If you ask Nicole Griffin whether she always wanted to write YA books, she doesn’t hesitate. “I always planned that was what I was going to do,” she says, “from the time I was a tiny kid.” Not only did she read “obsessively, probably to the point of worrisomeness,” but she kept reading books for young readers “way past the time you were supposed to. I invented a fictitious ill cousin I could go to the library and get books for.”

Books, Griffin says, showed her that there were “all these ways that you could be.” In fact, she thinks that “the way that kids read is so fundamentally different, because they’re making themselves out of what they read.” Everything Griffin read, she says, she “owned in such an intense way.” With that reading history, the list of books she loved and that shaped her is too long for her to choose individual books, but she singles out two character-driven series—Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family books and Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories—for special mention.

So it makes sense that The Whole Stupid Way We Are (S&S/Atheneum, Feb.) started with the characters. Griffin (who publishes under her first initial because it creates a bit of space between her private and public lives) was a student in the writing for children and young adults M.F.A. program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She knew the book she was working on needed to be better, but finding a way to do it felt beyond her powers. To cheer herself up, she planned all of the other books she’d write. The fourth book on the list was about a cheerful girl, and Griffin started thinking, “I like her better. I’m going to write a book about that girl.” What began as “an act of procrastination” turned into much more, as she realized that the girl in book four could be friends with the boy in book one. Eventually, the girl became Dinah, the boy became Skint, and, as Griffin says, instead of “book one and book four, I had this new thing, which turned out to be The Whole Stupid Way We Are.” In fact, the through line of the book is the complicated balance between Dinah’s hopeful good intentions and Skint’s darker worldview, as the two of them try to deal with injustices small and large, including Skint’s father’s early-onset dementia.

The book had an unorthodox road to publication: after contacting agents, one at a time, “inching along, agent by agent,” Griffin happened to meet Atheneum editor Caitlyn Dlouhy at a benefit in 2008 or 2009, and Dlouhy suggested that Griffin send her the manuscript. When Dlouhy decided she wanted the book, she connected Griffin with agent Linda Pratt of the Wernick and Pratt agency. The great thing about Dlouhy, Griffin says, was her comfort with what Griffin calls the book’s “peculiar elements. She was really supportive of all the parts and the curlicues.”

A former teacher who taught kids from kindergarten through high school, Griffin now works as an educational consultant, helping schools as they go through the process of adapting to the new Common Core standards. She lives in Cambridge, Mass., and her second book, which she describes as a “super-cheerful middle-grade mystery,” will be published by Candlewick in fall 2014. When not consulting, she’s working on her third book, a YA novel, which she’s reluctant to say much about, feeling that, once she’s distilled it down to a sentence, there’s almost no reason to go ahead and write it. Avoiding describing it out loud lets her surprise herself and, eventually, her readers. She won’t say more than that it features “a girl who does some stuff.”