PW: What was your goal in writing What It Takes to Pull Me Through?

David L. Marcus: I wanted to take my experience as a foreign correspondent and use it to take a look at something we see at home, and yet, something we don't see. That's how 29 million teens live all around us. I think there is a crisis for kids and parents today. While the vast majority of teenagers are doing great, there are groups in both poor and wealthy neighborhoods who are lost—they are struggling. My hope is that this book will inspire candid conversations between parents and their kids. Parents can a learn a lot just by asking, "Do you know anybody in your class struggling with something? What worries you?"

Why did you choose to focus on kids who were sent away from their families for help?

If you're a writer, you focus on the more extreme cases so that you can learn things about everyone. I felt that by looking at kids who had gotten into a real jam, but who were also hanging out with kids who were doing fine, I could learn about teenagers in general. I could learn what dangers, traps, and temptations are out there. At some point, every kid—every kid—is going to face them.

Did you find it difficult to remain non-judgmental about the parents who were clearly missing warning signals?

When I started this project, I wondered what it would be like to get to know the kids' parents—to vilify them. To my surprise, the parents, almost without exception, had tried their best. I hope that this book is a nuanced portrait. It's not that the parents are terrible people; it's much more complicated.

What was the most surprising thing you learned from the teens you profiled?

The kids shattered my stereotypes. I thought they were spoiled punks, who willy-nilly broke rules. I found out that some terrible things had happened to these kids. When they were acting out, that was a cry for help. That was not what I expected.

In your book, you talk about how writing it changed you.

I've seen people in the best and worst moments of their lives. People who were shot in Africa in a civil war, doctors who were heroes—but I never had this kind of immersion. Getting to know what people's lives are really like, how complex they are, and how they learn from their errors is an incredible privilege that most journalists never have.

How were you able to report the frightening facts of teenage life without inciting panic in the parents who will read this book?

One of the mysteries in this book is why these kids got into trouble, and how their brothers, sisters and best friends were—and are—doing just fine. I think it's a hopeful book: Some kids get into a little bit of trouble. Some kids get into a lot of trouble. Some kids are a little bit befuddled by all of it. I see it as a book about learning and transforming and dealing with adversity.