At a tough branch library in Philadelphia -- there were more guards than librarians -- a teenage boy I thought had slept through my speech stood up and asked, ''Do you use drugs when you write?''
He seemed disappointed when I just said no, but not as disappointed as I was at giving the same answer to the next question, from a girl who had seemed entranced by my every word. She asked, ''Are you rich enough now to stop writing?''
Sometimes I think that questions from teenage readers are the real payoff in writing books marketed as ''young adult literature.'' There is a reader-writer connection in this category that simply does not exist in sports journalism, movies, television news and documentaries, and novels for older adults, genres in which I've been called a genius and a jerk because I stroked or ruffled someone's feathers. Readers in middle school and high school have taken me to task for things that have happened to my characters -- their characters, they think -- but always in the context of the work itself. Their minds were open to the story and to what they thought I was saying, whether or not they agreed. That's why writing for them is the most satisfying writing I do.
That satisfaction is something all of us who regularly write for teenagers try to keep in mind when people ask us what we plan to do when we grow up. It's touchy. Most of us started out thinking we'd be writing about a King Lear, not a Kid Lear.
I know exactly when I became a writer for young adults. On Nov. 20, 1965, a few minutes after 9 p.m. Las Vegas time, I was sitting at a darkened poolside outside a casino hotel with an old boxing manager I had taken to dinner. He was reminiscing about his glory days when he owned a gym on East 14th Street in Manhattan. Late at night, he said, he would sit at the top of three dark, twisting flights of stairs. He would be waiting for that special kid to climb up, alone, fighting his fear of the unknown because his life on the streets below was so desperate.
A kid who used his fear as fuel, the old manager said, would have a chance to become a contender. Becoming the champion, he said, is often the luck of the draw, but being a contender, a somebody with promise, is about hard work and character.
The picture of those stairs stayed with me all through the fight I had been sent to cover -- Muhammad Ali beat Floyd Patterson -- and all the way home. I became inflamed with the picture, and wondered: What kind of kid would dare to come up those steps? What would be going on in his life? What would he find at the top?
I wondered what I needed to do to become a contender; what were my narrow twisting stairs? I was a boxing writer for this paper; I had worked on a nonfiction book, helping Dick Gregory write his autobiography, ''Nigger''; and I had sold some short stories, but I had never written a novel. Would the chapters of a novel be my steps up to becoming a contender?
When I got back to New York, there was a letter from one Ferdinand Monjo at Harper & Row. He wondered if I had ever thought of writing a book with boxing as its milieu -- a common boxing term, milieu. I called Mr. Monjo right up and began babbling about a book titled ''The Contender.'' There would be three flights of stairs in it. Mr. Monjo said, ''Go right ahead, dear boy,'' and in my innocence, thank goodness, I thought that was a contract.
Ferdinand Monjo was a terrific editor, and he was surrounded by terrific editors: Charlotte Zolotow, a well-known children's book author who became my editor later, and Ursula Nordstrom, their boss, who just about invented the young adult genre. I knew nothing about children's books then; I was just writing my novel, with boxing as its milieu. But because it was linear, had a 17-year-old protagonist and no sex, it was right for that new genre. And for the times.
Government money was available, there was a need for books with minority protagonists, and perhaps most important there was a generation of librarians and teachers open to stories that were closer to the bone of contemporary teenagers' real lives.
The letters have never stopped coming, more than you would think from white Iowa farm girls who said they identified with Alfred Brooks, a black high school dropout. In my school and library visits, young black men, once they got past their mixed feelings about my whiteness, wanted to talk about what I should write next. They had definite ideas about what should happen to some of the characters. Alfred's best friend, James, whom they all liked, would certainly die before the next book, they said; he was a junkie, they knew him well, he didn't stand a chance.
But it didn't matter because I had no intention of writing any more novels for teenagers. It was King Lear time. Even though ''The Contender'' did well enough to buy a suburban house and help send my two children to college, that genre flourished without me. Stars such as M. E. Kerr, Paul Zindel, S. E. Hinton, Richard Peck, Robert Cormier and Walter Dean Myers brought to the genre a grittier and even a more literary sensibility than existed in mainstream fiction. (Young adult fiction keeps getting better. I was amazed five years ago, as a National Book Award judge, at how hard it was to choose one winner from so much good, smart writing.)
Ten years after my first novel, while writing an essay for Mother Jones magazine about books that had influenced me, the phrase ''in the prison of my fat'' fell out of the typewriter. I had never before consciously thought about how trapped I had felt as an overweight kid, hating my body and finding comfort in reading and writing. In my earliest fiction, thin people died horribly.
That night I started writing my second novel for teenagers, ''One Fat Summer,'' an emotionally true story of my 14th summer during which I lost perhaps 40 pounds. (I don't know exactly because I always jumped off the scale as it rolled up toward 200.)
That 1977 novel started a flood of letters, the best from very tall girls who identified with the fat boy. During my school visits, chubby apprentice writers, once they got past their mixed feelings that I had kept most of the weight off, asked me to recount particularly horrible ways to kill thin classmates, who themselves were listening with what seemed to be horrified interest and new empathy.
In 1997 ''One Fat Summer'' was briefly banned at a school in Levittown, N.Y., because of a passage dealing with masturbation that I don't remember writing. Censorship became a source of pride because it connected me to Francesca Lia Block, the most exciting writer of young adult fiction to emerge in recent years, and to my hero in the field, Judy Blume, who may simply be the most influential writer of our time. She has made a positive difference in thousands of young people's lives.
This, of course, is the secret allure of writing for teenagers. There is a messianic streak to what we do; at the very least we think we are teachers as much as we are artists. If you do this long enough, people who claim we made a difference in their lives write or call to say they have given copies of our books to their children.
Because school sales are often critical to our books' success, we tend to meet our readers more often than many other writers do. As we age (and as our own children age), meeting teenagers and sometimes spending time alone talking with them becomes an important part of staying in touch with our readers and characters. What that also does is spawn sequels. When kids begin talking about characters you created 30 years ago as if they were friends, the need to revisit them becomes overwhelming. Nostalgia has created more sequels than marketing. This year I've been going to schools to talk about ''Warrior Angel,'' the fourth in a series that began with that first book, ''The Contender.'' Of my nine novels for teenagers, that latest one was the toughest to write.
It was a high school student's question that made me understand why. She stood up after I spoke, a little grin on her face, and asked me if winning the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in young adult literature in 2001 had put pressure on me to write better. This time I just said yes.
I thanked her for asking. Only a teenager would ask a question like that, a real question that acknowledged me as a real person trying to make some sense out of real lives. What I didn't say was that maybe this book would make me rich enough to stop writing. Or to afford the drugs to keep me writing forever.