One of the great things about writing for young adults is you never run out of things to write about. The teenage years provide such endless drama. When I’m thinking about what to write next, all I have to do is rummage around in the memory banks until I find something that causes a massive psychic ouch and I’m good to go.
This time around, I wanted to tackle one of my major ouch spots of my childhood: being born with no roof to my mouth. In medical terms, this is called a cleft palate. In real life terms, this is called “you talk funny.” As a kid, I got a lot of comments like
“Are you deaf?”
“Are you retarded?”
“You talk like a moron.”
I wish I could say I had some snappy, stinging retort for those comments, but I didn’t. I just cried. My teachers told me not to be so sensitive. (Helpful, guys, thanks!) Needless to say, I didn’t talk a lot at school. Wasn’t a big hand raiser. “Mariah needs to speak up more in class!”
However, when I decided to write a book about a girl with a cleft palate, I didn’t want to write a “It’s so hard to be me” novel. So I started wondering what would happen if a girl who was terrified to speak to people (I suspect there are a lot of us out there, cleft palates or no) had to speak up? What if she had to start asking questions, demand to be heard?
So, what would be so important that she would have to start asking questions?
And that’s when I remembered the Jennifer Levin murder. Jennifer was murdered in 1986 by a boy she knew named Robert Chambers. She was about my age, a New York private school kid like me—and very unlike me. I had evolved from non-speaking, picked on kid to sarcastic but socially acceptable nerd. Jennifer had been pretty, outgoing, and popular, fully engaged in everything New York in 80s had to offer a teenager—both great and not so great.
What if, I wondered, a girl like me and a girl like Jennifer were friends in high school? And the pretty, outgoing one was murdered?
And that’s what started me writing the book that became The Girl in the Park. It brought up a lot of psychic ouches—but as I say, you can’t write a good book without them. At least I can’t!