New Voice: E. Kristin Anderson on Dear Teen Me

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

E. Kristin Anderson is the author of Dear Teen Me, co-authored by Miranda Kenneally (Zest, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Dear Teen Me includes advice from over 70 YA authors to their teenage selves. The letters cover a wide range of topics, including physical abuse, body issues, bullying, friendship, love, and enough insecurities to fill an auditorium.

So pick a page, and find out which of your favorite authors had a really bad first kiss? Who found true love at 18? Who wishes he’d had more fun in high school instead of studying so hard? Some authors write diary entries, some write letters, and a few graphic novelists turn their stories into visual art.

And whether you hang out with the theater kids, the band geeks, the bad boys, the loners, the class presidents, the delinquents, the jocks, or the nerds, you’ll find friends–and a lot of familiar faces–in the course of Dear Teen Me.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

You know, this is a funny question for me. And I think that’s because my first reaction is, well, I was a precocious reader who “outgrew” the small YA section (it was so tiny when I was young – so glad it’s huge now!) and moved on from Judy Blume, Gary Paulsen, and Lois Duncan to adult fantasy authors like Piers Anthony before giving up reading altogether in high school because I couldn’t keep up with the assignments.

But then I remembered that one of my favorite books in sixth grade was Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic. It’s a book that blew my world wide open.Some people refer to it as the modern Anne Frank, and it’s an apt comparison, since Zlata’s Diary is the diary of a young girl in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.

I identified with her. And all I wanted to read after that was diaries. There weren’t a lot, and for the rest of sixth grade, I mostly read Lurlene McDaniel books about kids dealing with illness and other “real life” issues.

So maybe it’s some strange twist of fate that my first book isn’t one of the novels I’ve written (and, fingers crossed, ones you’ll be able to find next to Dear Teen Me on a shelf one day soon), but a collection of true stories about real life issues.

I wasn’t thinking of Zlata when I started the blog or even when Miranda Kenneally and I began putting together the book. But I’m certainly thinking of her now. And I really hope that teens read some of the true stories in Dear Teen Me and think “that’s like me” or “that could be someone I know” or “I feel less alone” or “I feel like a world citizen today.”

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

Teen E. Kristin in pink pleather pants!

In 2010, I went to a Hanson concert with my boyfriend. It was the first time I’d seen Hanson, and I spent most of my teenage years idolizing the band. They were my age, they were living their dream as artists and musicians, and I loved their music. I wanted so badly to see them live, but when I was in high school, they never toured close enough to Maine (where I grew up) for me to see them.

So when I was at the concert, I kept thinking about my teen self, and how much she would have loved to be there. I went home and wrote an epically long post on my blog, a letter to my teen self, about the concert, and how much Hanson meant to us then and how it still was something we would love as an adult.

I was sitting at a café with P.J. Hoover, Jessica Lee Anderson, and K.A. Holt when I was struck with the idea that this would make a great blog. I emailed about 50 authors I knew, figuring maybe half of them would be interested. I was overwhelmed by the yesses.

And Miranda offered to help, which was amazing, because I was in desperate need of it.

When we put together the blog, we thought it was great to have a space for authors to reach out to teens in this entertaining but also heartwarming way. I think a lot of adults have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager – and why wouldn’t they? Being a teen is really, really hard!

But authors – YA authors especially – remember those years viscerally. And was (and still is) a space where teens can come and find adults who remember and care.

The fact that a book came of it is still surprising and exciting for me. I love that teens will be able to hold these letters in their hands, and pass them around, and share the issues that were just as real in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s as they are now. It’s been fascinating for us to see how no matter how different the hair and the clothes and the cars are, the insecurities, the bad days, and the big issues have remained the same.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

I’m going to talk about my publisher, Hallie Warshaw. She wasn’t the editor of the book, but she had a huge impact on how the book looks and feels, the concepts we ran with, and ultimately, the fact that it even exists.


I met Hallie at ALA Annual in New Orleans in 2011. I was approaching the Zest/HMH booth about possibly getting a few Dear Teen Me letters from her authors for the website.

Hallie saw my business card and asked me about it and the website. And after I explained the concept, she said it would make a great book, gave me her card, and told me to get in touch.

I immediately texted Miranda, my co-editor, who is represented by Sara Megibow. And the more we all talked with Hallie, the more we knew this was the best place for a Dear Teen Me anthology.

I think one thing that really struck me was the beauty of Zest’s books. If you haven’t picked one up yet, you should! Most of their books have full-color interiors, innovative design work, and a really fun feel. Dear Teen Me is as much about nostalgia as it is about teen issues, and I loved the idea of having a fun book that could actually include our embarrassing teen photos, and the possibility of having a few extras – like the “sidebars” throughout the book featuring answers to questions like “What was your first job?” and “What was your most embarrassing moment?”

Also, Hallie and I talked a lot at ALA and in other meetings about how there isn’t a whole lot of nonfiction out there for teens. It’s getting better, but we’re not there yet. And Zest is doing a fabulous job of filling that niche with smart, funny, beautiful, important books.

I’m proud to be a part of the extended Zest family!


Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I have been really fortunate to have a number of amazing writers in my
life, but I think the one person that truly took me to that next level
is Jessica Lee Anderson.

Emily (with Jessica) mugs for the camera, photo by K.A. Holt

We met when I was a bookseller helping out at an SCBWI event. We were introduced by Madeline Smoot, publisher at CBAY books, who went to Hollins University with Jessica. We had an immediate connection (it was totally kismet!) and agreed to start meeting for critique.

 At the time, I was still working on finishing my first novel, and she was working on a middle grade adventure.

When we traded manuscripts, I was really apprehensive. Jessica was a pro, she had actual books out, and she was trusting me with a work in progress.

I told her that I didn’t know how much I could offer her as an unpublished writer. And she told me that it didn’t matter, because she knew how much I read, and the best critique partners are good readers. (She heard this from Linda Sue Park at an SCBWI conference, and it’s true!)

We’ve since learned so much from each other – about writing, about life, about the publishing industry. She’s always been amazingly encouraging, and never for a minute doubted that I’d “make it.” I love having Jessica not only as a critique partner and mentor but as a friend. She’s truly a blessing! (And she’s also on the cover of Dear Teen Me – see if you can spot her!)

Follow the Dear Teen Me blog tour for more information, contest & giveaways.

Cynsational Notes

Dear Teen Me contributors include Cynthia Leitich Smith.

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