When the finished copy of my young adult novel, FAMOUS LAST WORDS, arrived in the mail. I was thrilled to finally hold the first novel I’d ever written in my hands and I celebrated, not with confetti, champagne, or even a non-skinny caramel latte, but by watching Sixteen Candles: one of my all-time-favorite films written and directed by one of my greatest inspirations, John Hughes.
Had it not been for that film, and John Hughes’s subsequent teen masterpieces—The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Pretty in Pink (he wrote but didn’t direct the latter)—I’m not sure if all these years later, FAMOUS LAST WORDS would have happened.
In high school, I was not a front-and-center kind of girl. Much like Samantha D’Angelo, the main character in FAMOUS LAST WORDS, I lived under the radar. I wasn’t class president or head cheerleader, but an anonymous member of the color guard hiding among the marching band’s ranks.
But on one Friday night in the spring of 1984, John Hughes saw me.
I went to see Sixteen Candles at the Franklin Theater in downtown, Nutley, New Jersey with a group of my friends. I was expecting to see yet another movie that happened to have teens in it and left feeling that finally, finally, someone had made a film for teens. Not only that, but someone had written a movie for teens like me—the kids who preferred the edges and the fringes.
John Hughes spied me in my ugly polyester band uniform with my big, plumbed hat and knee-high white boots and let me know that not only could he see me, I mattered.
He understood the kids who haunted the back row of every classroom, the ones who waited in the bleachers at the high school dances, the high school seniors who would graduate without special mentions in the yearbook.
For those who have never seen it, Samantha, played by Molly Ringwald, wakes up on the day she turns sixteen, which also happens to be the day before her older sister’s wedding. She’s expecting big things out of sixteen and is quickly disappointed to find that her entire family has forgotten her birthday. Sam’s in love with Jake Ryan, the popular senior who’s so gorgeous he makes a sweater vest look cool. But Sam doesn’t think Jake knows she’s alive. Meanwhile, the retainer-wearing freshman geek played by Anthony Michael Hall pursues her relentlessly. There’re embarrassing grandparents, an exchange student name Long Duk Dong, and one of the most goose bump-inducing endings ever to grace the silver screen. To me, this film was and is pure magic.
And then there’s the music. The soundtracks to John Hughes films added an entirely different dimension to the story and the songs he chose became the soundtrack to my entire 1980s existence. There were the Thompson Twins and Patti Smith in Sixteen Candles; Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, and The Psychedelic Furs in Pretty In Pink, and the song that defined The Breakfast Club, Don’t You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds. People make playlists for everything these days, books included, but if you ask me, the idea that a film’s music should not be an afterthought began with John Hughes.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS includes many nods to the late, great John Hughes. I hope teens read it and see themselves and their friends in the characters. That there will be familiar moments that make them laugh out loud or at the very least, smile.
I don’t know that in the spring of 1984 the notion that some day, I could write books for teens ever entered my mind. I probably couldn’t see past my own sixteenth birthday. But John Hughes still inspired me. He taught me to take a step back and laugh at the things I hated about high school and he gave me something to do as I sat in the back of the room. I became a silent observer with a purpose; gathering material I would use one day, even if I didn’t know exactly when and how. John Hughes made me want to grow up to be the kind of adult who never forgot what it was like to be sixteen. How could I ever forget him?
A slightly different version of the post first appeared at MacTeenBooks