The Modern Judy Blume
An interview with children’s and young-adult book author, Justina Chen Headley
At the peak of the Harry Potter mania a couple years ago, there was a spate of unauthorized Chinese takeoffs on the series, in which amateur writers had Harry and friends visit China, or merged Rowling’s plotlines with well-known kung fu epics or parts of Journey to the West. These knockoff stories provided fodder for much amusement in the Western media, but the impulse behind them was an understandable one – readers want storylines they can identify with, and which reflect their own cultural experience.
Until recently, English-language children’s books were a predominantly white-bread world, filled with Jacks and Janes and maybe the occasional dog named Spot, with nary a Kwame or Akiko in sight. Authors like Justina Chen Headley, however, are helping to bring children’s and teen literature up to speed with our multicultural world, writing engrossing and entertaining books about teens whose problems should be familiar to any young person, and yet who also grapple with issues specific to their own cultural identity.
Headley’s books also push the larger agenda of giving back. For her first book, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), Headley gave a USD 5,000 scholarship to a college student who wrote about a truth in their own life; for her second, Girl Overboard, she partnered with Burton Snowboards to award USD 1,000 grants for readers’ proposed community service projects; and for her most recent North of Beautiful, readers submitted inspiring YouTube videos about what true beauty means to them.
Headley shares a few thoughts with beijingkids about being a mom-with-a-mission, her adventures in China, and getting your kids to love reading.
You’ve already had two successful past careers, first with Microsoft in Seattle, then in magazine publishing in Australia. What was it like making the leap to writing young adult novels?
Whatever “success” I’ve had at Microsoft or in publishing, I count being a mom as my most important job. I have always wanted to be a writer-mom. Always. The hardest part of transitioning from the corporate world to the work-at-home world, honestly, was believing in my writing and managing my time. As any mother will tell you, your time is never your own once you have kids. That cry – “Mom!” – is the clarion call to put down whatever you’re doing, tuck away whatever you’re thinking, and attend to the bloody nose/scraped knee/hurt feelings. So when my kids were little, I’d wake up at 4am to write. Those are still my summer hours when school’s out. Those wee morning hours are the only time in the day that I claim as purely my own – no calls, no emails, no stomach crunches, no cleaning up after messes. Just me and my stories.
The main character of your first book is a hapa (a Hawaiian word that means mixed race, usually half-or part- Asian), and so are many characters in Girl Overboard. As the mother of two hapa kids, why did you feel compelled to create those characters?
Growing up where I was one of maybe five kids of color in a high school of 1,500 students, I faced my share of racism. But I had convinced myself that my hapa kids wouldn’t see the same. After all, they were half-white. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
There we were, at the Seattle Children’s Museum, when a group of teens surrounded us and mocked my kids with pseudo-Chinese: “Hung, twung, wung!” At that moment, I knew I had to write a book about modern-day racism as experienced through a teen girl who straddles two cultures. The funny and wonderful thing is, I hear from readers all the time who understand what it means to be dual-culture, to be biracial, to live in two worlds.
Racial identity is one of the central themes of Nothing But the Truth…However in Girl Overboard, many of the main characters are Asian or Latino or hapa, but their race is treated as secondary.
Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) said everything I wanted to say about getting comfortable with racial identity. Done! With my next two novels, I wanted race to inform character, not define the characters. What I mean is this: Syrah in Girl Overboard discovers that her mother’s childhood in China shaped the woman she became. Her mom’s past directly influenced how and why she mothered Syrah the way she did. Similarly, Jacob in North of Beautiful is a boy who was adopted from China. His journey back to his orphanage changed him … and everyone who accompanied him on that journey. Our past and our experiences are filtered through race. All of that shapes who we are right now, this moment.
Also notable is the prevalence of hunky Asian male love interests in your books.
One of my personal agendas is to showcase hot Asian guys as love interests in novels because there remains such an awful stereotype of the geeky Asian guy. I will always remember visiting a library in Chicago and reading a scene in Girl Overboard where Syrah and Age are talking. One boy raised his hand and asked incredulously: “You made Age a Latino who has it all together?” That says it all, doesn’t it? How devastating stereotypes are in the media, whether film or book, on young people. Jacob, in particular, is a gift to my son and my brothers and my dad – all attractive men! It thrills me to receive emails from teen girls where I can practically hear them fan-screaming: “I luuuurve Jacob!”
