In YA novelist Susane Colasanti’s new book, Keep Holding On (Viking), protagonist Noelle is neglected at home and bullied at school. She endures a lot of abuse – including being targeted by her classmates for being poor – before she finds the strength to “start shaping my life into the one I want.” Here, Colasanti talks about her own difficult teen years, how her book fits into the current conversation about bullying, and what she’s doing to support today’s teens.

How is your own story like Noelle’s?

A lot of the things in the book did actually happen to me. I was bullied all through junior high and high school, too. My ma was a single mother on welfare and we had food stamps. I know what it’s like to sit next to someone and have them look at you like, “You don’t even deserve to be here.”

This was the ’80s and everyone else had fancy designer jeans and expensive Esprit sweaters. I would be in a Kmart T-shirt and a cardigan I’d had for four years. I remember girls laughing at me, saying, “What is she wearing? Where did she get that?” It was embarrassing on so many levels to go to school.

Because of my own experiences of being tormented at school and neglected at home, I knew my purpose in life by age 12: I was going to be a teacher and help teens, specifically those who were going through hard times. I resigned from teaching five years ago when I became a full-time author, but even now, I feel like that purpose is never going to change. I loved teaching, but now I reach out to many more students, my readers.

What do you think about the increasing concern over bullying?

Bullying is not a new issue, but it’s been getting a lot of attention in the past few years as a result of bullied teens committing suicide. That’s a travesty, that’s devastating. We really need to reevaluate this culture. It’s not OK for kids to be mistreated and tormented at school to the point that they are afraid to go.

Right now, there are all these different initiatives happening, like the It Gets Better Project and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. People and organizations are coming together to really speak out – not just against bullying, but about creating a climate of love and acceptance.

When Lady Gaga launched the Born This Way Foundation, one of her main points was that young people are the ones who need to stand up and make the change. And that takes a lot of courage. It’s really scary to do that. But I feel like she’s right. If enough teens find that strength and courage to speak out – and reach out – to help other people who they see being tormented, that’s where the change will come from.

How can your book help?

The main reason I wrote I wrote Keep Holding On was to try to reach out and help teens feel less alone. I wanted to help readers who are going through the same thing that Noelle is going through – and that I went through.

Junior high and high school were the worst days of my life. Some days were so bad, I would have to look at the clock and count down the seconds to the next minute, and then the next minute. OK, now it’s been an hour. How am I going to make it to the next hour?

Remembering how excruciating that was and how slowly time passed informed this book. I’m trying to help readers understand that if they can just hold on to hope – whatever they hope for in their lives – that their lives will get better.

Even more important, I am hoping this book will inspire readers to take a look at themselves and ask, “What do I have the power to change now? What steps can I take now to make my life better?”

How does that idea fit with the “Your Ideal Life” presentation you created?

When I was in my mid 20s, I found this book called Creative Visualization. I’ve used this practice ever since, every day. It’s a huge part of my life.

Last year, for my So Much Closer book tour, I thought, “How can I reach out at schools, conferences, and festivals to really spread the word about creating your ideal life?” I started giving this presentation last May, explaining my own technique. This is my way of sending out the memo: there are things that you can do right now to make your life better.

In the presentation, I talk a little about my background, explaining that even though my teen years were the worst, I kept this image of what I wanted for my life. There’s also a workshop component in which everyone writes down three things they want most, either in the present or future. These things could be about school, relationships, friendship, career, home – anything. From this list, students identify their number one goal.

Then I ask, “What are three things that you can do every day to work towards achieving that goal?” If they can do one of those things every day, they are making life better right now and taking steps toward their ideal life. Then, they can take it to the next level, treasure-mapping: cutting out images from magazines or drawing images to visually represent their goal. During the presentation, I show examples from my own scrapbook.

The point is to remember every day, even if you have to write in on a Post-It and stick it on your computer, this is what you’re living for right now, this is a reason to keep holding on.

Have you altered “Your Ideal Life” for your new book?

The presentation is flexible and I can alter it to talk more about the bullying aspect of Keep Holding On. There is a part in the presentation where I talk about not only creating the best life for you, but reaching out to help others. I can expand this to talk about taking a stand against people who are tormenting other people.

The whole thing about bullying is: yes, the culture has to change. Yes, teens have the power to change it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but this is definitely something that I want to start motivating teens to do today.

Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti. Viking, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-670-01225-1