When it comes to creating a true teen voice, author Carolyn Mackler has it down. Readers of her first two novels, Love and Other Four-Letter Words and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, found remarkably realistic portraits of today's teenagers. In her latest novel, Vegan, Virgin, Valentine, she channels the teenage voice once again with hilarious and enlightening results.
"I'm definitely attuned to that age group," Mackler tells BookPage. "It's a combination of having a very clear memory of my own teen years it's a hugely significant time, and I really remember the emotions, what I wore, the heartache, friendships, wondering where I fit into the world and just a fascination with teenagers."
Mackler herself was a teenager in the '80s: the era when big hair was best, Arnold Schwarzenegger was just a movie star, and acid-washed denim was cool. So it works out nicely for her research that Mackler has a 16-year-old stepsister to keep her informed about current teenage trends. "She lives in Manhattan, where I do, and I quiz her about her life and friends and social scenes. It helps me keep my stories authentic and current."
A bit of eavesdropping comes in handy, too, for getting the lingo and rhythms of teen-speak just right: "I'm often on the bus, and if there are two teenagers in front of me, I'll take dictation!"
That dedication to research pays off, for the two young women at the center of Vegan, Virgin, Valentine 17-year-old Mara and her 16-year-old niece V are tempestuous, caring, rebellious, confused and utterly believable characters. Mackler takes a classic tale of repression vs. exuberance, responsibility vs. rebellion, and gives it a modern twist in an interesting setting: the author's own hometown of Brockport, New York. Mara's thoughtful, honest narrative voice adds credibility, and there are several crossroads at which the girls must make important and often difficult choices. This is no accident, of course. "I feel the best place to get information and see the real world reflected is in fiction," Mackler says. "[YA novels] are a safe and quiet place for kids to find the information about their lives that they're wondering about."
Thus, she says, the book is meant not only to provide an entertaining read, but to give readers "things to think about, to serve as a way to let people consider how they would handle certain situations." While it has obvious appeal for the younger set, Vegan is a good choice for parents, too. Mackler does an excellent job of showing the ways in which adults and kids can learn from one another, which is sure to offer hope to adults who are a bit mystified by their teenagers' new propensity for door-slamming and to teens who are frustrated that their parents can't seem to just, well, chill out.
And chilling out, or learning to just slow down a bit though not at the cost of maintaining responsibilities and a good heart is a central theme in the book, one that often results in scenes that are poignant, funny or both. For example, Mara, a type-A overachiever, scrupulously maintains a vegan diet, but has recurring, lustful dreams about cheese. Mackler, herself a vegetarian, notes, "Mara became a vegan around the same time she got dumped because she wasn't lusty enough, and veganism became part of her repression."
The author says she once temporarily denied herself the pleasure of full-time writing, though she always knew she loved reading particularly YA books. "I read in gulps, and I've always passionately loved YA novels. During college, I realized how much I like writing. I enjoyed the hours at the computer, feeling so connected to myself and the world in my head." Since becoming a successful author, she says she has received "some wonderful notes from people saying thank you, I identified with the characters, I feel like you read my journal."
Right now, Mackler is working on another novel and using strategies to find balance between working hard and enjoying her life. She says her husband helps her keep on track: "There's a challenge: if I write until noon each day, I get a star, and after 10 days I get ice cream. If I screw up one time, I lose all the stars on the sheet. I have to have strict rules and stick to them, otherwise I get completely distracted!" No matter what, though, she always gets to have cheese.
Linda M. Castellitto long ago learned to embrace her lusty love for cheese. Especially brie.