Welcome to the first stop on Justina Chen Headley's blog tour for NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL (Little Brown), a novel for teens that's currently featured as a pick of the week on the home page of Barnes and Noble. Justina will be traveling from the Fire Escape to four other virtual venues this week to give us the inside scoop about a novel that has already garnered starred reviews from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, and Kirkus.

Those who follow me on Twitter or are my Facebook buddies know how often I laud NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL as one of my all-time favorite teen reads -- here's my response to the story right after I read it. You actually have FIVE chances to win a signed copy (details at the end of the post), but for now, let's spend a bit of time with Justina since we're fortunate enough to have her here.

Were you as popular and gorgeous in high school as you are today? What were you like, describe your school, tell us about your best buddies, and give us the inside scoop on boyfriends.

Mitali, popular and gorgeous are the last two adjectives I’d ever use to describe myself, then or now. Think quiet geekster, and you have a more accurate picture of me.

My years at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California (home of the iPod!) was all about journalism and speech & debate. Which, let’s face it, are geeky activities. I’m still close to friends (hi, Si Oyama and Julie Yen!) who date back to second-grade, monkey-bar, cherry-drop days on the playground.

TECHNICALLY (ahem), I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. But (shhhhh) I managed to squeeze in a few boyfriends here and there. And then I did go to something like 13 proms… Doesn’t that sound like a YA title: 13 Proms.

Maybe that's why we get along so well -- we're both geeks. Write 13 Proms after you finish the fantasy you started during the writing workshop in Bellevue last month. Okay, next question. Terra’s father and mother are such richly-drawn, but heartbreakingly flawed characters. How do your parents feel about your writing fiction? Have they read NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL?

I think my need to write mystifies my parents, but now they’re proud of my books. And proud that I’m a writer. Still, all through college, it was push-push-push for me to be an engineer. Or a doctor. Which really is ludicrous given my inability to calculate sums mentally, visualize in 3D, or handle blood. My dad read my first novel and his reaction was: “This is better than I thought it would be.” But lots of little birdies have told that they do that Asian bragging thing to their friends—“We knew Justina was always going to be an author! Of course we knew! Her middle name means lover of words!”

Our parents must meet. Since we're on the Fire Escape, let's talk about the hyphen that's a part of both of our lives. As the mother of teen boys who don’t often see an Asian-American as the “it” guy in pop culture, I’m grateful that you created such a hunk in Jacob. Do you consider yourself a Taiwanese-American writer? If so, how does that impact your fiction? If not, why not?

One of my missions as a writer was to create a hunk who happened to be Asian! That was a gift for my two brothers and my son…and all the Asian-American dudes out there who need to see guys like themselves as cool. Heartdroppingly cool. Devastatingly cool. It makes me feel great that readers of all ages are emailing me: “I. Am. So. In. Love. With. Jacob.” Mission accomplished!

I consider myself as a writer. Period. While I am proud of my heritage, I don’t think my ethnicity should define or limit or categorize me or any of the work I create. Certainly, I like to weave some of my background into my novels—tidbits of Taiwanese history in NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (AND A FEW WHITE LIES) and the Cultural Revolution in GIRL OVERBOARD. But those elements informed the story and explained character motivation. They were central to why Patty’s mom and Syrah’s mom acted the way they did. History—whether personal or political or both—shapes who we are. Ethnicity by itself isn’t a character attribute; history is. Those telling details are what should be included in stories.

Love it. Your response might merit another post altogether. Moving on for now. You create a magnificent sense of place in NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL. In fact, you take us to two places — the Pacific Northwest and Shanghai. Which comes easier for you as a writer, plot, place, or people?

What a compliment—particularly when setting is hard for me; it’s actually the last thing I write when I’m in first draft mode. My novels unfold to me in layers: first come the characters. I can see them, hear them. I know what they want and how they’re suffering. What happens to them—the plot and conflict—comes next. Very last is setting, like a grace note. Or a procrastinated chore. I marvel at writers who create such a tangible sense of place that I feel as if I am on location as I read. That’s a true gift.

Thank you so much for joining us here, Justina. I am so proud of you and know that teens and adults alike will absolutely love NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL. Here are the next stops on your tour; I'm going to be accompanying you from site to site as a silent lurker/cheerleader:

Monday, February 2: Kickoff at Mitali's Fire Escape

Tuesday, February 3: Shelf Elf with Kerry Millar

Wednesday, February 4: Archimedes Forgets with Sarah Rettger

Thursday, February 5: Bibliophile with Jennifer Rothschild

Friday, February 6: Teen Book Review with Jocelyn Pearce

Each day, the blogger hosting Justina will ask a question, and a commenter who answers that particular question correctly will become eligible to win a signed copy of book. Here's today's question:


Answer the question correctly before midnight EST in the comments below to qualify. My question's fairly easy, so I'm going to pick a random winner, but if you don't win here remember that you have four other chances.