SBBT: Nothing But The Truth with Justina Chen Headley

I am so pleased to welcome Justina Chen Headley, author of The Patch and Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) over here on my blog. Justina’s new book, Girl Overboard, is due to be released in January 2008.

The Patch was named a NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People (Selector’s Choice), and a Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice for picture books. The International Reading Association honored Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) as a Notable Book. This wonderful book was also chosen as a Borders Original Voices selection, Booksense Pick, NY Public Library Book for the Teen Age, and Chicago Public Library Best of the Best.

For those of you who are familiar with readergirlz, you know this vivacious readergirlz diva is big into encouragement, empowerment, and giving back. This generous lady not only talks the talk…she walks the walk. Check this out. Justina donated half of her advance from The Patch, her first picture book, to InfantSEE, a public health program that provides free eye assessments to babies. Justina also worked with Patch Pals to offer a limited edition eye patch, featuring the characters in the book. One dollar from every sale of these special eye patches will be donated to InfantSEE.

And that’s not all. Justina celebrated her book, Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) in a big way. In 2006, Justina personally sponsored a Nothing But the Truth Essay Contest for a $5,000 college scholarship. Justina writes on her website, “My parents both sacrificed so much so that all four of their kids could go to college without incurring too much debt. In my small way, I’d love to honor my parents and help out a college-bound student.” The winner of the essay contest and the award winning essays are here.

I really enjoyed reading The Patch and Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies). Both books were featured on my Strong Girl Role Models in Children’s Literature List in March 2007. Here’s what I wrote about The Patch: Aspiring five year old ballerina Becca has to wear eyeglasses and an eyepatch to treat amblyopia. She is brave, smart and creative. Join her on her adventure as she returns to school with her eyepatch and eyeglasses. She charms her schoolmates and convinces them they want to look like her too!

Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) is one book I would recommend to every teenage girl. Here’s part of my review: Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) gives a remarkable insight to our differences, our insecurities and sense of belonging. Patty Ho is a self-deprecating fifteen year old who unwittingly learns self-acceptance, confidence and self-empowerment through people she would never have given half a chance to before. This is a funny, heartbreaking story that mixes culture, teenage confusion, and an unlikely support system into a wonderful celebration of our differences.

Now without further ado…meet Justina Chen Headley.

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HWM: Becca, from your picture book, The Patch, made it to my Strong Girl Role Models list. I understand your daughter inspired this book. What was her impression of the book?

Justina: As of this moment, my daughter thinks it’s cool that she inspired a book, especially one who made it to your Strong Girl Role Models list! The problem is, my son has been clamoring for a middle-grade boy-adventure-fantasy novel with sword-fighting and interplanetary exploration. Unfortunately, my swashbuckling limit might have been reached at Becca wearing a pirate costume!

My daughter was three when she was diagnosed with amblyopia—a fairly common but often overlooked (pun unintended) eye condition. To strengthen her weak eye, she had to wear a patch. On her first day out in public, a little boy in her ballet class made fun of her. Being a writer-mom, I went home and wrote this story of empowerment for her.

HWM: The illustrations for The Patch are wonderful. With that said, what was your daughter’s reaction when she found out Becca didn’t look like her?

Justina: Let’s just say, we were both glad that Becca hadn’t been turned into a cockroach!

I mean that seriously! There is a definite church-and-state separation between authors and illustrators. So my illustrator, the wonderful Mitch Vane of Australia could have transformed Becca into a kangaroo or a wombat…or a huntsman spider. And I wouldn’t have been able to do much more than squawk about it.

I think the illustrations add so much energy, zest and personality to The Patch.

HWM: How did the title, Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) come about? Typically, most books have shorter titles. Was your editor worried about a long title?

Justina: My working title was Hapa Girl, but my agent told me after a huge pause: No.

Good decision. A lot of people have never heard of the Hawaiian term “hapa” for someone who’s half-Asian, half-white.

So I had something like 3 days to craft a new acceptable title before my agent sent out the manuscript to publishers. I created some new (horrific) titles that I’m too embarrassed to share. Since Patty’s final essay in English class—the dreaded Truth Statement—plays an integral role, I thought it would be fun to refer to that

And now, the official way of saying the title: You must accompany the “and a few white lies” with a deliberate, yet somewhat discreet eye roll.

No one seemed worried about the length of my title. That said, I wanted something much shorter for my next novel, which morphed from Queen of the Mountain (ick) to Girl Overboard.

HWM: Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) was a sometimes tough book for me to read from an emotional standpoint. You were so spot on with the Mama Lecture Series (hysterical), the comparison shopping of children’s accomplishments, the brand name college wars, being “yellow struck.” I could go on and on. I would imagine you had to look back on your experiences as well as think about the experiences your children might go through. How difficult was this from an emotional viewpoint for you to write?

Justina: Let’s put it this way: I had no interest in writing this story. Not at all. In fact, I found all kinds of excuses to punt on Patty’s story. Oh, say, that cute bear family reunion book that I just HAD to write. (And of course, never sell).

Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) came to me on the day I took my kids to the Children’s Museum. A group of teens surrounded us as soon as we walked in. They started to “hung twung wung” us—you know, mock us in pseudo-Chinese.

That night, Patty Ho from my novel introduced herself to me and wouldn’t stop talking—not shutting up in my dreams. Or on my run the next morning. And especially not at the computer.

So, FINE, I wrote down her first chapter. And then her second. And then my agent sold the novel so I had to write the whole darn thing.

