Much of the past decade's popular young adult literature geared towards teen girls reads like a PG-13 version of Sex and the City. But Nini Simone's characters deal with crack-addicted mothers, runaway siblings, and teen pregnancy.
In the Q&A below, I find out where Nini Simone (whose real name is Tu-Shonda Whitaker) gets her inspiration from, her favorite slang words, and how she embarrasses her teenage daughter.
KATIE: Tell me how you started writing. Did you always want to be an author?
TU-SHONDA: I've been writing since I was a little girl. I used to entertain myself by rewriting my favorite TV shows, like Little House on the Prairie and The Jeffersons. I would rewrite the shows the way I wanted them to be. I remember writing them down in my Smurf notebook!
I graduated from a college preparatory high school [in Irvington, New Jersey] in three years, and accidentally signed up for a senior fiction writing class my first week at Kean College. I thought the professor was going to kick me out because the first week, she gave everyone back their stories and didn't give me mine. She asked me to speak with her after class and I thought she was gonna say, "you're playing, you're wasting my time," but instead she gave me my story back. I got an A. She said, "I want you to know that you're talented. I want to teach you how to write books because I think you'll be a great author." And I said, "Okay, I need to ask my mother!"
After that, though, I didn't really write so much. I was too busy partying and living life – who wants to write at 21? It wasn't until I turned 30 and I turned to my husband and I said, "I keep watching Love and Basketball," and he said, "Why?" and I said, "Because I could write that," and he said "Write it." So I did, I sent out my first manuscript, Flipside of the Game, and it was accepted right away.
KATIE: You've been writing adult books for awhile. How did you get into YA literature?
TU-SHONDA: It wasn't my idea at all! When I was first offered the deal, I turned it down. I said, "I curse too much in my books, there's too much sex, go ask someone who really wants to do it." My agent wanted a sample chapter. I ended up wring three chapters in one week. The next week I finished the entire book – Shortie Like Mine – because I fell in love with it. It just felt right. Once I did it, I was like yeah, this is it.
KATIE: Why do you use a pseudonym? How did you come up with it?
TU-SHONDA: I had to think of a pen name for contractual reasons, but once I started thinking about it I wanted something that sounded youthful. I didn't want kids buying my adult stuff – that gets sticky – and I wanted something that sounded as if whoever wrote it was seventeen, walking down the street and chewing gum. That's why I chose a nickname – "NiNi" – instead of a full name. It's funny, a lot of times these kids think that I'm really seventeen, and I've had kids ask me on dates, girls want to hook me up with boys at their school, I've had kids ask me if I can I come to their school and hang out with them. I'm like "No dear, I am old enough to be your mother."
KATIE: Ha! I don't think they get that idea just from your nickname. I'd guess it's mostly because of the way your characters speak; like real teenagers living in the Jersey ‘hood. I could barely understand what your characters were saying sometimes. But I learned a lot of great new phrases!
[You have to read some excerpts from Simone's novels to really understand how well she takes on the authentic voice of a hip, urban teenager. From morning – Toi's "Cousin Shake" wakes her up for school by screaming, "If you gon' slide down the pole with the hoochies at night, then you got to get up and catch the bus with the freaks in the morning… now get yo' azz up and get ready for work fo' I bust you upside the head" – to night, when Toi sees her no-good boyfriend's car in front of a "skeezer's" house and decides to "ring the trick's bell" and "beat this bitch's ass for being with [her] baby daddy" – Simone's characters have serious attitude.]
TU-SHONDA: [laughs] Yeah, I talk like kids talk because I think that's the best way to get my message out. I want to deal with the realness of life, and I think you have to meet people where they are and that includes children. You have to talk to kids in a way they understand. If you say to a kid, "How are you today? Are you okay?" you'll get a different response than if you said "What up with you, cause you've been bugging lately." They'll respond because they feel like "Ok, you get me."
