By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Behind the hazel eyes and engaging laugh of young-adult fiction author Danielle Mages Amato bubbles a bright and imaginative mind. And from that internal kettle, the debut author and North Park resident has percolated a fascinating mystery with a dash of the paranormal, “The Hidden Memory of Objects.”
Set in and around contemporary Washington, D.C. — and in flashbacks to the past, including the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln — Amato’s story reveals her gift for creating a scene and giving life to her characters, some of them endearing, some quite deserving of the role of antagonist.
This might be talent she has developed as a dramaturg, the role in which she currently serves at The Old Globe Theatre. But however she came by it, Amato’s ability to blend a suspenseful story with very real teen challenges and the grief of loss makes “The Hidden Memory of Objects” a success. So successful, that it was optioned for a possible television series months before the book was released this March by HarperCollins.
The story’s protagonist, 15-year-old Megan Brown, has lost her older brother, Tyler, in reported circumstances she doesn’t want to believe. Her quest for the truth leads her to discoveries about life, her peers and herself, including her sudden and mystifying ability to observe memories inherent in significant objects she touches.
Amato weaves an array of current social issues into Megan’s pursuit, making the book both relatable for her intended audience and entertaining for adults, with its complex and fast-paced story. There’s barely an “ism” Amato doesn’t address, and her love of young-adult books is clear.
“There can be a sense of ennui, despair, boredom,” Amato said in an interview with San Diego Uptown News, “but young-adult books deal with huge questions — identity, how does the world work? … You can dismiss the [teen experience] — who cares what happens in high school — but the stakes are really high. Young-adult books are the books I read most often. Those are the books that made me who I am as a person, in a way that adult books never did.”
One of Amato’s childhood favorites is “Miss Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” a classic fantasy-sci-fi. Amato also admitted to being “madly in love with ‘Harriet the Spy.’ I had a spy notebook. I lurked in people’s bushes. But I also have notebooks of just observations of the world. I always have a little bit of Harriet the spy — watching people around me, overhearing people’s conversations in coffee shops.”
Coffee shop-dotted North Park has been home to Amato since 2011. She describes her neighborhood as “incredible and supportive,” and she sounds quite settled, in contrast to her transient childhood.
“My family moved around a lot,” she said. “We lived in four states by the time I was 4 years old. It made me aware at a really young age that people in different parts of the country live differently, have different cultures. Now I’m raising kids who are Californians, two kids, 6 and 9. They go to McKinley — North Park all the way!”
Despite Amato’s mobile youth — or perhaps because of it — her sense of place is strong, and it shines in her novel, particularly in the scenes set in D.C.
“I lived in Washington for five years. I absolutely loved living there. In ways the book is a love letter to the city. Its problems become emblematic of national problems. I found the residents were incredibly politically aware. … These days, young people are incredibly aware. It’s in the air. There are things teenagers know about how their city works that adults don’t know.”
While Amato said one goal of writing her book “was to have fun … to have an adventure, a place to be,” “The Hidden Memory of Objects” also feels like a love letter to young-adult readers, a letter of empathy for the joys and sorrows they experience, and a celebration of their sense of fun and hope and enthusiasm for the future.
“To be able to write for readers who are still figuring themselves out,” Amato said, “is a challenge and a privilege.”
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on her blog Excuse Me, I’m Writing, is a founding editor of WritersResist.com, and has been published by Missing Slate, Ms. Magazine blog and Trivia: Voices of Feminism, among others. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook Library’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.