HWM: I found the use of names/labels and various stereotypes with the eventual introduction of the naming company quite interesting in your book. What are your hopes with this exploration of stereotypes and branding?

Justina: While at Microsoft, I worked closely with a naming company and remember being completely amazed that people were paid to make up names.

Think about it: stereotypes are often nothing but labels someone slaps on you. Power comes from defining how we define ourselves, not allowing others to define us. Just as people can make up a term for a product, why shouldn’t we determine who we are, what we stand for, how we view ourselves?

HWM: What advice do you have for Asian-American or hapa teens who want to feel comfortable in their own skin and break out of the stereotypical mold?

Justina: Just as I believe my novel transcends race, I think this advice does, too, and applies to any teen.

Spend time figuring out who you are and what you stand for. Then stay true to yourself. Embrace the notion that being a cookie cutter kid is boring. Cherish what makes you different from the girl or guy next to you.

Oh—and remember, the people who are popular in high school may not be the same ones in college or after college. That’s key.

HWM: I loved the roles Anne, Jasmine and Brian played as Patty’s unlikely support system. Who was your biggest source of support over the years and what did you learn?

Justina: If wealth was measured by our friends and relationships, I would be the richest woman on the planet.

So I suppose if Patty had Anne, Jasmine, and Brian, I have my triumvirate, too, in my mom, my sister and my husband. They have always believed in me, whatever it is that I’ve set out to do. They truly practice unconditional love, and that’s something I wish to give to my kids and true friends.

My triumvirate has grown in the last year. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know three amazing women and YA novelists who’ve taught me the true meaning of giving back generously: Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey and Lorie Ann Grover, my readergirlz co-founders and cohorts. And I cannot wait to get to know the postergirlz for readergirlz even better—Little Willow, Jen Robinson, Jackie Parker, Miss Erin, and Alexia.

HWM: What has been your biggest surprise with the success of Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies)?

Justina: The biggest and best surprise of all: the extraordinary people I’ve had the privilege of meeting because of this one book. The experts I interviewed while researching the book. The fans who’ve taken the time to tell me the book changed them. The bloggers, librarians and teachers who’ve championed my book so ardently. All of this—all of you—have been a wholly pleasant gift.

HWM: Nice cover for Girl OVERBOARD.

Justina: I love the Girl OVERBOARD cover. My art director is a genius; that’s all there is to it. She designed the Twilight book cover, too, which I think is beautiful.

Quick note: Justina refers to this quote by Jack Kerouac on her website as a great motivator: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” Justina writes, “I love this quote so much that I actually used it in my upcoming novel, Girl OVERBOARD.”

HWM: What inspired Girl OVERBOARD?

Justina: My innate klutziness is completely to blame for Girl OVERBOARD. There I was, on top of the mountain, thinking to myself: Wow! I am *good*!! See, I had just made it down a really hard ski run. And I thought–woo hoo!–my skiing has progressed to the next level…at last! Big mistake.

So on my next run, I hit a bit of powder, and one ski went one direction, the other ski went the other, and TWANG! went my knee. I totally tore through my ACL. So there I was, flat out on the snow, whimpering, “My knee! My knee!” Ski patrol came to my rescue and did the whole “ma’am” thing to me. As in “Ma’am, are you hurt?”

“No, I just like to writhe in the snow, thank you.” Duh. So then I thought, Geez, what if I was 16 and had just blown out my knee and ski patrol was, like, “Yo, kid!” And then I thought, no… What if I was 16, had just blown out my knee when I was on the brink of becoming a pro snowboarder, and the ski patrol said, “You had no right to be riding here…”

Just like that,
Syrah, my character, sprang into my head… That’s actually the moment when I called myself a writer, because only a writer would be composing as she was being tobaggoned headfirst down a mountain.

HWM: What was your biggest challenge when starting your writing career? What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Justina: Oh, gosh, my biggest challenge was believing in my ability to write! All through elementary to high school, I had teachers who told me that I would be an author one day. But then, first quarter at Stanford in my freshman writing seminar, the professor eviscerated my writing. He told me I had no talent. I believed him. So I put away my writing for years until I had the courage to face—not a blank page, but my words on a page.

My advice to aspiring writers is simple: believe in your voice despite all the No, No, No you will hear. And be persistent.

HWM: If you had to write a brief truth statement about yourself, what would it say?

Truth: I am Justina Chen Headley, writer-mom, wife, friend, daughter, sister. I admire all the writer-women-mothers-wives-friends who have come before me and made this road possible…and thoroughly enjoyable!
Truth: I believe passionately in people helping people. In giving back to the community. In forming communities. And that is why I will continue to tie philanthropy with every one of my published books.
Truth: I believe in the transformative power of words coupled with action. And that is why readergirlz is so important to me: teen girls reading and reaching out will change our world. I believe that.
Truth: I think teachers and librarians are angels on earth. And people develop soul and spirit, empathy and sympathy through books.

Thank you Justina for time and thoughtful answers.

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Where to find Justina Chen Headley:
Justina’s website
Justina’s MySpace
technorati search on Justina
Read an excerpt from Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies)

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Here is a list of today’s interviews. Enjoy the tour!

Tom & Dorothy Hoobler at Chasing Ray
Mitali Perkins at Big A, little a
Sara Zarr at Interactive Reader
Justina Chen Headley at HipWriterMama
Justine Larbalestier at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Dana Reinhardt at lectitans
Brent Hartinger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Laura Ruby at Writing and Ruminating
Jordan Sonnenblick by Bildungsroman
Ysabeau Wilce at Finding Wonderland

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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