Avenging the Owl author, Melissa Hart, writes a letter to her teen self. Check it out below!
Dear Teen Melissa,
I’m writing to you from my tiny writing studio in my big backyard full of purple lilacs and blossoming cherry trees and cats. Remember what you loved about your grandmother’s house in Monterey—all those tall trees, the birds chirping, vegetable gardens, and fruit trees? You have all that now, plus an amazing photographer husband and a nature-crazy nine-year-old adopted daughter.
I know you thought you’d never make it this far. I remember the year you turned sixteen, and your home life fell apart. Your dad yelled and raged. Your stepmother lost herself in aerobics classes. Your beautiful house near LAX felt full of anger and betrayal, too much wine and too many tears, and you couldn’t run away to your mother’s house because she’d lost custody of you seven years before—for coming out as a lesbian in a homophobic era when a judge believed it was better to place kids in an abusive household than one headed by two women.
But remember the UCLA Young Writers’ Retreat up at Lake Arrowhead? You got to go after your English teachers saw how you loved to write—short stories, poetry, even those silly profiles you wrote for the school yearbook about sports teams and drama club. Suddenly, you found yourself surrounded by teen writers in cabins among tall trees, and it was snowing . . . snowing! The teachers leading the retreat instructed you all to find a quiet place to write for an hour. Most of the kids stayed inside near the fire, but you zipped up your coat and headed outside up a hill, away from everyone.
Young Writers’ Retreat
How I wish I could convey how that hour was a life-changer for you, Melissa. You stood in the trees with your notebook, and silent snowflakes fell all around you . . . about as different from your father’s smoggy little backyard as a place could get. You felt peaceful. More than that, you felt wholly yourself. You wrote a poem that day . . . I probably have it in my giant box of spiral-bound notebooks you filled in high school and college. (Note to teen self: Read Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones sooner, rather than later, okay?) But more than the poem, what mattered that hour was that you discovered who you wanted to be . . . a writer, and a woman with an intimate connection to the natural world.
Yeah, okay, so later that night, you met a boy. He was cute and mischievous, just the way you liked them, and you stayed up all night talking in his dormitory hallway about creative writing and The Dead Kennedys, his favorite band. (Later, you’d listen to them and decide that hardcore punk wasn’t your thing—you’d stick to The Beatles and The Smiths.) You two didn’t kiss, but you exchanged letters for a couple of months until you met another boy at yearbook camp who wrote funnier letters and knew how to spell.
When you got home that Sunday night, the snow just a memory and a dampness in your sneakers, nothing between your parents had changed. You stepped into the living room thick with tension and tried to tell your stepmother about your weekend with the teen writers. She didn’t believe you’d ever make it as a professional writer; neither did your father. But you had the support of your mother and your English and yearbook teachers, and your friends. You sought out mentors, and you never stopped believing in your love of language and story.
Dear Teen Melissa, I’m so glad you learned to compartmentalize early on. Home life was home life, and school was school. You walked along the railroad tracks at dawn five days a week, sat in first period wide awake and thrilled to be learning. You ran track, danced and sang in the drama club, played practical jokes with your friends. (I wonder, did the principal ever find out who stacked all the school trashcans in a pyramid on his office roof?) You learned early on to “accentuate the positive,” like that old song says. You allowed yourself to fall in love with life—with the miniscule vegetable garden you managed to coax from your father’s tiny backyard; with the starlings splashing in puddles on the rare days it rained; with boys who loved writing and acting and pranks; with your big orange cat and your running shoes and all those blank notebooks full of possibility.
Hang in there, Teen Me. Take all the classes in literature and creative writing (don’t forget poetry!) that you can. Take theater classes and music classes. Learn everything you can about other cultures, about history, about people. Most importantly, get outside. Don’t stay on your computer all day. Don’t lose yourself in television. Know what phase the moon is in every single night. Know the names of the trees in your backyard, the birds at your feeders, the mountain ranges in your adopted state of Oregon. Nature will save you. Writing will save you. Good luck.
Melissa and Richard
Avenging the Owl by Melissa Hart
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Han Solo avenged the destruction of an innocent planet by helping Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. Han walked away with a gold medal and the love of his life. But when Solo Hahn—named in honor of the beloved action hero—tries to avenge the death of his gray-and-white kitten, he gets eight months of community service. Eight months of working at the local raptor center helping owls—his now sworn enemies.
For the first time in his life, Solo is labeled a troubled kid, an at-risk youth. He’d always gotten good grades, had good friends, and gotten along with his parents. He used to volunteer to read Reader’s Digest to old people at the retirement home next door, and his favorite thing in the whole wide world was to surf. He wrote screenplays for fun. But when his parents uproot him and move the family from California to backwoods Oregon, Solo starts to lose track of the person he was. Everything is upside down, and he finds himself dealing with things way beyond his understanding. He’s the new kid in town, and he’s got a bad reputation. The question is: What will he do next?
This is a story about staying true to yourself when things get tough. Solo has every reason to lash out, but he ultimately needs to find a way to cope. Avenging the Owl deals with the difficult issues of suicide and depression, but more than anything it captures the powerlessness of being a kid. It won’t be easy, but the wild beauty of Oregon, its cold, empty beaches and captivating wildlife, may be just what Solo and his family need to help them start over.
Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl, as well as the YA memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, and a memoir for adults. She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine and teaches Literature and Creative Writing for Laurel Springs High School. Follow her on Instagram at @WildMelissaHart . www.melissahart.com