Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
“Letters to the Inner Teen”
by Cynthia Leitich Smith
As an author of young adult books, I’ve written from the perspective of a guardian angel, a were-opossum, and even a pesky human or two. But the character who was the hardest for me to connect with was my own teen self.
Truth was, I’d never liked Cindy Lou. I didn’t at the time, and I didn’t in retrospect.
Cindy Lou defined herself as someone else’s best friend, girlfriend, or daughter. She was overly sensitive and cried too much. She dressed to blend and let other people do her talking. When it was time to give a major presentation for Mr. Pennington’s AP European History class, she became mute.
Don’t get me wrong. Cindy Lou had redeeming qualities. She took the reins of the school newspaper, she was gloriously geeky, albeit in a closeted way, and she shared a name with a Dr. Seuss “Who” child. But she didn’t inspire me.
That became a problem when I agreed to write from her perspective for Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (HarperTeen, 2011) and the forthcoming Dear Teen Me: Authors Write Letters to Their Teen Selves, edited by E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally (Zest, Oct. 2012). It begged the question of why I agreed to do it at all, let alone twice.
But I kept thinking about the many heartbreaking stories of teen suicides—kids from various backgrounds, including those of Native American heritage like my own. I kept thinking about what it means to love yourself when you’re a teen, how tough it can be. I decided to finally try that—loving Cindy Lou—in hope that her truth might make some young readers feel less alone.
In both quasi-memoir pieces, I wrote about Cindy Lou and her bully. The one who mocked the way I walked and dressed, who scrawled hateful names in shaving cream on my parents’ driveway, and who threatened anyone that dared to call themselves my friend. The one who zeroed in on me during fourth grade and persisted through ninth, but then, two years later—on one John-Hughes-worthy, 1980s weekend—was suddenly and sincerely my biggest cheerleader. And I realized that I was there to appreciate it because I’d kept living, day after day. Cindy Lou was kind of a hero after all.
I can’t promise anyone else that kind of Hollywood ending, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s possible. Anything’s possible, as long as you’re around to see it.
I wish I had perfect, healing words for readers who suffer at the hands of bullies. My only hope is that by taking a second and third look at Cindy Lou—finally really seeing and sharing her—that they’ll discover someone who understands what they’re going through and cares.
– An original article by Cynthia Leitich Smith
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Cynthia Leitich Smith. Images courtesy of Cynthia Leitich Smith.
More online resources about Cynthia Leitich Smith:
Hear Cynthia Leitich Smith share the story and pronunciation of her name. Listen Now
Hear Cynthia Leitich Smith introduce and read from her book Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002). Listen Now
See all online resources for Cythina Leitich Smith.