Some of North of Beautiful is set in Beijing and Shanghai. And I know you and your kids lived for three months in Shanghai …
Our lives were changed forever by China. Living abroad, learning a new language, our daily (mis)adventures. The hundreds and hundreds of kindnesses paid to us by strangers, both Chinese and foreigners. Really, I think about the people who smoothed our way. And then there was the woman who taught me how to buy eggs (bewildering) and the one who said, “You must get a foot massage.” That alone changed my life.
What are some of the most compelling reactions you have gotten from your teen readers?
The letter that made both my editor and me cry said this: “Your book is the miracle I was waiting for. I am a girl with a ‘birthmark,’ a Venus Malformation to be exact. One which not only to me is hideous, but also causes nerve complications and pain. Well, was it just a coincidence I picked up your book, bought it and had no idea your character was what I needed to make it through this point in my life right now? No, I think that this happened for a reason and whatever the reason may be I will always be grateful to you and your writing.”
And finally, for all the parents out there who can’t get their children to read – what to do?
Think of yourself as a matchmaker – you are Cupid trying to find the love of your child’s life on a bookshelf. Ask the experts (librarian, teacher, the kid who’s perpetually reading, the mom who is always reading herself …) about the great books out there. Research by reading book blogs. Know what your child likes to do, to watch, to play … and then find the book that matches those interests. Don’t worry about being too high-brow, too literary. Your intention is to get the kid hooked on a book. Any book. And then once hooked, that child will ask for more.
The other tactic I would consider is starting a mom-and-daughter or mom-and-son book club. It’s a fantastic way to introduce tough, but important topics without them quite realizing it. Shhhhhh…that’s the best-kept mommy secret in the world!
Books by Justina Chen Headley. All three titles (for ages 12 and up) are available on Amazon.com:
Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies)
Little, Brown / USD 7.99 (paperback)
One of the most oppressive aspects of being a teenager is the inability to see beyond the narrow claustrophobia of the here and now. All it takes is a short foray outside the bubble to expose them to new and diverse worldviews to realize that there’s an end in sight to these awkward years, and a world out there filled with people like them. For Patty Ho, stuck in a small American town, saddled with the Tough Asian Mom to beat all Tough Asian Moms, and self-conscious about her mixed race (ethnic enough to still get taunted at school, but viewed by other Chinese-Americans as too white to truly understand “Asian Angst”), that glimpse of the promised land comes in the form of a summer math camp on the campus of Stanford University. Finally, Patty finds herself the object of a cute guy’s attention, learns that there’s a word for mixed-race people like her: hapa, and begins at last to understand and sympathize with her mother, all while discovering that, even if it is an Asian stereotype, being good at math can be cool.
Little, Brown / USD 7.99 (paperback)
Money is the bane of Syrah Cheng’s life – not a lack of it, but way too much of it. Being the youngest daughter of a world-famous billionaire means that everyone from the girls at school to her would-be love are only after her name. It also means that her older half-siblings hate her and her parents are too busy to pay any attention to her (except when her perfectionist mom hints that she should lose some weight). Things begin to change, however, when Syrah gets to know classmate Lillian Fujimoro, who recruits her to volunteer at the hospital, and whose little sister Amanda suffers from leukemia with almost zero chances of finding a bone marrow match due to being biracial. Having money, Syrah realizes, isn’t so bad when you put it to good use. As she flings herself into putting together a snowboarding benefit to encourage more minorities and biracial people to join the National Bone Marrow Registry, she finds that when you stop feeling sorry for yourself and starting doing good, everything else – friendship, understanding, coming to terms with your family and your place in it – falls into place as well.
North of Beautiful
Little, Brown / USD 16.99 (hardcover)
From the outside, Terra Cooper seems like the picture of confidence – gorgeous blonde hair, perfect body, good grades, and a boyfriend on the wrestling team. In truth, she works hard to sculpt that image, waking up at 5am every day to exercise before school, piling on makeup to cover her birthmark, and coming home each day to the cutting comments of her verbally abusive father. But all Terra’s ideas about looks are turned upside-down when she meets Jacob: an adopted Chinese guy with a white mother, a goth in black lipstick, and a scar above his lip from a cleft palate. Unlike Terra, he’s perfectly comfortable looking right back at gawkers. Not to mention that Jacob’s totally hot. The two and their mothers end up traveling to China, including Beijing, and come away altered by the trip – Jacob strengthened from knowing his past, and Terra with the confidence to be proud of her art and to know that she doesn’t need any crutch to be truly beautiful.