Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I was a high school English geek. I was the nerdy girl who loved and debated every book we read. I was the good friend who helped with essays and theme analyses. I savored each minute of class and could have spent the entire school day reading and writing. We read the greats –Austen, Knowles, Steinbeck, and Lee. Stories about courage, love and discovery. We discussed characters’ journeys and authors’ themes. We explored friendship and family; and I fell in love with Elizabeth Bennet, Gene Forrester, Tom Joad, and Scout.
Inside my own middle-class upbringing, I understood that every teen embarked on a journey to self-acceptance.
I loved to read and write. My path was clear to me. I would major in English Lit and Journalism at USC.
There, my world opened wide. I heard and read about liberal thinkers and journalists like Ted Kennedy, I.F. Stone, Daniel Ellsberg and Geraldine Ferraro.
Like many college students, my innocent suburban childhood crashed head-on into the world’s inequities and injustices. I discovered the underdogs.
I soon understood that my task in life was to tell others’ travels.
My role as a writer would be to give voice to the mute and form to the invisible, tell the stories of real life heroes.
However, after spending internships and short stints reporting on drunk drivers, gang violence and dirty politicians, I quickly ditched the journalism career. This wasn’t the footprint I wanted to leave on the world.
First, one life-changing assignment for a small paper in a sleepy and conservative Southern California community changed my life forever.
It was 1982, and the AIDS epidemic had just begun hogging headlines. My assignment: interview local citizens and gather their reactions to this crisis. I did. Their responses shocked me. I was a 20-year-old journalism student, and they were housewives and businessmen. My worldviews were just opening up. Theirs were mired in the past.
“Homosexuals needed to change their lifestyle.”
“ AIDS is punishment.”
After college and ditching the journalism dream, my path grew murky. I moved to London and travelled. I wrote a novel about childhood, about growing up amidst life’s challenges – death, love, family, and gender stereotypes. It took me another 25 years before I published “This Girl Climbs Trees”. During that time, I married, raised two kids, taught teenagers, and divorced. I lived a life.
Back in California, I was ready to write about that heroic underdog.
As a middle school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve met many young people who struggle with fitting in, how to dress, what to say, whom to friend.
These teens search to define themselves. Many of them find role models in the media. Celebrities entering and exiting rehab. Instagram and YouTube phenoms. Not all exemplify good choices. Not all live a realistic life.
I decided my students lived the real stories I wanted to tell.
My second YA novel, “Birds on a Wire”, begins with a boy – an ordinary likeable kid who anyone might identify with or as a friend. Matt West, a 16-year-old bright and quiet high school junior, struggles with his sexuality. He has two best friends – one with a long-term girlfriend, one with many short-term girlfriends. Matt’s reality makes it difficult to say who he is; he questions how he’s viewed. His friends are loyal but very heterosexual; they illustrate life’s gray areas.
I didn’t want it to be easy for Matt to come out. I didn’t want it to be impossible either. I wanted it to be his choice. His journey.
Matt West is my underdog. He’s a hero I could love because he is so deeply conflicted with expressing his true self and maintaining his lifelong friendships.
I believe this conflict is at the heart of much teen angst. When we reach adolescence, we discover our autonomy; we glimpse our destinies. We arrive at a crossroad between venturing forth to our truth and preserving the foundation of our past. This is our coming of age. A story told repeatedly throughout literature.
With “Birds on a Wire”, I try to tell this story. Matt West must not simply choose his destiny, he must preserve who he is and accept who he can be. Matt must realize the importance of friendship, family, love and honesty; he must own the impact he has on those around him. Matt’s journey is not defined by his sexuality; it is merely his vehicle to self-acceptance. His is every teen’s journey.
Many stories that I read as a teen influenced the characters and themes I developed in “Birds on a Wire”. Here are 5 deeply moving classic novels that demonstrate the teen’s impassioned journey of self-discovery.
“A Separate Peace” by John Knowles
“The Chocolate Wars” by Robert Cormier
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
“Monster” by Walter Dean Meyers