This past summer, shortly after my first two books were published, my father called me up with a question from our family dentist.
“Dr. Schilkie wants to know why you started writing books for teens. I didn’t know the answer so I thought I’d ask you.”
I should mention here that my parents, God bless them, spent the better part of last year telling everyone they knew about my books, including our long-time family dentist. My parents’ marketing strategy aside, Dr. Schilkie had asked a good question. In fact, I did some interviews with local papers right before my books came out, and a few reporters asked me the same thing. Why did I want to write for teens? I have to admit, I hadn’t really thought about it until then.
Growing up, there were many books that made me want to become a writer—Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders—I could go on and on. But when I really sat and thought about it, I realized it wasn’t books so much, but movies that made me want to write for teens.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 80s when the young adult genre was more limited than it is now. Or maybe it’s because when I first began writing longer fiction, I wrote screenplays. Still, why teens?
I trace the reason back to a Friday night in the spring of 1984. I went to see Sixteen Candles at the Franklin Theater in downtown, Nutley, New Jersey with a group of my friends. As the lights dimmed, I sat in the theater expecting to see yet another movie that happened to have teens in it and left feeling that finally, finally, someone had made a film for teens. Not only that, but someone had written a movie for teens like me.
That night, John Hughes saw me.
He spied me in my faded denim jacket with the collar turned up, trying desperately to fit it without standing out, and let me know that not only could he see me, I mattered. He understood the kids who haunted the back row of every classroom, the ones who waited in the bleachers at the high school dances, the high school seniors who would graduate without special mentions in the yearbook.
For those who have never seen Sixteen Candles, Samantha—the protagonist played by Molly Ringwald—wakes up on the day she turns sixteen, expecting big things only to find her entire family has forgotten her birthday. Unfortunately for Sam, it also happens to be the day before her older sister’s wedding and everyone’s preoccupied. Sam’s also hopelessly in love with Jake Ryan, the popular senior who’s so gorgeous he makes a sweater vest look cool. But Sam doesn’t think Jake knows she’s alive. Meanwhile, the retainer-wearing freshman geek played by Anthony Michael Hall pursues her relentlessly.
There’re embarrassing grandparents, an exchange student name Long Duk Dong, and one of the most goose bump-inducing endings ever. I believe John Hughes invented “the big reveal.” To me, this film was and is pure magic.
Had it not been for that film, and John Hughes’s subsequent teen masterpieces—The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Pretty in Pink (he wrote but didn’t direct the latter)—I’m not sure if all these years later, I would have become an author of young adult novels.
It wasn’t only the stories, it was the music. The soundtracks to John Hughes films added an entirely different dimension to his films and the songs he chose became the soundtrack to my entire 1980s existence. There were the Thompson Twins and Patti Smith in Sixteen Candles; Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, and The Psychedelic Furs in Pretty In Pink, and the song that defined The Breakfast Club, Don’t You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds. And yes, it’s possible John Hughes invented the playlist too.
I don’t know that in the spring of 1984 the notion that someday I could write books for teens ever entered my mind. I probably couldn’t see past my own sixteenth birthday. But John Hughes inspired me. He taught me to take a step back and laugh at the things I hated about high school and he gave me something to do as I sat in the back of the room. I became a silent observer with a purpose; gathering material I would use one day, even if I didn’t know exactly when and how. John Hughes made me want to grow up to be the kind of adult who never forgot what it was like to be sixteen.