“Love Your Stories”: YA Authors on Championing Your Voice

We live in a time when history is made almost every day. On this blog, we have written about ways of telling our stories, and this recent post on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog provides more tools on becoming historians of our own lives and communities. And yet sometimes, even with all these tools at hand, it can be a struggle to face the enormity of recording our stories. For some, this may seem like an insurmountable task, or a fruitless one.

The truth is that nobody can write your story the way you can. Every person’s story matters just as deeply as any other person’s. But you don’t have to take our word for it. The following young adult and children’s authors share their triumphs and doubts about writing, and they offer their own thoughts on why every single person’s voice holds power.

To see the full author talk, click on the links listed after each quote.

Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Photo by Adedeyo Kosoko.

Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, author of Long Way Down and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (with Ibram X. Kendi)

“I want you to love my stories but not nearly as much as I want you to love your own.  Love your stories. There’s freedom there. There’s power there.  You can, I’m not an exceptional person.  There’s nothing special about me.  I just knew early on in life that my story mattered, and once I was able to grab ahold of it and put it on the page, it made a life for myself.  Just telling my own truth….  Let’s hear it from the kids, and you tell me it’s wrong.”
National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Inauguration, 2020 

Sabaa Tahir, author of An Ember in the Ashes series

“Telling your own story is very intimidating. Telling any story is intimidating. But I would say … you have to start. You have to decide that you’re going to do it. So that’s thing number one. And then… it’s just really important to ask the what-if question. Start with just a single concept… You can write about someone else or about yourself. And you can still be asking those what-if questions of yourself… What if I had done this instead of that? I think starting from that place allows you to really find the story in anything.”
National Book Festival, 2020

Jacqueline Woodson, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, 2018-2019. Photo by Shawn Miller, Library of Congress.

Jacqueline Woodson, former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, author of Brown Girl Dreaming and Harbor Me

“I am often asked about my writing, when you write this book or that book, what were you trying to teach?  And my answer is always the same. I don’t write to teach, I write to learn, I write because I have so many questions that only I can answer and the way can I answer them is by putting pen to paper, the only way I can find the hope I’m looking for in a particular moment, is to put that hope on the page and when I’m done, like many writers, my hope has been that the reader will meet me halfway…[My hope is that] we find the books that tell the stories we need to hear and use those stories to write the next chapter in this country’s history.”
National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Inauguration, 2018  

Meg Medina, author of Merci Suarez Changes Gears and Burn Baby Burn

“I think that we have the idea that you have to go outside for the story, have an amazing life, have amazing ideas, travel… the world. And while that is fun, the place you really have to travel is within to your own stories. To the things that frightened you as a child. The things that fed you as a child. The things that you remember that you can’t understand why you remember. Jot them down … and invariably I think you come to the why it was important. I think that’s what matters in writing children’s books, that we really write their experience honestly and unflinchingly.”
Using Books & Stories to Strengthen Families: A Multicultural Perspective (Symposium on Cultural Diversity) 

Elizabeth Acevedo at the 2018 National Book Festival. Photo by Shawn Miller, Library of Congress. 

Elizabeth Acevedo, author of The Poet X and Clap When You Land

“One piece of writing advice you always get …is ‘write what you know.’ And so [in writing class] I puffed my chest up and I’m like, “Well, I would write about rats.” If you grow up in any major city, you know you some rats. Right? You know, pigeons are just rats with wings. Squirrels are just rats with nice coats. We know them all. Right? And I feel like I’m on Family Feud, like good answer, like I’m ready for my accolade.

And my professor looks at me and goes, “Rats are not noble enough creatures for a poem. Liz, I think you need more experiences”…as if he knew absolutely anything about my life or what I had lived or the experiences that informed my work… And I still wrote that poem. It’s called “Rat Ode.” It’s an official clap back to that professor. But mainly it serves as a reminder for any of us who have ever been told our story is too small or too ugly or too different for high art, that we are all of us deserving of poetry…whenever I’m asked for writing advice, I say write your rats. Write the little ugly things, the markers of where you are from, of who made you, of what makes you, and that is what will resonate.” National Book Festival, 2018 

Kwame Mbalia, author of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

“You have to get out there and tell your story, whether or not someone else understands it…Tell the story that you believe in, and make other people believe in it as much as you do.” National Book Festival, 2020

Have you come across any writing advice that has helped you? Who gave you the advice? What did you do with it?
Remember that recording your story does not only mean writing. Stories are told through photography, oral histories, film, art, and any other medium that fits your storytelling strengths. At this important time in humanity’s history, remember to make your own contribution. You have a legion of brilliant authors and creators, teachers and librarians cheering you on.