If you had the chance to write a letter to your teen self, what would you say? In Dear Teen Me, YA authors do just that. This book covers topics such as bullying, eating disorders, absentee parents, and teenage crushes. At least a couple of authors mentioned the adage that what doesn’t kill you make you stronger — in the case of Mari Mancusi, she tells her teen self, “What total BS!” Her letter is about being bullied, and her point is that life is hard enough without having to deal with the idea that being bullied can be beneficial. She’s angry at the boy who bullied her and, quite rightly, she’s angry at adults who, well-intentioned though they may be, brush away her feelings with platitudes.
Remember when you were a teen, and adults told you they knew just what you were going through because they’ve been through it themselves? Even then, you know they didn’t, really. You knew they were just trying to help, but even though they may have also gone through a breakup, a flunked test, a mean classmate, whatever, they could never understand exactly what you were feeling. However, what if that adult was you, years in the future?
Dear Teen Me is refreshingly free of the smug, platitudinal knowingness I remember seeing in adults when I was a teen. Or perhaps it’s just because in this case, knowing it all is okay. Somehow it’s easier to accept assertions like “it’ll get better” from someone who knows first hand that your life really does get better. Don’t worry about that boy turning you down; years later you really will find someone else, and you’ll be happily married to him.
Even more powerful are the letters that admit that, guess what, it does get worse. You will get a debilitating nerve disorder. The absentee father you’re jumping through hoops to impress will never notice you. That boyfriend who convinces you to have sex with him will still break up with you. These letters are mostly gentle when imparting harsh truths, because the letter writers know exactly how much it will hurt. Even better though is the message at the end of these letters — it may take years, possibly even decades, but you will survive, you will even thrive.
Reading the book, I kept hearing Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” running through my head, to the point that I watched it on YouTube just to get rid of the ear worm. Certainly, the authors writing to their teen selves have become stronger and wiser. Some authors observe their teen selves making mistakes and wryly comment that their teen selves aren’t fooling anyone with their attempts to be cool. Other authors observe more serious mistakes and tell their teen selves to stop — it’s not worth it. One author even told her teen self to go ahead and commit those mistakes, because they’ve shaped who she became. Through it all, however, the primary message seems not so much to be “Do this,” or even “It gets better,” but rather: I understand.
YA authors wrote the letters in this book, and I can imagine the impact this book will have in revealing that these authors grew up just as dorky and out-of-place, perhaps going through similar experiences, as their readers are. I have to admit I haven’t read most of the authors in this anthology, so I felt the impact of these letters, not as a reader discovering a human side to someone I admire, but rather as a lifelong dork reading about other lifelong dorks. There were some things in these letters I would have wanted to tell my teen self, and I’m sure other readers will also find aspects to relate to.
What would you tell your teen self? I’m not quite sure myself, but this book has certainly got me thinking. I probably will write a letter to teen me — I’ve been composing it on and off as I was reading this book. Then I’ll stick it in some journal or other, and ten years from now, write another letter to teen me. I wonder how different it’ll be.
Now to end with some Kelly Clarkson: