Hilde Lysiak, now 15 and author of her own memoir, developed a passion for journalism—and a knack for sniffing out a scoop—at an unusually young age. She had a ready role model in her father, Matt Lysiak, then a reporter for the New York Daily News, whom she sometimes accompanied on work assignments. After her family moved from New York City to Selinsgrove, Pa., seven-year-old Hilde learned that the town did not have a newspaper, so she launched her own, the Orange Street News, initially writing in crayon on notecards, reporting on the goings-on in her family.
The paper then expanded its scope, as Hilde followed leads in order to break town news, including the plight of a local homeless man, the tale of a dog that thwarted a robbery, and a murder by hammer. Amassing almost 1,000 monthly subscribers and many more online readers, the young journalist garnered much attention—not all of it welcome—and at the age of 10 landed a contract with Scholastic for Hilde Cracks the Case, a four-book series of middle-grade novels inspired by her own adventures on the beat.
Retired for now, Hilde is adding memoirist to her roster of writing credits with the publication of Hilde on the Record. She spoke with PW from her home in rural Arizona, where her family currently lives, about her former, formative stint as newspaper publisher and about her decision to share with teen readers the story of her life to date.
What surprised you the most when you started investigating and writing stories—and what were the key rewards and drawbacks of the experience?
What surprised me most when I began the Orange Street News was how difficult it was to get answers from the police. A lot of what I was asking them for was public information needed for important stories, but it seemed the local police, and in particular the district attorney, who acted like his job was to protect the powerful, did whatever they could to make it difficult for me, and sometimes they would even lie to keep me off the trail.
The key rewards came when I would get emails from residents who felt the town or police were bullying them and they had nowhere else to turn, but through my reporting they were given a voice. The biggest drawback came in the stories I couldn’t solve or didn’t have enough confirmed information to report, even though I personally knew they were true. That is the kind of thing that ate at me—and still does.
In Hilde on the Record, you write about how the stresses of negative feedback to your reporting led to struggles with controlling eating habits, depression, and feelings of isolation. What did you do to combat those reactions?
I learned some valuable lessons during my eight years of reporting and being thrust into the national spotlight at such a young age. One of the lessons I learned was about how our self-perceptions, how the way we view ourselves, can be shaped by those around us if we aren’t steadfast in our authentic selves.
The narrative the media created about me painted a picture of this prodigy child with a perfect life. But the reality was far different. On the outside my life seemed perfect. I had a four-book deal with Scholastic. I was being flown around the country to give speeches, and a television show was made about my life [Home Before Dark, AppleTV+, 2020]. But on the inside, I could feel something changing inside me. Something unfamiliar and dark. At first the thought that I could be depressed struck me as stupid. But when I began to research it, I was shocked to learn that not only was I not alone, but I was dealing with a growing problem that was literally killing my generation, especially teenage girls between the ages of 12 and 17, who in 2021 saw a 50% increase in suicide attempts. And that number is probably low, considering the shame attached to suicide.
My hope is that in telling my story I can help open up a conversation and maybe even inspire some who might have been going through what I went through to get help.
In your memoir, you talk about always following your conviction to tell the truth, even if it means being unfairly judged by others. How do you hope to encourage readers to do the same?
Telling the truth has always been my first priority. There were so many people who were painting me in a light that was not entirely true, and writing my memoir was an antidote to that narrative. I wanted to share my side of the story and express myself and my personality in a more accurate way.
And with the book I also hope to encourage others to be brave and to express their dreams. I want to show kids that they can accomplish anything, regardless of their age or gender. I really don’t believe there was anything that made me any different from anyone else my age, but I was lucky that my parents gave me the freedom to do a lot more than many kids are able to do. They have always wanted to inspire their kids to pursue their passions—whatever they may be.
I think a lot of young girls and even women are not taken seriously. I know often I wasn’t. But I never looked at myself as a victim. I used it to my advantage to get people to say what they normally wouldn’t say. To all those who don’t take young people and women seriously, I say go ahead and underestimate us, but do so at your own risk.
At 15, you have been published as a journalist, a novelist, and now a memoirist. Do you plan to continue your writing career in the future, and if so in which direction?
Writing is my passion, and I am so thankful for the overwhelming support I have received, from my parents and from so many people who were willing to talk to me and give me tips as a reporter. I am actually quiet and introverted, so the newspaper work gave me the opportunity to talk to people I otherwise wouldn’t have reason to talk to, and that was great.
But I have a lot of different passions other than reporting and writing and there are a lot of things I want to pursue. I may consider being an engineer or a filmmaker.
I just don’t know. Right now, I’m just trying to get through high school without losing my mind!
Hilde on the Record: Memoir of a Kid Crime Reporter by Hilde Lysiak. Chicago Review Press, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-64-160581-6