Kelly: Recently, Justina, I profiled you and the other Readergirlz for The Edge of the Forest. (Read here.) How is the Readergirlz project going so far?
Justina: My co-founders--the amazing YA novelists Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey, and Lorie Ann Grover--and I have been amazed and overwhelmed by the reception readergirlz has been getting from teen girls, librarians, teachers and booksellers.
That means so much to me personally since I wanted to tie teen girl literacy with community service: make books a springboard to thinking more deeply about life and our role on this planet. Give girls a true service learning experience. Show girls to put actions behind their words. Our world needs teen girls to be the next wave of strong, compassionate leaders in whatever they choose to do.
Kelly: Beer, wine, or a soft drink?
Justina: Pinot noir, preferably from my brother's vineyard, Patton Valley!
Kelly: What's next for the Readergirlz?
Justina: To celebrate YALSA's annual Teen Read Week in October, we are launching a new readergirlz program: 31 Flavorite Authors. Every day in the month of October, a different, acclaimed YA author will chat live for an hour with teen readers on the readergirlz group forum--groups.myspace.com/readergirlz. Already, Meg Cabot, Carolyn Mackler, Lisa Yee, Brent Hartinger, and Rachel Cohn have enthusiastically agreed to participate.
For the readergirlz divas, this is a wonderful realization of our dream to make authors more accessible to readers.
Kelly: Beach, city, or forest?
Justina: Mountains! There, you can get alpine lakes, unbelievable views, and a workout all at the same time.
Kelly: You've published one young adult novel [Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)] and a picture book, The Patch. Your second young adult novel, Girl Overboard, will be out this year. Which genre do you prefer--picture book or young adult? Do you write Middle Grade fiction as well?
Justina: While I love picture books--and my picture book publisher, Charlesbridge--I must confess that I LOVE writing for young adults. It must be because I still feel like a teen...right down to these aggravating pimples I've been getting lately. I'm channeling too much teen angst, apparently.
Kelly: Coffee, tea, or a triple skinny latte?
Justina: Oh, yay! Let me introduce you to the delight of the authentic green tea frappucino--not the way they serve it here in the US, but in Asia. Order it at Starbucks but (this is key, pay attention) with NO syrup and cream, and double the matcha. Ordered this way, this drink is worthy of The Edge of the Forest review space. Ordered the U.S. way, well, can you say, repugnant?
Kelly: Why did you decide to write children's books and not, say, mystery, chick lit, or "literary fiction"?
Justina: I write for teens because these novels explore the mysteries of life, have all the cheeky fun of chick lit, and every bit the merit of literary fiction. Enough said.
Kelly: Movie, Theater, or a Concert?
Justina: Ummm...curling up on the couch with my hubby and kiddos, watching a movie and eating kettle corn (with said glass of Patton Valley pinot in my hand--really, it's a mouth party).
Kelly: If you had an entire week and unlimited resources to do whatever you'd like, what would you do and why?
Justina: While we're fantasizing, can I tack on another two weeks so that I could trek properly in Nepal and Tibet? I so want to see those countries and meet the people and be on those mountains.
Kelly: Halloween, New Year's, or Valentine's Day?
Justina: None of the above. I'm sorry; I am such a high-maintenance interviewee, aren't I?
It's all about my kids' birthdays. Yes, I am one of those moms.
Truth: I spend months planning their birthday parties, not that they're lavish, expensive events. Not at all. But they are fun and memorable and unique, I hope. Like the BARF (BrainiAck Race Fantastique) Scavenger Hunt that included math problems the kids had to solve before advancing to the next location, a gross foods taste test, and a literary Jeopardy! competition. And then there was Viva la Diva where the kids rocked out. And my all-time piece de resistance--the Star Wars Jedi Training Academy. (Call me Obi Mom Kenobi.)
Kelly: I loved your Nothing But the Truth Scholarship Essay contest and the three winning essays. What inspired you to begin the contest and what have you learned from the experience?
Justina: Thanks--I loved the three winning essays, too!
My parents sacrificed so much to put four kids through college. College was expensive then and now, ridiculously so. I got through college on a combination of my parents' savings, scholarships and college loans. So in my small way, I wanted to help make college a tiny bit easier for a truly worthy student.
The best learning of all: there are so many wonderful, smart, thoughtful young adults in America. At the end of reading the hundreds and hundreds of submissions, I looked at my judges and told them: our world is in good hands.
Kelly: Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) was one of my favorite YA novels of 2006. (read review) Your protagonist, Patty Ho, is struggling to come to terms with her identity--she has a Taiwanese mother and a missing white father and is not quite sure where she belongs. In addition, Patty lives in a small town. Do you think small-town life adds to her struggle to find herself and her truth, or would Patty face the same issues if she lived, for example, in New York City?
Justina: I am so thrilled that my novel touched your heart, Kelly.
It's funny; one of the reviewers for my book has a hapa daughter who's growing up in NYC--and she told me that her daughter has no racial identity issues at all. So yes, I do think that being in a small-town defined Patty's experience. For one, she was always the Other. No one resembled her in her all-white town. No one knew that she felt perpetually scrutinized. And very few people understood what it was like to be the target of racism.
Kelly: Patty's Honors English teacher requires Patty to rewrite her truth statement (a practice run at a college essay, with a focus on "The Truth, and nothing but the Truth"), this time telling the whole truth about her life. I think this is an excellent high school assignment. Is it based on a real-life incident?
Justina: I was the kind of student who preferred to write papers than to study for tests. My husband thinks that's so weird, but what can I say? So I would have welcomed a Truth Statement, especially if meant no final exam!
I'm always so tickled by the number of teachers who've told me that they've been assigning the Truth Statement to their students. (While I would apologize to all those students, I hate to say this, but I'm thrilled! If I do say so myself, the essay topic is a great way to get to know who you are, what you stand for.)
Kelly: I adore The Mama Lecture Series. It begins with, "Greetings and welcome to The Mama Lecture Series, brought to you by the first-generation Mamas who left the Old Country for Brand-New America...While audience participation, such as talking back, is forbidden, tears of guilt and effusive apologies are more than welcome." Do you think Mama adds to Patty's struggles to find her truth?
Justina: I had such a great time writing The Mama Lecture Series--and love how everyone--regardless of race, age or gender--can identify with it. Come to think of it, I should have made an essay contest for the best Mama Lecture.
But in all seriousness, parental expectations and the fear of disappointing a parent colors the choices we make as children and young adults. And sometimes, even as adults! It's so hard, I think, separating from our parents. But that's part of growing up and that's part of Patty's journey--and every girl's journey.
Kelly: What can we look forward to next from Justina Chen Headley?
Justina: Well, I'll tell you this: you'll see me tying all of my books to some kind of philanthropy. That was the commitment I made with my first book contract. The way I see it, if I get 15 minutes of fame with each book release, I can share the stage with a worthy cause!
And in the immediate future, I'm super excited about my forthcoming novel, GIRL OVERBOARD, about a snowboard girl who seemingly has the golden touch. After all, her dad is a billionaire. So this is really an exploration of the dark side to uber-wealth.
I'm beyond excited that Burton Snowboards and Olympic Gold medallist in snowboarding, Hannah Teter, are partnering with me on a Challenge Grant for young adults. Details will come soon on my MySpace profile--and my website.
Today's SBBT schedule:
Ysabeau Wilce at Shaken & Stirred
Cecil Castellucci at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Tim Tharp at Chasing Ray
Check out HipWriterMama's SBBT interview with Justina!