Interview with Justina Chen

Welcome Justina Chen, author of some of my favorite books growing up! She took the time to answer a few questions for us on her books.

nothingWhere did Patty Ho come from? How much has your own life influenced your writing of Nothing but the Truth? Imagine being surrounded by teens who are mocking you in pseudo-Chinese. That’s exactly what happened to me and my kids one day. The next morning, Patty introduced herself to me while I was running the morning. To be perfectly accurate, she started dumping on me three miles into my run. She ranted about not being able to get a date, ironic since her last name is Ho. Then she told me about being half-Asian, half-white, and all-American. I couldn’t resist writing her story.

As an Asian American, how much of your cultural heritage do you try to reflect in your writing? I drew on my cultural heritage to write my first three novels–North of Beautiful, Girl Overboard, and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies).

Why do you write YA lit? I have always loved YA! Let’s just say that I wrote my first YA novella when I was about ten. Teen years are exhilarating and bewildering and tumultuous and wonderful–and I adore exploring that important time in our lives.

What are you working on now? Talk about drawing from my past! If you can believe it, I went to 13 proms when I was in high school. And I drew hard on that experience to write my forthcoming novel, A BLIND SPOT FOR BOYS (August, 2014).

(And an obligatory silly question.) What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you? How about a different obligatory silly question. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? When I was Peru, guinea pig was on the menu. Couldn’t do it. That said, I must say alligator tastes a lot like chicken.

Justina Chen TreeJustina Chen is an award-winning novelist for young adults whose most recent book, Return to Me, was called an “uplifting story” by Publishers Weekly. North of Beautiful was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and Barnes & Noble. Her other novels include Girl Overboard (a Junior Library Guild premiere selections) and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), which won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Additionally, she co-founded readergirlz, a cutting-edge literacy and social media project for teens, which won the National Book Foundation’s Prize for Innovations in Reading.

When she isn’t writing for teens, Justina is a communications strategist for executives and was the speechwriter and executive communications manager for a president of Microsoft. She conducts popular corporate storytelling workshops and has presented at prestigious organizations ranging from the Mayo Clinic to NASDAQ and AT+T to SAS.

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Interview and Giveaway with Sarah Ockler

brokenEveryone, please welcome Sarah Ockler to Rich in Color! We’re thrilled to have her answer some questions about diversity in young adult literature and The Book of Broken Hearts, which is out today. Sarah has also volunteered to give away a signed hardcover copy of her new book! The giveaway ends at midnight (Eastern) on Sunday. (U.S. mailing addresses only.)


Why is diversity in young adult fiction important to you?

This is such a huge, multi-layered question, but on the most basic level, diversity in YA fiction is important because diversity in *life* is important. Our stories both reflect and influence our lives, and life is anything but homogenous (just walk in the woods if you doubt that!). I want all kids and teens to know that they’re important and that their stories — whatever those stories might be — belong on the page. They belong on the shelves. They belong in our discussions and our imaginations. And as authors who write books for kids and teens, we have both a responsibility and a privilege to tell diverse stories, to give those characters voices. Yes, it’s challenging, and when we write about something outside of our own experience, we might get it wrong. But that’s no excuse not to try!

What were some of the challenges you faced while writing The Book of Broken Hearts? What did you enjoy most?

Speaking of challenges…. yes! This was the most challenging book I’ve written — which also made it the most enjoyable. All of my books so far have been contemporary realistic YA novels, but within that category, I love trying new things, which might mean exploring new family relationships, different cultures, totally new plot situations, new places. For this one, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in two different Latino cultures — Argentine and Puerto Rican — and to write about family, history, language, cultural traditions, and even foods so different from what I grew up with was a wonderful challenge that required a good mix of research and imagination.

The other challenge was more of an emotional one — researching the effects of early onset Alzheimer’s on a young family. It’s such a devastating illness, and there were times during the writing that I had to walk away, to take a break and work on something completely different. Throughout the process of writing a book, I often come to know my characters as real people, and I hated putting them through such tragic and painful situations in The Book of Broken Hearts. But I really wanted to tell this story, and it was important for me to portray it authentically — that’s where the challenge came in.

What appealed to you about having a set of sisters whose hearts get broken by a set of brothers?

Sibling relationships are perfect for YA novels because they’re naturally full of conflict and extreme emotion. I love writing about family loyalty, expectations, and the ways in which tragedy can both unite and divide families. So when I was first daydreaming about The Book of Broken Hearts and wondering how the conflicts would play out, I thought… hey. How about *more* siblings! With *more* drama! With *more* broken hearts and questions of loyalty and family history and what happens when one sibling breaks the accepted family “rules”! I wanted to write about a character who was stuck in the past, almost as if she was living the lives of her previous sisters, but who’d have to start breaking away and making her own choices and forming her own ideas about the world and her place in it. Emilio also has his own challenges and secrets, but… no spoilers. 😉

Which aspects of Jude and Emilio’s relationship do you hope readers will swoon over? What sets them apart from characters in your other books?

