Many of today’s young adult authors remember their own coming-of-age years clearly – and they are writing to make the lives of today’s teens better. That was the message coming out of last week’s Assembly on Literature for Adolescents workshop held November 22 and 23 in Orlando, Fla. as part of the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention.

The two-day workshop focused on “Looking for the Real Me: The Search for Self in Young Adult Literature.” And while authors discussed books ranging from realistic reads to graphic novels to vampire lit, they agreed they all are really writing about coming-of-age. Even horror and fantasy books give readers a way to “look at themselves indirectly,” said The Thin Executioner author Darren Shan.

Of course, many YA authors are more than willing to look back at their teen years head-on. Indeed, some of the workshop’s most memorable moments came when authors got confessional about their own growing-up experiences. Before reading a excerpt from her story Tangled—which features teens caught up in romances both good and badauthor Carolyn Mackler posted a picture of her high school self up on the ballroom’s big screens and read boy-crazy entries from her actual teenage diary.

Later, in a panel focused on using past insecurities to create authentic stories, Wake series writer Lisa McMann remembered a boy who used to torment hereven once accidentally ripping open her shirt at schooland the vivid moment when a friend phoned to say that he had died. “This job requires opening old wounds,” McMann said.

But YA books may also be able to prevent hurt, said How Beautiful the Ordinary editor Michael Cart, speaking specifically about bullying. Right now, there is a “desperate need for empathy,” said Cart, who was part of a panel about award-winning gay YA books. He said by reading about kids different than themselves, teens gain important insight and understanding that could prevent bullying and keep kids safe.

Earlier in the workshop, Fallout author Ellen Hopkins also made the connection between young adult books and empathy. “There’s a fear of bringing good kids to bad places,” said the author, whose latest free-verse book looks at the desperate lives of a drug addict’s children, “[but] the danger is not letting them know how other people live.”

Throughout the workshop, authors reminded the audience of their commitment to teens. One of the most touching tributes came on Monday night, when Fire author Kristin Cashore received ALAN’s Amelia Elizabeth Walden award, given to “the title of the year most relevant to adolescents and having enjoyed a wide and appreciative teenage audience.” Cashore donated her $5,000 award to Camp Healing Powers, a camp for grieving kids at which her sister volunteers.

“It is a program that is about loss but also about hope,” Cashore explained in her acceptance speech. “With Fire, I was trying to say something about loss and being lost, about grief, and about hope and finding yourself, and choosing life.”