I love [using slang] because it keeps you up to date, it keeps you fresh. When I'm writing I listen to hip hop and R&B to keep current. I listen to a lot of Lil' Wayne, Ciara, Drake – whatever rapper is hot. I watch a lot of music videos and pick up magazines, too – Double XO is a good one.
KATIE: Okay, so I have some slang questions. What's "four flat?"
TU-SHONDA: All the way down! Underground.
KATIE: What does it mean to call a girl a "pigeon?"
TU-SHONDA: A dirty bird. Filthy.
KATIE: My favorite phrase is definitely "A li'l extra" [which basically means being melodramatic and intense, as in "Stop freaking out; you're being extra!"]. What's yours?
TU-SHONDA: "Catch the wall." It means getting ready to dance crazy! I just learned it because my upcoming book, Upgrade You, takes place in New Orleans, so I asked readers on my Facebook Fan Page to give me some New Orleans slang. One girl – who is now the president of my Fan Club, she asked if she could be the president and I said "I don't know what fan clubs do but okay, we'll figure it out" – gave me a bunch of slang, and I double checked everything and it was all gold.
KATIE: Enough about slang; let's talk about plot. You cover lots of typical teen girl issues, like boys, clothes, body issues, and friend drama, but you also tackle some incredibly tough topics: teen pregnancy, alcoholic and drug-addict parents, physically and emotionally abusive significant others. What inspires you? It doesn't sound like you grew up around kids similar to your characters…
TU-SHONDA: Right. I didn't grow up around any of that. I come from a very traditional family; my parents have been together forever. But through my work, I see everything. I've always had a passion for wanting to help people, and wanting to deal with children and their issues, and I wonder how the kids I meet through social work would end up growing up. If your mom hates you, your dad rapes you, where does all of that go? My plots are all fiction but the issues are very real. Sometimes I know the characters – I might see a kid come through the office that strikes me, and I'll take his or her life and give it a fictitious spin.
KATIE: Are there any topics you haven't covered yet that you'd like to in the future?
TU-SHONDA: I want to deal with the realness of love, because sometimes kids get caught up in thinking love is a fairy tale, or they think they have got to hold on to some boy. I also want to deal with drugs. The kids that start out with smoking marijuana and graduate to full-fledged junkies.
KATIE: Does your daughter read your books? What does she think of them?
TU-SHONDA: Her life is very sheltered, but it's not the issues in my books that bother her – she thinks kids should know about that – it's the slang! She's embarrassed, like "oh my god why are you saying that, no one is going to think that's cool."
KATIE: She's on the brink of teenagerdom. How do you talk to her about the complicated aspects of growing up?
TU-SHONDA: I'm very honest with her in an age appropriate way. I think it's important to deal with what your kids are ready for. I believe in saying it is what it is. I think that comes from being a social worker. A lot of times parents don't know how to connect with their kids. For instance, one time we had a mom that taught her daughter to call her private parts a "treasure box" and "her pocketbook." She kept telling her teacher that her uncle was putting stuff in her pocketbook, and no one thought anything was wrong. You have to be real with children, you've got to tell them what things are, you can't dress it up. Just do it in an age appropriate manner.
KATIE: How do you feel knowing that kids at places like Foundations [center for emotionally troubled youth] love your novels?
TU-SHONDA: It makes me feel great. I'm glad that they're reading, and I hope that they're getting something out of my books. Kids can keep so much bottled up inside that you never know which kid really feels like they're alone. There might be a kid that bullies everyone and acts like he or she's badass, but that doesn't mean that when he or she get alone by themselves that h/she doesn't feel like the only one going through it. So, I hope my books can help kids with that.
KATIE: That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from your book, Teenage Love Affair. Zsa-Zsa says, "I used to think I was the only one like me, then I realized there are a million mes." Young adult literature helped me realize that, too.
*Foundations Center is a pseudonym to preserve the high-risk kids' anonymity.
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