For Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson, finding the right audience was a matter of trial and error. She has written poetry her whole life, but says she was continuously searching for her true voice. "I tried to write short stories for adults, I tried to write picture books and short stories for kids," she recalls. "And the stuff for the adults was too young, and the stuff for the kids was too old."
She finally understood that the young adult voice was the right one for her. "I like that voice because at that age you're just beginning to perceive the complexities of adult life," she says, "and yet you haven't yet been squashed by the adult foot of life, shall we say. You're beginning to grow and sparkle and branch out and change, and possibility is still alive. You still have the chance of blossoming and flourishing."
In her novel, The Parallel Universe of Liars (Roaring Brook), her awkward, chubby 15-year-old protagonist Robin is exposed to the sexual lives of some of the adults around her, including an illicit affair between her stepmother and her slightly older neighbor. She ends up having her own sexual awakening (and double life) when she gets into a problematic relationship with this same neighbor.
Johnson says the idea for the novel came when she started thinking about the expectations that are on children now versus when she was growing up in the '50s and '60s. "When I look at kids today, I feel like there's an awful lot of pressure on kids to be sexual in that it's frowned upon if they're not," she says. "I was kind of curious about putting a kid in the middle of a sexual stewpot. [Robin's] just experiencing growing up, but she has to make some choices about what kind of person she will be in terms of integrity and in terms of her own sexual life. Does she want to be a liar herself? Or does she not want to go that route?"
She met agent Tracey Adams of MacIntosh & Otis after her friend Annette Klause, author of the teen werewolf novel Blood and Chocolate (and a MacIntosh & Otis client), recommended her. At this point, Johnson had three books, including Parallel Universe, for young adults (two additional novels are "buried in the back of my filing cabinet," Johnson says).
Adams submitted one of her books to editor Deborah Brodie at Roaring Brook, who asked to see the other two as well. Things happened fast. "The time between when Tracey submitted it to Deborah and when I got a contract was just a few months," Johnson says. "And nobody else had read Parallel Universe, so that was kind of neat too."
Johnson calls her relationship with Brodie "wonderful." "I was worried that the sexual parts would not survive, but Deborah never questioned them," she says. "She just wanted them to be right for the book, and sometimes less is more."
They are collaborating again for Johnson's next novel, titled Target. "It has a boy protagonist, and it's about his struggle to come to terms with a very devastating experience in his life," according to Johnson. "I really like being able to get out of my own skin and get into somebody else's."
A lifelong Maryland resident, Johnson lives with her husband in Rockville, and has an associate degree from Montgomery College, where she says she majored in "How-Can-I-Drag-This-Out-As-Long-As-Possible" (really, general education). She divides her time between writing and working part-time as a library technician for the Montgomery County Public Library system.
"Some days I just get up and go to work and I don't write at all," she says. On the days she does write, she sits in front of her computer and lets the story unfold, working each chapter until it feels finished.
She says she would be a full-time writer if it weren't for the isolation. "Maybe I would love to be able to write four days a week full-time and then have a couple days around other people or just doing other things," she says. "I'm not someone who thinks you have to write every day."
For now, Johnson says, she's getting used to the spotlight, which can be hard for "kind of a reclusive person." And it's thrilling, she says, to be published and honored (Parallel Universe has also been selected as one of Booklist's Top 10 Youth First Novels). "What's not to love?" she says with a laugh. "It makes me feel legitimate."