I didn’t read young adult novels until I was out of my teens. This was partially due to the fact that the genre didn’t exactly exist when I was in my teens, and partially due to harassment from my parents and teachers, who nagged me to stop reading “easy” books (aka books written for kids my own age) and start reading more “challenging” literature. Apparently they didn’t actually care WHAT that more challenging literature was, as long as it took me longer than an hour or two to read, which is why I spent most of junior high reading The Clan of the Cave Bear series and the entire Anne Rice canon. (And of course, in high school, I mostly read books to impress boys.)
The first real YA book I read was Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas (not Matchbox Twenty Rob Thomas; Veronica Mars/Party Down Rob Thomas), and I read it as an assignment in college. My education professor hand-picked books for each of the aspiring English teachers to read (I remember she gave my friend Cam a Louise Erdrich novel — maybe The Antelope Wife?) and I got Rats Saw God, the first true modern YA book I ever read.
Here is the first sentence of Rats Saw God: “Though I tried to clear my head of the effects of the fat, resiny doobie I’d polished off an hour before, things were still fuzzy as I stumbled into senior counselor Jeff DeMouy’s office.”
Wait. FAT RESINY DOOBIE??? Could you SAY that in children’s literature?
I was amazed by how real the characters and situations in Rats Saw God were — it was as if Rob Thomas had actually spoken to a real, live teenager sometime after the Reagan administration ended. The characters were complex, surprising, and disappointing (though not, I’ll admit, nearly as awesome as Logan Echolls — that would come later).
The next YA book I read was Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher, which won me over with its ambition and honesty (and then utterly destroyed me — repeatedly — with its unflinching look at tragedy and humanity). And then! Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, which I love equally! It’s also true, and smart, and inspiring, and scary, and real.
Then I discovered Sarah Dessen, whose book This Lullaby had just been published, and I loved her for her quirky characters, her thoughtful portrayals of girls and their friendships — with other girls, with their sisters and mothers, and with boys — girls who were far more real and nuanced than the characters I’d read growing up. (I actually owned a book called Boys! Boys! Boys! which was a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book JUST FOR GIRLS! which meant that all the “adventures” were different dudes. “If you decide to share an ice cream soda with Tad, turn to page 38. If you want to go for a car ride with Bobby, turn to page 56. If you attempt to go on BOTH DATES, turn to page 97, you evil slut!” And so forth.)
And then John Green’s Looking for Alaska came out, and I was officially hooked on YA.
So when I started to write my own YA novel, it was with all these books in mind — Rats Saw God, Whale Talk, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, This Lullaby (and also The Truth About Forever, which was published in my first year or two of teaching), and Looking for Alaska — that I started writing what eventually became The Princesses of Iowa.