VT Teen Lit Mob Keynote Speech
Usually when I give talks, I have a few notes, but mostly I follow my heart and wing it, which seems to suit everyone just fine. Whenever someone’s reading from a paper, I always feel like it made them seem less clever, or like they’re too nervous to get in front of a group of people and talk. Of course we all want to seem cool and like we’ve got it totally together—we want everyone to think it’s not the least bit terrifying to stand in front of a crowd for thirty minutes and hope you can keep them from falling asleep. I used to be an actor, so reading from the script on stage always seemed like amateur stuff. I pretty much decided that I would never write out my talks, even though I’m a writer and I’d probably be doing everyone a favor by sticking to what I do best.
However, when I saw on the schedule that I was giving a Keynote Speech I decided that I’d better bring more than just my A game. “Keynote” sounds so official, so important—to me, it sounded like something I could totally screw up. Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling give Keynote Speeches. Heather Demetrios does presentations and intimate hang-outs with her readers. I confess, my ego got involved. It wasn’t enough to say some things that inspired you and let you go on your merry way. Suddenly I decided I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than making you see books in a way you’d never seen them before. I’m a girl who’s always liked a challenge, so let’s see how I do.
First, I’d like to thank all of you for being here—it’s pretty much Heaven on Earth to have a whole day to geek out over books and writing. There are so many amazing books on the Green Mountain Book Award list and I’m honored that I’ll Meet You There has been nominated. In fact, I’m totally floored. It means so much to me that this book—the one I call the book of my heart—has found its way into other people’s hearts as well. I’d also like to thank everyone who’s played a part in making this event happen, especially Peter Langella from Champlain Valley Union High School, librarian extraordinaire by day and super writer by night, for inviting me and being so supportive of my work. It takes a lot of time to wrangle authors and students and teachers, to find a space to get a bunch of people together, and to organize all the details. The only reason people go to all this work is because they love books and they know how life-changing they can be. It’s why I write, and I suspect it’s why a lot of you read.
When I got the call to come out here, it was a no-brainer—I love Vermont. I’m originally from Los Angeles and now live in Brooklyn, but Vermont has had a special place in my heart ever since I got my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. I love all the art that happens here, the natural beauty, Ben and Jerry’s…But what I’ve really come to love are the people. I have made some of my best friends in Vermont, and even though not all of them are actually Vermonters, I think there’s something in the air here because it seems to bring pretty fantastic people together. There is honestly nowhere else I’d rather be right now then here with all of you fine people.
This week I’ve had the chance to do workshops and presentations at Essex High School and Champlain Valley Union High School and it’s been so much fun getting to know Vermont teens. We talked about heartbreak and dreams and haters; we talked about the things we’re excited about and the people that inspire us. We talked about books and writing and Spring Break plans. Many of these students had the opportunity to write letters to Heartbreak as part of a project I’m doing for an anthology I’m editing called Dear Heartbreak, which comes out next Valentine’s Day. Some of these letters will be chosen for the anthology and answered by YA writers like Becky Albertalli, Andrew Smith, and A.S King. Some of you might be taking this workshop with me later today and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got hidden inside of you.
Since the letters are anonymous, I told the students to write from the heart, to write the secrets they can’t tell anyone, to let it all out. No one could possibly know who they are—they didn’t put their names on the letters and I can’t recognize their handwriting because I’ve never seen it before. This gave these writers freedom, a chance to put some blood on the page. What I read each night in my hotel room after I left the schools blew me away. Though these letters are anonymous, I feel like I know every single one of these writers. They are brave, gutsy letters that show, more than anything, that every person you know is hurting. Everyone.
Guys just as much as girls. Seniors just as much as Freshman. The coolest, prettiest girls in those classrooms are going through the same stuff as the kids those girls barely know exist. They feel unloved, rejected, ignored. There are horrible things happening at home and friends they don’t know how to help and drama like you wouldn’t believe. I can’t even make this stuff up, which is saying a lot because I’m starting to get a reputation for going to some pretty dark places with my books.
I’m doing this project for the same reason that I started writing YA in the first place: there is a part of me that will be seventeen years old forever—but not in a weird Edward Cullen vampire way. And that seventeen-year-old Heather who was too scared to use her voice, too scared to stand up for herself, is finally ready to tell the world what’s up. And this is what’s up: it’s really freaking hard to be a teenager, and it’s really annoying to have the adults in your life treat you as though your heartbreak and your struggles and your dreams and your secrets are just a “phase.” When I was a teen, we didn’t have young adult books like there are today. I wish I’d had novels like I’ll Meet You There or Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda or My Heart and Other Black Holes to read. I would have been able to see that I wasn’t alone, that there were people who were just as poor or confused or hurt as I was. I would have been able to see that love—real true love—wins. Every single time. As Lin Manuel-Miranda of Hamilton fame said last year at the Tony Awards, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, [it] cannot be killed or swept aside."
My book that’s been nominated for the Green Mountain Book Award, I’ll Meet You There, is a love story. It’s about people who find each other and fall in love despite the odds, despite their huge differences, despite war and poverty and bombs and drunk mothers and dead fathers and dead best friends. It’s about people who overcome the challenges of being young and scared and confronted with a world that promises to be so much harder than they could have ever imagined. But it’s also my love story. It’s a story about me falling in love with a character who couldn’t be more different than me if he tried.
Josh Mitchell is a nineteen-year-old Marine who went to war because joining the Marines was his only option. He was poor and didn’t like school and the Marines were offering a signing bonus. It was that or work on local agricultural farms for minimum wage in 110-degree heat, or maybe become a truck driver or work in a factory—if he was lucky. So, no brainer, right? He chose the Marines. While he was in Afghanistan he stepped on a bomb. By the time he came home, he’d lost his leg, his best friend, and his entire future.
