was obsessed with boys (Dear High School Self: Do not kiss two boys in one day — you will get mono), but I had great friends, I got good grades, and I even did a lot of after-school activities. I was yearbook editor. I was student council vice-president. True, I played no sports (Dear High School Self: Play a sport. No, Tetris is not a sport). I even spent quality time with my family. Sure, I found out Andrew had cheated on me with a giggling redhead, got dumped by my best friend, dealt with the aftershocks of my parents' new lives, and had a few hair mishaps (Dear High School Self: Your perm makes you look like you stuck your finger in an electrical outlet), but on the whole I actually enjoyed high school.
So if achieving balance was not one of my high school concerns, when did it become a concern?
Last year. When I was pregnant. When I was writing Gimme a Call. When I was incredibly excited about being a mom, but also a little freaked out about how I was going to manage it. How did one juggle looming deadlines with middle of the night feedings? I wrote Gimme a Call while worrying about how I was going to balance being a good writer/wife/daughter/friend with being a mother. I explored the concept of balance in my novel in an attempt to figure it out. I wasn't giving my younger self advice. I was giving my present — and future — self advice.
My other teen books give advice to my adult self, too.
Bras & Broomsticks: Don't ditch your friends to be popular.
In high school, had I ditched my friends to be popular? Not according to my diaries. I had been ditched — by my best friend. But I wrote Bras & Broomsticks the year I moved from Canada to New York City. The year I had no time for my former friends. I was busy! Meeting writers! Real, semi-famous New York writers! I was going to writer parties! There was no time for former friends.
Yet I wrote about the importance of true friends even while not returning my closest friends' calls.I knew I had to fix my friendships — but I wasn't sure how to start. Writing about the problem showed me how. By the time I got to the last chapter, the "real friends matter" epiphany, I had made my old friends a priority, apologized for my suckiness, and rekindled my relationships.
One more. How to Be Bad: co-written with Lauren Myracle and E. Lockhart. The book is about three girls on a road trip through Florida. We each wrote a character. Mine, Mel, was insecure, never sure if she was saying the right thing. Was I insecure in high school? Not especially. Was I insecure writing with Emily and Lauren? Absolutely. Lauren has made many appearances on the New York Times bestseller list. Emily has a doctorate in 19th-century English literature. Every time I emailed them a chapter, I chomped at my fingernails and worried they'd think I was a hack. (Dear High School Self: Stop biting your nails! It's gross and it just gets harder as you get older.) When we started writing, I wasn't sure what my character's arc would be. But as I wrote with Lauren and Emily, as I became more confident in my capabilities and learned to trust my instincts, so did Mel. We both found our voices.
I'm not the only YA writer who advises her current self. I polled a few friends and they agreed that the issues their characters face are often the issues they're facing as they're writing.
But if our specialty isn't rewriting the past, why were YA authors so willing to play along with my #gimmeacall promotion?
Maybe they just couldn't resist the opportunity to provide themselves with the kind of clear-eyed advice that usually only exists in hindsight.
Being a Monday morning quarterback is fun.
So, High School Me, if you're listening... please just leave your poor hair alone. The blonde highlights weren't a great idea, either.
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Sarah Mlynowski is the author of the Magic in Manhattan series: Bras & Broomsticks, Frogs & French Kisses, Spells & Sleeping Bags, and Parties & Potions. She currently lives in Manhattan and can be found online at sarahm.com.
Books mentioned in this post
Sarah Mlynowski is the author of Gimme a Call