Molly Olivo, book buyer at Barstons Child’s Play in Washington, D.C., served on the Indies Introduce Children’s Debut panel. In You’re Welcome Universe, said Olivo, Gardner “has managed to make a very specific and angst-filled story universally appealing and lovable.”
“Julia might be deaf, but that hasn’t held her back in her graffiti art, or in life, until she gets turned in for vandalizing her school to save her best friend from humiliation. She gets kicked out and finds herself without a best friend and the only deaf kid in a hearing school. In the midst of all this chaos, she uses her graffiti skill to claim her place in her new environment. When she is thrust into a graffiti war, she must decide how far she is willing to take things. Julia is not always likable, but you will spend the book rooting for her anyway,” Olivo said.
A New York native, Gardner studied design and worked as an art teacher and a school librarian before moving to Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t writing or creating art, she can be found reading comics, knitting, and tending her garden or apiary. She lives with her husband and two pugs, Gouda and Fig.
Here, Olivo talks with Gardner about her writing and art.
Molly Olivo: What inspired you to become a creator/author? What are some of your favorite stories?
Whitney Gardner: Growing up, I was a diehard picture book fan. I probably read picture books long after I should have outgrown them. But there is just something so special about the combination of words and pictures. My favorites were Madeline, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.
Shel Silverstein books inspired me the most. When I read his poems and stories — when I saw his little scribbly drawings — I knew I wanted to be like him.
MO: Where did Julia, who has such a vibrant and unique teen voice, come from and why did you decide to tell the story from a Deaf character’s perspective? Have you had any feedback about the book from the Deaf community?
WG: I was not an angry teen like Julia, but I knew a lot of them and I remember sort of admiring their spirit and confidence. I started taking American Sign Language in high school and fell in love with it and Deaf culture. I made my first Deaf friend in high school and Julia is a slight homage to her. I had lots of feedback from members of the Deaf community while I was writing the book and as readers afterward. I tried to take all of their concerns into account while editing the book. I’m thrilled that I’ve had some very positive reviews from D/deaf readers since then.
MO: There is fantastic art throughout your novel, in the form of Julia’s graffiti. What was your process for creating the art?
WG: I create most of my artwork on a digital drawing tablet. I tried my best to capture the spirit of street art and graffiti but still give Julia her own personal style. I drew everything in black and white, but I’d love to create a color version one day.
MO: What do you want teens to take away from You’re Welcome, Universe?
WG: The idea of friendship breakups was very important to me while writing this book. I think there are lots of books about how to navigate a romantic breakup, but less about how to deal with falling out with a friend. I want them to know that if you’re no longer getting the respect and understanding you deserve from a friend, it’s okay to move on from those relationships.
MO: If you could give Julia one piece of advice, what would it be?
WG: Stop taking yourself so dang seriously. She would probably roll her eyes at me for that.
You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner (Knopf Books for Young Readers/Random House Children’s Books, Hardcover, 9780399551413) Publication Date: March 7, 2017.
Find out more about the author at heywhitney.com.
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