Author Lisa Yee, a “mostly cured workaholic,” talked to Children’s Bookshelf about Absolutely Maybe, her first novel for young adults.
After writing several novels for middle-school readers, what made you decide to write a book for an older audience?
I was totally unconscious of doing it. I had signed a contract for a middle-school book, Charm School Drop-Out, about a girl whose mother tries to turn her into a charm-school queen, but the book I ended up writing turned out to be something very different. When my agent, Jodi Reamer, read it, she called me immediately and said, “This isn’t the book you signed the contract for!” Then I went into a panic, thinking, “Oh, no! Am I going to get fired?” Luckily, my editors, Arthur Levine and Cheryl Klein, loved the book.
How is writing for teens different from writing for middle-schoolers?
I got so immersed in writing the book that I didn’t even think of the audience. It was kind of liberating being a teen for a while, though. I went through a period of swearing a lot. My husband finally asked what was going on, and I told him, “I’m a teenage runaway right now.” As it turned out, I cut out a lot of the swearing. It wasn’t true to Maybelline’s character.
Where did you get the idea of Maybelline being a runaway?
At first the book was mostly going to be about beauty pageants, but when I started researching them, I didn’t find much that I liked. I didn’t think I could give a fair picture of pageants in the book, so I decided I had to get Maybelline out of that scene and out of Florida.
Most of your previous books feature an Asian-American protagonist, but Absolutely Maybestars a Caucasian teen. Is it more challenging to write from the perspective of someone of a different race?
I didn’t really think about Maybelline’s race very much. Her feelings and emotions transcend race. But, in the book, there is an Asian character, Ted. Inserting him was a conscious choice. Through him, I wanted to explore what would happen if you were raised one race and found out that your DNA showed you to be a different race.
Explain how you came up with the idea for Maybelline.
I started with the idea that she’d be a tomboy like my daughter. But my daughter doesn’t wear makeup like Maybelline—that part would be me. I always spend a couple of weeks working on character before I begin writing a book, and as I did this for Maybelline, she kept getting older. First she was in middle school; then she was a freshman; then a sophomore and so on. I always think of one word to assign my main character. For Maybelline, I used the word “aimless.” But I think all teens are more in control than they think they are. By the end of the book, I wanted Maybelline to know who she was and where she was going.
Were you as rebellious as Maybelline as a teen?
No, I was an honor student. I never caused my parents a problem, mostly because I never got caught doing anything wrong. Everyone thought, “Oh, she’s an honor student, she couldn’t have done that.”
Are there any ways (besides wearing makeup) that you and Maybelline are similar?
Like Maybelline’s best friend, my best friend is gay. And like Maybelline, I’ve always had a lot of male friends. I thought this would be something fun to explore in the book.
You’ve described yourself as a “mostly cured” workaholic. How has your work ethic changed over the years?
When I used to be the creative director of the Magic Pencil Studio, there was a Wall Street Journal article written about me and how I scheduled a pregnancy around a big project—creating an 80-page brochure for the travel division of Disney. When I read the article, I thought, “Well, this is depressing,” so I’ve become more relaxed. I love keeping my own hours and being able to work in my pajamas. But I still like working on many things at once. It energizes me.
What led you to become a writer?
I always wanted to be an author, but I thought it wasn’t something real people did. It was sort of like being a rock star to me. It wasn’t until I had my own kids that I figured out I was being sort of hypocritical, urging them to follow their dreams when I wasn’t doing anything about my own.
How did you find your editors?
I’d read something by Arthur Levine about children’s book illustrations, and I thought, “He sounds pretty cool.” I sent him the first book I wrote. He didn’t buy it but asked if I ever wrote another book to send it him. I sent my second book, Millicent Min: Girl Genius, and he accepted it.
Did that first book that you wrote ever get published?
No, Arthur has actually offered to revisit it with me, but after looking it over, I’ve decided it’s just a practice book.
You actually have two editors, Arthur Levine and Cheryl Klein. Have they been the co-editors for all of your books?
Yes, except for the American Girl book I wrote [Good Luck, Ivy]. I like working with two editors. Any time I need them, they’re right there for me. At first there was a lot of hand-holding, but now they know I have more confidence as a writer. I trust both of their instincts. They don’t always agree on everything, and that makes me realize more than ever that whatever I write, there has to be a good reason for it.
What projects are you working on now?
I have the first in a chapter-book series coming out this fall. It’s called Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally). I’m also finishing up another sequel to Millicent Min: Girl Genius. This one will be about Marley and Digger.
Would you ever want to write another YA novel?
Absolutely. I had so much fun writing Absolutely Maybe, and I have so many new ideas for other books. I want to do everything. But as always, the problem is finding the time.
Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-439-83844-3