I hope readers swoon over the parts that I swooned over while writing — their flirty jokes and banter, the underlying insecurities that surface in sweet little ways as they get to know one another, and of course — the kissing! I think what sets them apart is the fact that despite the “forbidden” relationship (Jude’s sisters made her take an oath when she was twelve to never get involved with Emilio’s family, so… *insert ominous music here*), there isn’t a lot of angst between them. When they argue, they come back together to talk it out. They get to know each other under less than ideal circumstances, slowly peeling back the layers, both of them confronting the legacies of their older siblings. I had so much fun writing their relationship, and I still think about them even now and wonder where they ended up after the summer in the book. Sequel, maybe? 😉

Crystal’s father restored one of his motorcycles in the dining room one winter much to her mother’s consternation. Have you been privy to many motorcycle restorations or did this require additional research for The Book of Broken Hearts?

Wow, the dining room?! So fun! Well, not counting my obsession with the movie Grease 2 (yes, you should watch it! Cool Rider!)… My dad used to rebuild motorcycles when he was young, way before kids and mortgages and all that stuff, so he was totally my consultant on this project! He also used to drive me to school functions on the back of his Harley — something I didn’t appreciate until many years later. You know, the helmet always messed up my hair! But now I love that he did that. I also love that even though I asked him for help and advice on the motorcycle aspects of the story, he totally gave his two cents on the romance elements, too. It was very sweet. 🙂

Why did you set The Book of Broken Hearts during the summer before college instead of during high school?

I wanted Jude to be at a major crossroads in her life, kind of stuck in that floaty space between her past and her future. In many ways she’s still a child — she’s so wrapped up in her sisters’ “rules” and not wanting to disappoint them. But the summer after high school, she’s taking on so many adult responsibilities — caring for her father, helping him restore his motorcycle, trying to cook and help her mother. I wanted to take the naturally confusing transitionary time that so many teens experience, and then really intensify it with her father’s decline, the conflicts with her sisters, and of course… falling in love!

Do you have any high school experiences that would make a great springboard for a YA novel?

Oh, gosh. Don’t they all? 😉 Honestly, I never use my actual high school experiences in my fiction, but I do take the emotional footprint of them to inspire different characters, situations, and relationships. In that way, yes, I have a whole memory bank full of those kind of experiences! Scary thought!

What advice do you have for writers who want to include diverse characters in their books?

Take the leap! Use your imagination. Don’t make assumptions. And most importantly… ask questions! I’ve found that people are often more than willing to answer thoughtful questions, share their experiences, point out potential trouble spots, and help you craft authentic characters and situations. Get out there and talk to people, online and offline. Eat foods from the cultures you’re interested in, listen to the languages if they’re different from yours, learn about the history, check out family traditions, read other stories with similarly diverse characters. Embrace your own sense of adventure and wonderment, and explore! Then, write. 🙂

Which authors have been your biggest influences? Which authors do you look to for great stories about diverse characters?

When I first started writing YA, my big influences were the established contemporary realistic authors like Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Deb Caletti, and I still adore their books. The more I learned about YA and the more I read, the more I discovered other writers and diverse stories too — authors like Coe Booth, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Cassie Clare, Matt de la Pena, Justina Chen, Sherman Alexie, Laura Resau, Dia Reeves, Sarah Rees Brennan, Dream Jordan, and Neesha Meminger come to mind.

Who are your five favorite YA characters?

This answer changes for me all the time! At the moment, here are a few of my top faves: Kami Glass in Sarah Rees Brennan’s UNSPOKEN, Kit Cordelle in Dia Reeves’s SLICE OF CHERRY, Blue in Maggie Steifvater’s THE RAVEN BOYS, Annana in Cassandra Rose Clark’s THE ASSASSIN’S CURSE, Jael Thompson in Jon Skovron’s MISFIT. I’d love to hang out with any of them! Well, maybe not Kit — she might be best observed from a distance, since she’s got the whole serial killer thing going on. But yeah, great characters!

Which diverse YA books are you most looking forward to getting your hands on this year?

I’m really looking forward to reading Malinda Lo’s ADAPTATION series — I haven’t read the first one yet, but I’m going to double up when the sequel comes out so I can catch up! I’m scoping out Sarah Beth Durst’s VESSEL and Miriam Forster’s CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS to get my epic fantasy fix. HAMMER OF WITCHES by Shana Mlawski also looks awesome. And I recently made a Goodreads list of the 2013 ALA Rainbow List at http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/740903?shelf=2013-rainbow-list featuring LGBTQ books and I hope to check those out this year too. So many awesome diverse books!

Thanks for having me on Rich in Color, and thanks for continuing to host these important conversations about diversity in YA!

ockler_twitter2011Sarah Ockler is the bestselling author of critically acclaimed young adult novels Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah, and Bittersweet. Her books have been translated into several languages and have received numerous accolades, including ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, Girls’ Life Top 100 Must Reads, IndieNext list picks, and more. Her short fiction and essays will be featured in two upcoming young adult anthologies: Defy the Dark and Dear Teen Me.

Sarah teaches advanced young adult fiction writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. She’s a champion cupcake eater, coffee drinker, night person, and bookworm. When she’s not writing or reading, Sarah enjoys taking pictures, hugging trees, and road-tripping through the country with her husband, Alex.


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