“Be The Girl That Happens to Things” Words of Wisdom with Jodi Baker

“There’s a line in my Between Lions Series from where Anna decides:
‘Yesterday, things happened to me.
Today, I want to be the girl that happens to things.’
That line was something I said to myself personally, when I decided to become a writer. From doing that, I learned: Don’t just react; act! Don’t wait for permission; when you know what you want, go for it.”
I had the pleasure to interview Jodi Baker, Award-Winning Bestselling YA Author: Jodi goes around locally, nationally and internationally speaking to schools, students and encouraging teens to become the kick ass heroines in their own lives. She teaches to use their fave literary characters in Young Adult books or real life heroines as inspiration for their own lives. Jodi has been featured on and in: USA Today, Los Angeles Times, NY Times, NBC, several popular blogs and more.

Yitzi: What is your “backstory”?

I’ve always been a storyteller. I loved creating imaginary world and characters even before I could read, and after I learned how, the only punishment I ever feared was not being allowed my weekly visit to the library. I fell in love with so many iconic literary characters, like Anne of Green Gables, Meg from a Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy…they were my first heroines.

But then, a weird thing happened. When I took my first standardized test, I was asked to check a box stating my race. I checked two boxes: Caucasian and African American. My teacher corrected me swiftly: I was only allowed to pick one box. But I knew that I definitely was two things… how could I pick one? That’s when my teacher said: ‘you have to check the box for “other”. That’s what you are…you are “other”.’ I had never thought about myself in that way before and decided she was wrong. In order to prove it, I went home and poured through my books to find evidence, which was when I realized: I couldn’t find anyone who looked like me. Now that I’m an adult writer, it’s joy to create characters that are from other backgrounds, races, mythologies, and even other worlds. But it was difficult to find a publisher for that exact reason. Too different, they said. It doesn’t fit in a box. Of course, when my first book finally got in the hands of teen readers, the differences were their favorite things! They pointed out that the kids in my books look the same as the kids in their actual class. I get so many emails and tweets from both parents and young adult readers, telling me how powerful it is to see themselves reflected in a story.

Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

In college, during the summer, I got a job as a tour guide at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. In the mornings, morning, camp groups would arrive and I’d take them around the exhibits. Every group, regardless of age, only wanted to see the most popular thing the Museum had to offer: the T-Rex. But the tours were an hour long, and dinosaur bones, while impressive, could only keep kids excited for so long. I regularly scoped out the ‘other’ great items hiding in the darkest corners of the museum so I could take them to see the unexpected items, like actual shrunken heads, or the most unappreciated taxidermy creature whose biography I found fascinating. One day, I was assigned to a particular group of teens that acted un-interested in everything. I decided to take them to see Egyptian mummies, where sarcophagi were painted with scenes of ancient animal headed gods. ‘Check out the shape-shifters’, I said. The instant their eyes widened, I knew I’d struck gold. Mythology is jam packed with action, romance, monsters and magic. By the end of the hour, I had them jumping up and down over Greek Vases — which are very exciting, if you know the actual stories being depicted in the art. After work, I walked downtown to the New York Public Library and sat between the infamous lion statues with a journal, jotting down book ideas. That’s where my Between the Lions Series was born.

Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

When my series was published, I was invited to schools to do Author Talks. I quickly realized it was an opportunity to do a lot more than just chat about my books. Not only were the diverse classes excited to see themselves in a story, the girls I met were excitedly connecting to Anna, my main character, as a role model! I asked them, ‘What makes a book heroine great?’ To me, Kickass Heroines are girls who learn to embrace who they are and in doing so, prove that ‘fighting like a girl’ is an oh-so-ferocious, connected, mind-heart-body evolutionary experience that forever changes them and those they come into contact with. Their stories invite all of us to embrace our own power, our quirks, and our perfectly imperfect selves, warts and all. After that phenomenal conversation, I was invited to write articles and guest blogs on the subject. I became a young adult fantasy writer who gives teen empowerment talks, encouraging girls to use their favorite literary characters as inspiration to become the Kickass Heroine of their own lives!

Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1.Be the girl that happens to things.

There’s a line in my Between Lions Series from where Anna decides:

‘Yesterday, things happened to me.

Today, I want to be the girl that happens to things.’

That line was something I said to myself personally, when I decided to become a writer. From doing that, I learned: Don’t just react; act! Don’t wait for permission; when you know what you want, go for it.

2.TRUST.

If you’ve decided to do #1 and go for what you want, the next important step is to trust yourself. Believe you can and you will.

It’s not an accident that my first book is called TRUST. The title reminded me daily to do just that.

3. Listen to yourself.

This is a huge theme in my work, both on the page and in my workshops with teens. I dedicated my second book, ‘To every girl who has dared to listen to the voice inside of her’; because I’m passionate about encouraging people to follow the soul-filling, world-changing journey their inner-voice invites them to take.

4. Your greatest weakness is actually your greatest gift.

When I was a teenager, it hurt to not see myself in the stories I read. But if I hadn’t grown up aware of being “other”, I wouldn’t write the way I do.

5.Write the thing you think you cannot write today.

Now that I’ve sent two books into the world, I get asked for writing advice a lot. This is what I tell young storytellers, just starting out:

Once upon a time, I had a story in my head that was so ginormous, it felt impossible to tell. Now, impossible stories are my favorites to write and read. There’s a reason heroines in fairy tales always get assigned the impossible tasks. It shows them they are capable of accomplishing whatever they set their mind to.

Yitzi: Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you!

I would love to have lunch with Ava Duvernay. She’s one of my real-life heroines. I’d like to talk to her about creating out of the box, “other” story content, and then ask her how else she thinks we can actively inspire the next generation of girls to become the heroines of their own lives.

I’d also like to thank her for making a film version of A Wrinkle in Time where Meg looks like me. Reading and seeing images of ‘others’ reflected as powerful, kickass girls, is a gift beyond measure.

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