Dear Teen Me,
Here you are in white cap and gown graduating from Byram Hills High School in Armonk, New York with no idea that you’re going to grow up and be an advice columnist. You spent senior year in France on a program called School Year Abroad, but at Yale, you will study Spanish, and this will be your first real love affair. One year after your dad takes this photo, you’ll board an airplane to Madrid. Soon you’ll be flying back and forth, back and forth, because you’ll fall in love not just with a young poet named Juan Antonio – but with his whole country.
Five years after this photo, you’ll be a graduate student getting your M.A. in Spanish. You’re still with Juan, but you’ll meet a student named Rob Ackerman on his junior year abroad, and uh oh, somehow, you’ll fall in love with him too. Yes, for many months, you, Young Carol, will be living in Spain, going out with two men, not keeping anything secret, and not getting much sleep. You who had so recently worried that you might never catch a boy’s eye will be on a crazy romantic rollercoaster.
You’ll return home with the American, and after Rob graduates from Middlebury, you two will get married at the tender ages of 23 and 21. (Now you’ve been together for over a third of a century! You live in Manhattan and are both writers! You’re in your fifties, but don’t feel it—or maybe fifty isn’t as old as you imagine?)
In your twenties, you’ll write essays and quizzes for Seventeen, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Brides, and Redbook. But having majored in Comparative Literature, you’re desperate to write a book: a tome that will stay on the shelf.
A book about what? You’re no expert. All you’ve done is grow up. An editor suggests you write advice for teens, so you start writing chapters in a friendly first-person voice. HarperCollins buys GIRLTALK: ALL THE STUFF YOUR SISTER NEVER TOLD YOU for $6000 and publishes it when you are 28. In 1985, there’s no teen self-help category, so your book gets shelved under “Women’s Studies.”
Girls find the book and it is translated into a dozen languages! You get a job as an advice columnist for Girls’ Life Magazine, and twenty years later, you’re still “Dear Carol.” Yes, Young Carol, you spend much of your life helping girls! You’ll be a guest on Today, Oprah, Montel Williams, The View.
But here’s something that, had you known it then, would have stopped you cold. Your beloved father dies in his sleep when you are just 25. One day, the phone rings, you answer, and you learn the terrible news. Even now, a ringing phone can make you nervous. You think about your dad every day. But at least you aren’t haunted by echoes of harsh words or slammed doors. You and your dad knew how much you loved each other.
At age 31, it’s your turn to become a parent. You and Rob have two beautiful babies and you raise them right in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Being a mom is more 24/7 than you ever imagined, but you are thrilled to reclaim some of the parent-child closeness you feared you’d lost forever. When your kids are small, you crave solitude; when they are teens, if they want to bake cookies or watch a movie, you try to stop whatever you’re doing and say, “Sure.” You will feel proud and wistful when they both fly to Spain with School Year Abroad. You will wipe away tears when the oldest gets engaged on a mountaintop in Colorado.
Meantime, at around age 40, you realize it’s time to give yourself some advice. You’d set out to write a novel, so you’d better hop to it.
You take classes. You get therapy. You write novels you don’t sell. And one day you think: what if I write for kids instead of grown ups? Melanie Martin is born, and Knopf publishes THE DIARY OF MELANIE MARTIN and three other books about Melanie and her brother Matt the Brat and their adventures in Italy, Holland, Spain and New York City.
Publishing goes into turmoil and you hyperventilate. But you persevere, and soon you have a new character, new agent, new publisher.
This time, the character, Ava Wren, is like you at age ten: a tomboy with a diary, a good kid who sometimes feels overlooked. A-V-A loves words (and palindromes) and hopes to write a book herself someday. H-U-H. W-O-W. Y-A-Y. Astute readers of AVA AND PIP (2014) might realize that Ava pulls it off—she reaches her goal. Yes, Young Carol, the end of your new book is a wink to kids because when they turn the last page, it becomes clear that the book they just finished is not Ava’s fifth-grade diary after all, it’s a novel written by Ava’s future self.
Carol Weston is an advice columnist and the author of 13 books including nonfiction for adults and teens and fiction for kids. Her series are about kids who keep diaries: Melanie Martin (Knopf) and Ava Wren (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky). Carol lives in New York City. Her videos are at YouTube.com/GirltalkwithCarol and you can find her @carol_weston and Facebook.com/WriterCarolWeston. She loves to travel but she has no sense of direction.