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UN-LADYLIKE

Being a teenage girl was hard: school, parents, just generally having a head on top of a body. I’ve had a little distance from those years, but I haven’t forgotten how rocky they were, or how the right book could throw me a life raft as I navigated the salty teen seas of body pressures, boy pressures, balancing-a-gazillion-things pressures. I love writing for young adults because I get to tap into those years, channel some of my feelings and experiences into fiction with the hopes of writing books that reflect the messiness of growing up, especially growing up a girl.

In my second book, Dear Universe, Chamomile is an eighteen year old girl who feels like she’s living in two worlds: one involves senior year and graduation and friends and boyfriends and the other world is her home life where her dad is dying of Parkinson’s Disease. It took almost three years to write this book. It’s raw and personal, as I drew from my own experience of having a dad with a degenerative illness. In setting out to write this story, I wanted a female character who was real, who didn’t always do the right thing, and certainly didn’t have perfectly contained emotions. One of the narratives I’d unknowingly swallowed as a teen of our patriarchal society is that angry girls are crazy girls. Girls can’t get mad without being called insane, impolite, volatile, uncivilized. While sadness is a fine emotion for a girl – tears, trembling lips, dripping mascara – anger is a taboo response, especially to something like a sick parent.

In high school I had a punching bag in my basement and after school I’d tear into it in a dark room where no one could see how strongly I felt about all the things happening to me. I didn’t want to seem negative or aggressive, but I was mad that my dad was sick and my boyfriend dumped me and I didn’t get the grade I wanted in European history class. In writing Dear Universe, I wanted a character who reflected the messiness I felt as a teen and to do that she needed space to get angry. It’s not necessarily exemplary – in one scene Cham throws food at her ex-boyfriend – but as a teen, I know I would’ve benefited from more examples of girls feeling a range of human emotion, without always being in perfect control.

I hope that after reading Dear Universe teen girls feel that it’s okay to feel ugly stuff and “lose composure”. I hope the story provides permission, if readers need it, to feel whatever they’re feeling, even when it doesn’t seem in line with what others are experiencing. One of the reasons Cham feels she needs to keep her universes separate is that she doesn’t think anyone at school will understand her struggle. Once she opens up to someone and merges her worlds, a lot of her shame disappears. For any teen out there who feels isolated, whether trying to make sense of a sick parent and the accompanying conflicting emotions of guilt and terror, or just navigating high school and the fear of the future while everyone else seems thrilled about graduation – I hope they find something in Dear Universe that makes them feel seen.

As I enter my late twenties I’m becoming (ironically) more angry about the double standard I internalized between men and women. In writing Dear Universe and giving Cham an experience similar to my own, I realized how much I’d suppressed my emotions about my dad’s sickness, subconsciously believing that an angry guy is just an angry guy whereas an angry girl is a monster. It’s a gift of fiction to shed light on the shadowed spaces in our lives, whether we are reading stories or writing them. The more examples teen girls have of characters like Cham who are imperfect in their hurt and anger, but still worthy of truth and love, the better chance we have of undoing harmful engrained ideas about how women and girls should and shouldn’t behave. We can’t be ourselves until we stop pretending. While Dear Universe doesn’t have a tidy ending – because who in life gets anything resembling that? – what Cham does find in the end is someone she doesn’t have to pretend around. With all the pressures of high school and growing up, that’s a bigger ask than it sounds like. My dad says the best compliment you can get at your funeral is that everyone says the same thing about you – you were exactly yourself your whole life, no matter who you were around. Cham isn’t totally there yet, but I hope she can show teen readers they’re allowed to express anger in spaces beyond the basement. Complicated emotions can see the light.