Jen Calonita is the author of 30 books for teens and middle graders. Here she writes about diving into the world of TikTok for her latest book, 12 to 22.

How do you write a book about a tween who lives for TikTok when you aren’t on TikTok?

You don’t.

When I set out to write my new middle-grade novel 12 to 22, which is about a girl who makes a wish on a TikTok filter and winds up in her 22-year-old self’s body, I knew I had to get familiar with the one social media platform I had tried to avoid. I was writing the book in the early days of 2020 when, like many of my author friends, I found the only way to connect with readers during a pandemic was to take to social media in ways I never had before. I ordered a ring light, then hid in a quiet corner of the house and recorded myself giving writing prompts for Facebook. I posted my attempts to find a writing spot after my kids started doing school from home on Instagram. I did teacher book giveaways on Twitter.

But TikTok? I avoided it like Covid.

The thought of having to make fresh content for yet another platform, with posts that looked different from all the other posts I’d written that day, felt like another job. Here I was writing about a girl who was overwhelmed by the pressures of social media in 12 to 22 while I was feeling the same pressures myself. What if no one followed me? What if I got zero likes on my posts? What if I started obsessively checking my feed to see how many likes I did get? I didn’t want to live my life online and become consumed by checking my feed. My teenage boys begged me to reconsider. TikTok wasn’t like other platforms, they said. I needed to stop overthinking things and look at TikTok as a way to have fun online. (Ironically, this is exactly the realization my character comes to in the book.) But my self-doubt had taken hold.

Mind you, this was a year before the New York Times article came out about how the app had helped Emily Lockhart’s book We Were Liars. After that, every author I knew dipped a toe in the water. But back in early 2020? I couldn’t imagine a world where any teen would want to see a 40-something author dancing around lip-syncing to their favorite song. Still, I couldn’t ignore the numbers. TikTok is used by an estimated 1.2 billion monthly users. That number is predicted to balloon to 1.5 billion users by the end of 2022. Approximately 28% of those users are under the age of 18. As a middle-grade and young adult author, this is my target audience.

I was locked at home with my husband, two kids, and two chihuahuas. My book tours had been canceled. School visits had moved to the computer, where I could only see people staring back at me in a small window. If I wanted to share my new books with the world and write a book about a kid who uses TikTok, I clearly had to join TikTok.

I downloaded the app. I created a profile. In 24 hours, I was excited to find I had 50 followers even without posting a video. My kids were not impressed.

My youngest, who loves the app for movie news, decided I needed to do an unboxing video. A box of copies of my latest book, Go the Distance (a Twisted Tale), had arrived that morning. He wanted to film me carrying the Lysol-ed box inside and opening it on camera. I was wearing my bathrobe. I had no makeup on. My hair was in tangles. My son reminded me I had 50 followers. “No one is going to see this,” he swore. “You just have to start posting.”

And so we filmed the video. He added the song “Go the Distance” from the Hercules movie soundtrack. Within a week, the video of a smiling, happy me looking my worst had racked up almost 80,000 views, and I had more than 3,000 new followers and loads of comments from readers who told me they were ordering the book immediately. Excited, we filmed several more videos about Go the Distance. The book hit shelves on April 6, 2020, and for the first time in my 15-year-plus career, one of my books hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Coincidence or fate? I’m not sure. But I was suddenly a believer. I understood my 12 to 22 character Harper in ways I never had before. My kids, close in age to my character, were right—this app felt different. It was fun. It somehow knew I liked videos about chihuahuas, Broadway shows, Marvel, and Disney rides. I started following all the authors I could think of, marveling at how simple yet brilliant Victoria Aveyard’s posts were or how my friend Mari Mancusi’s posts were so clever. My friend Lindsay Currie posted about how she was moving from the city to a farm in the country, and overnight she had 10,000 followers. During a time when I couldn’t see readers in person, TikTok gave me a chance to connect with readers about books in a way I never had before.

I just had to remember, like my character Harper, not to put too much social media pressure on myself. I learned quickly there are no surefire posts. When I tried too hard with a post, spending days filming and editing clips, it tended to draw the fewest views. When I came up with an idea on a whim, the posts seemed to take off. I posted a video of myself watching the end credits of Frozen 2 to announce a new Frozen book I was writing and wrote: “If you thought this was the end of the Frozen story, you were wrong.” The video went viral. With four million views, 600,000 likes, and 12,000 comments later (plus 10,000-plus new followers), I realized the world thought I was announcing Frozen 3, when I was simply trying to share that I had a new book. (Lesson learned: Use the word book in your posts when you’re talking about a book.)

And I finally found myself doing that post I had always dreaded—me dancing to a song. There I was at the mailbox, dancing while mailing postcards for 12 to 22 while Taylor Swift’s song “22” blared in the background. And guess what: that seven-second video clip of me in my puffy coat, mailing letters and having fun, may not have been TikTok gold, but it did rack up more than 7,000 views. That’s way more eyeballs on a post than anything I get on my other social platforms. Turned out my kids were right: TikTok can be magic when you let go and just have fun.