WHO'S JU: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.
But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.
Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.
1. What inspired you to write Who’s Ju?
When I started writing Who’s Ju I was working as a teaching artist, leading residencies in creative writing and theatre for middle school students. I was spending a good deal of time around pre-teens and they were the inspiration for some of the characters and events in the story. Those middle school years are truly a time of finding where you fit in and I think the novel reflects that journey of self-discovery. I also had a ton of fun writing the backstage drama case, which came from my love of whodunit mysteries.
2. What was the development process like?
The first few drafts of Who’s Ju were completed during graduate school under the guidance of two excellent mentors. I’ve also had some great critique partners over the course of several rewrites (spanning eight years!) Outside feedback was crucial throughout the revision process. A few times I let the manuscript sit for several months so I could work on other projects. I’m a big fan of taking time away from a piece of writing. It’s easier to spot changes that need to be made once you come back with fresh eyes.
3. Did you relate to the main character, Ju, in any way? If so, what?
Ju has movie nights with Papi and, like her, I also used to watch classic films with my father. My favorites were the Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. I also remember being terrified to fall asleep after seeing the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. To this day, I have a fondness for so many of those old movies my father introduced me to.
Another thing I share with Ju is that we were both born and raised in northeastern New Jersey. Her fictional hometown, Dolton, is based on a combination of a few different communities in my area.
And I can relate to Ju wanting to become a sleuth! Although it never went past a daydream for me, I think Ju could be a detective one day.
4. What are some of the main issues that you explore in this book and why did you explore them?
Identity and trust are both explored throughout the novel. Ju starts off thinking she knows her place within her family and at school. But she’s soon forced to question who she is and what defines her. At home, Ju faces a lingering doubt when she suspects that her parents might be keeping a secret from her. She also comes to recognize the importance of loyalty when her friendship with Ig is in jeopardy.
Identity, trust, family, doubt, loyalty—these are universal and lifelong issues that children must navigate to figure out how they want to exist in the world. I felt it was important to tackle them in an honest, real way that kids could relate to.
5. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
I hope my readers recognize how social labels can be tricky—sometimes they are useful or a source of pride, other times, they’re limiting. I also hope readers understand that there are things that defy categorization—they simply are what they are—often those are the truest and most important aspects in life.
6. What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?
I love being able to share the wild stories in my head…and there are a lot of them! I’m not a fan of writing the dreaded synopsis.
7. Who are some of your favorite authors?
Julia Alvarez, John Irving, Junot Diaz, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Judy Blume…and few playwrights: Jose Rivera, August Wilson, Henrik Ibsen.
8. If your book would be turned into a movie, who would you imagine playing the part of the main character? (Actor can be ANYONE, living or dead.)
Fatima Ptacek would make an excellent Ju. She was featured in the indie film, Tio Papi and is the current voice of Dora in Dora the Explorer and Dora and Friends: Into the City!
9. Are you working on anything right now?
I’m currently working on book two of the Seventh-Grade Sleuths series. It’s told from Ig’s point of view and incorporates his love of astronomy. I’m also revising a young adult fantasy novel and a horror short story, both set in Puerto Rico.
10. And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?
My hope is that we’ll see more narratives that reflect our various cultures and backgrounds—indigenous folklore, the immigrant experience, tales rooted in Africa and Europe, stories of people born and raised in the states—they all deserve to be heard and passed on to future generations. I also hope the day comes when our voices are considered part of mainstream society and not separated out on bookstore shelves. Latinos are woven into the fabric of American life and it’s time for literature and other forms of storytelling to reflect this.
Up next: A review of Who's Ju?