Need a new contemporary read? You’ll want to snag Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe.
When Julia finds a slur about her best friend scrawled across the back of the Kingston School for the Deaf, she paints over it… only to be turned in by her supposed friend, expelled and sent to a “mainstream” school where she’s treated like an outcast as the only deaf student.
But Julia soon learns that she might not be the only vandal in town. Someone is adding to her tags, making them better, showing off—and showing Julia up in the process. She expected her art might get painted over by cops. But she never imagined getting dragged into a full-blown graffiti war.
How did the idea for You’re Welcome, Universe first come to you, and did the story change at all as you were developing it?
I set out to write a book that I would have wanted to read when I was a teenager. This meant having a protagonist that wasn’t perfect, someone who didn’t necessarily get good grades but was still really good at something. It also meant including pictures. I loved books with pictures growing up and I always hated the notion that if a book has pictures it shouldn’t be taken as seriously.
I first thought that You’re Welcome, Universe was going to be a romance! But I got about two chapters in, when the character YP bounced onto the page, and I realized this was going to be a story about friendship.
I loved the story’s focus on female friendships – the good and the bad. Can you tell us more about why you chose to make Julia’s evolving relationships with her friends such a key part of the story?
I learned a lot about how to deal with romantic breakups from YA books I read when I was younger, but I didn’t have much of a road map for dealing with friendship breakups. And honestly, aren’t those just as tough to deal with if not tougher? I think sometimes we waste too much energy on friendships that just don’t give back. I wanted to write about having high standards for your friends. A story that shows you that you deserve to be surrounded by people that not only care about you, but challenge you to be your best self.
Art (and street art in particular) plays an important role in You’re Welcome, Universe. Can you talk us through the process for choosing and creating the illustrations for the book, and if your experiences as an artist shaped Julia’s story in any way?
Art was and will always be my first love. It was what I lived for in high school and through college. I wanted to write about those feelings I get when I make art through my main character.
I came to writing much later in life. I started writing and drawing comics first. So I knew when I wrote my first novel that I was going to have to include illustrations as well. Some of the drawings I pictured right away when I was writing the book, while others I only figured out once the deadline was hanging over my head.
You’re Welcome Universe is also wonderfully diverse – what does diversity in YA lit mean to you, and what research did you undertake to make Julia’s voice and her experiences feel authentic?
I’ve been interested in Deaf culture and ASL since I first started learning it in high school. I made a few deaf friends back then and didn’t realize how different our languages were until we started instant messaging. I thought we’d be able to communicate just fine, but there were plenty of confusing conversations that opened my eyes to the fact that ASL is its own language with its own set of rules. I was hooked. If writing books didn’t work out I was planning on going back to school to become an interpreter.
I used to be a teacher in the Bronx, and I wanted Julia’s life to reflect my student’s lives. To have everyone in the cast be the same would be woefully boring and unrealistic. But when you decide to write characters whose experiences are not your own you really do need to throw yourself into research. I think I might have spent more time researching than writing. I had many sensitivity readers both from the d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing community go through the book at different stages. I also had an interpreter read the book to make sure Julia’s interpreter was portrayed realistically as well. I recently started learning ASL again with a Deaf tutor who really got into the nitty-gritty with me and learning from her really helped shape Julia’s experience. She was my mentor and a wonderful teacher. I honestly hope that Julia’s life will feel true to those in the d/Deaf community, but I’m always willing to listen and learn more.