Lauren Myracle has been called Satan, a pedophile and a corrupter of youth, yet her books about a trio of Atlanta teenagers, written entirely in text messages, have sold 1.5 million copies.
She has been hailed as this generation’s Judy Blume for her candor, but outraged parents have lobbied to ban her books, which tackle topics like erections, that awkward first bra purchase and clueless flirting that leads one sophomore to have a hot-tub encounter with a teacher.
With 17 tween and teen novels under her belt, Myracle, 43, a newly divorced mother of three, ruffles feathers because she unflinchingly addresses the pitfalls of adolescence. Many people would prefer that she not write about teenagers dancing topless at a boozy frat party, or smoking marijuana to impress a friend with benefits. While she understands their impulse to protect children, she feels it is more dangerous to keep knowledge from them.
“Give your kid some credit for being smart – just because they read about something doesn’t mean they will do it,” she said. “Fiction is a safe place to explore.”
Last year, Myracle’s so-called Internet girls series – consisting of the titles “ttyl,” “ttfn,” and “l8r, g8r” (ask a young person to decipher the texting language) – topped the list of challenged and banned books nationwide, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. When her books were first banned in 2007, Myracle apologized to Susan Van Metre, her editor at Abrams Books.
“She was shook up,” Van Metre recalled. But the author has become accustomed to controversy, Van Metre said. “She’s grown to be proud of it for what it represents in terms of being honest with kids, and bearing the brunt of parental fear.”
These days, Myracle does seem more comfortable playing the role of lightning rod. When she provides a visitor directions to her Craftsman bungalow in Fort Collins, Colo., she said, “Look for the one that brings the neighborhood down!”
If she is Satan, then this devil has been cast against type. She is a sweet-toothed baker, a hugger with hints of a Southern twang, and a lively chatterbox whose house has sock-puppet portraits on the walls.
Myracle, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that reveals an around-the-bicep vine tattoo, has made her home the go-to gathering place for her children – Al, 14, Jamie, 11, and Mirabelle, 7 – and their friends after school. (A ready supply of Dr Pepper and brownies certainly helps.)
“I’ve always wanted to be the house that all the kids come to,” she said. “So far it’s working.”
“Because then I know,” she replied.
On the parenting continuum, Myracle hits a midpoint between laid back and nosy. She wants to know what her kids are up to (in a they’d-better-not-be-sniffing-glue way). But she also wants to be the first to know their latest crush, if they’ve set up a Glassboard (a private social network), and how they are coping after she and their father divorced in June after 17 years.
It’s been a hard but fruitful year for Myracle. Her own soul-searching has deepened her empathy for the young people she writes about. “Figuring out who I am again – it’s a parallel to adolescence,” she said. Of late, she has ventured into darker terrain. In 2011, “Shine” – about a horrific hate crime with a gay victim and impoverished teenagers – was nominated for a National Book Award, then not. It emerged that “Shine” was wrongly nominated because the judges had confused it with another single-word title.
Her aim, she said, is to write about sex without a “soft fade” – as in cutting from “he leaned in for a kiss” to “they lay in bed, naked, smiling.” She wants to fill in the blanks, because kids are curious about the mechanics, and deciding when first to have sex has inherent drama.
“Sometimes I worry I’m writing ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ for teenagers, but I’m not,” Myracle said. “It is sexually explicit. It’s sexy.”
Over the years, so many upset parents have emailed Myracle that she set up a special folder for them.
After reading “The Fashion Disaster That Changed My Life,” one mother of a 12-year-old girl wrote to say she disliked how giggling seventh-graders dared one another to scream “honey-roasted penis!” at a sleepover party as a prank on the host mother, who thought they were saying “peanuts.”
“Why can’t kids be kids and not throw this kind of stuff at them?” wrote the mother, who also fretted about the offhanded mention of a “menage a trois.”
Myracle, who says she often answers vitriolic letters because she’s a “good Southern girl,” wrote back, “Kids *do* talk about sex in the 7th grade. Sometimes, seeing this reflected in a book (that overall has a very moral message) can give them a safe place to process it.”
Myracle, perhaps not surprisingly, doesn’t blush when discussing potentially cringe-worthy topics with her children. She and Jamie had a good laugh about the fact that when they first watched “Gangnam Style,” they thought the rapper Psy was saying “Condom Store.”
“Lauren’s life is very much threaded through her children’s lives,” said Myracle’s sister, the novelist Susan Rebecca White, adding, “It’s very different than the parents in a Charlie Brown novel where the adults are outside of the world the kids live in.”
Myracle has used some of her own teenage blunders as fodder for the books – she says that she was the girl who ended up in a hot tub with a teacher before “I realized I was in trouble.”
Her mother, Ruth White, said that when Lauren was younger – part of a blended family with six children in Atlanta – she kept journals, read whatever she wanted and had a habit of buttonholing adults.
“She would say, ‘Tell me what it was like when you were in the third grade,’ “Ruth White recalled. Myracle gets her name from her father, Don Myracle, who still lives in her birthplace, Brevard, N.C., but he pronounces it MY-racle, while Lauren pronounces it “miracle.”
At her private Christian high school, she was a friend to loners, more interested in hanging out with motorcycle riders than cheerleaders, got top grades and had a posse of girlfriends nicknamed “the Beer Bros.”
Early in her career, she said, someone asked her at a book reading why she writes about teenagers. She replied, “Because I haven’t yet grown up.”