Josh is kind of a jerk. I’d use other words to describe him, but they’re not appropriate. If I’d met Josh before he became a wounded warrior, I would have written him off as a dumb jock who only cared about sex, beer, and sex. And I wouldn’t have been wrong.
But I wouldn’t have been right, either.
When Josh first appeared in my book, he was supposed to be a small character that we only saw once or twice, not really part of the story at all. He was going to be set design, to show how hard-up Creek View was, and how sad the lives of the people there were. He would have just been an object of pity, something Josh Mitchell hates more than anything else. And then, when my writer friends forced me to really look at him, Josh became the heart of the book. In fact, he became the only reason I wrote the book. My dad is a Marine with PTSD, which means he went to war and saw some bad stuff, maybe did some bad stuff, and then he came home and no one gave a crap. So this guy who fought for his country and who was now psychologically messed-up had pretty much no pride left. My dad became an alcoholic, then a drug addict. When he talked about the war—the Gulf War—he’d get this faraway look in his eyes and I’d realize he wasn’t with me anymore, he was there—in Iraq, and Kuwait. With his buddies. When my dad came back from the war, he couldn’t hold down a job, couldn’t keep a promise, couldn’t do anything. So it makes sense that when Josh Mitchell appeared in my book I was like, whatever, dude, I feel bad for you but, like, I can’t deal. Go away.
The process of writing Josh made me realize something important, and if this is the only thing you remember about my talk today, it’s this: books are one of the best ways we can understand people we never thought we could care about. When you read a book—or write a book—it’s an intimate act, it’s getting inside a stranger’s skin and seeing the world through their eyes. And because you’re in the thick of things with them, you start to understand them. You start to care about them.
You start to love them.
This is the only way I can explain that aside from my husband, Josh Mitchell is the freaking love of my life. Who would of thought that a girl who read War and Peace for fun and loves having afternoon tea at fancy hotels could fall for a boy who sometimes has nothing better to do than throw empty beer bottles at abandoned gas stations for fun? This is the guy who hit another person’s car, then left a note on the windshield that said Oops. He is the bro-est bro you could ever imagine. And I love the hell out of him.
One thing I realized about Josh—and all of the Marines and Soldiers I talked to when doing research for this book—is that he’s kind of a poet. He would come up with these phrases like she broke through the mess of me, that I would never expect a dude who didn’t finish a book until he was eighteen to say. I once asked a Soldier who’d been in Afghanistan to describe what the country looked liked from the air—he was a medevac—and he said, “moon dust.” He gave me permission to steal that for the book. Guys in the military get a bad reputation, and sometimes for good reason. But there is more honor and dignity and loyalty in their ranks than I’ve seen anywhere else in my life. The guy telling fart jokes on base and reading Maxim is the same one who’d take a bullet for any Marine he’s fighting beside, and is willing to put himself in danger to protect a family from suicide bombers. That’s Josh Mitchell. I wrongly assumed that guys like Josh weren’t intelligent, that they didn’t have a soft side. But then he’d be so incredibly sweet and generous in the book and that would throw me—suddenly, I had to look at my prejudices and my unfair assumptions. I had to realize that I was kind of a bigot, that I was too quick to judge books by their covers. Writing this book opened my eyes, made my heart and my world a little bigger. It made me a better person.
This is the power of books. The power of story. When you hear someone else’s story—their truth, what they’ve been though, what hurt they’re hiding—when you really listen to them, it’s sort of impossible to hate them, or think you’re better than them. And we need books because books are a safe place for us to learn about other people and cultures and religions. I’d spent my whole life being against the military, even though practically everyone in my family is either in the Marines or the Army. Even my mom was a Marine. To me, the military was the opposite of everything I was about. I’m an artist. I love flowers and New York City museums and silk and poetry. I wanted nothing to do with drill sergeants and guns and going on patrol and following orders.
But then I spent over two years talking to Marines and Soldiers about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. One is a special forces dude who secretly loves romances. Another has spent his life after the war trying to get therapy dogs into military bases and hospitals, because he knows it’s the best way to get these men and women back to themselves and it’s what saved him. Another told me how to get your dead friend’s blood out of your combat boots so you don’t get in trouble during inspection. After that, it became impossible to see these people as strangers. Once I heard their stories, I cared about them. And once I cared about them, it became really hard to judge them for the life they had chosen. All of a sudden, I was asking my dad to teach me the songs he learned in boot camp and I was writing checks to help veterans and I began fantasizing about adopting one of the bomb dogs that the military uses in war. Believe it or not, they have PTSD too. Just like the Soldiers they serve with, these dogs are messed-up from combat and coming home is sometimes the hardest part.
We live in really scary times. If you believe some of the stuff that’s in the news today, it would be easy to be afraid of people who are different, to believe that our country is safer if we keep Muslims out or build walls or deny women the equal pay or the healthcare they need. It would be easy to think that people are poor because they’re lazy or that there’s something wrong with people who are gay or trans or bi. It would be easy to think that dumb jock bro Marines don’t have beautiful souls or the biggest hearts you could ever imagine.
So this is my challenge to you: if there’s a group of people you don’t like, read a book about them. If you don’t understand gay kids, read Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. If you can’t figure out why a kid in your class tried to kill himself, read My Heart and Other Black Holes or 13 Reasons Why. If you don’t get the whole Black Lives Matter movement, read The Hate U Give. If there’s a culture you don’t understand or a religion that seems insane to you, listen to the stories of people who are part of those cultures and religions. I bet you’ll have the same experience I did with Josh Mitchell: when you listen to someone’s story, when you see the world through their eyes, they become family. They become a part of you.
Everyone is hurting. Everyone matters. And at the end of the day, that’s what books are all about.
Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.
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