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Author Talia Hibbert talks new YA romance novel

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

The new novel "Highly Suspicious And Unfairly Cute" tells the story of two Black teenagers, Celine and Brad. They're ambitious high achievers who used to be best friends once upon a time. But that all changed because of, well, you know, high school. Celine embraced being a self-proclaimed weirdo, and Brad went on to be a star soccer player and one of the most popular guys in school. Needless to say, the two don't have the easiest relationship. And so when they both get accepted into a prestigious survival course, they are stuck in the woods with an ex-best friend who is, as the title suggests, both highly suspicious and unfairly cute. The book is written by New York Times bestselling author Talia Hibbert, and she joins us from Nottingham, England to talk more about it.

Talia Hibbert, welcome to the program.

TALIA HIBBERT: Hi. Thank you for having me.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Yeah. Nice to have you here. All right. So I want to start with Celine. You know, she's - like I said, she's a high-achieving student. She's ambitious. She wants to study law. And I think, like a lot of teenagers, she's sometimes full of self-confidence and then sometimes just, like, wracked with self-doubt, you know?

HIBBERT: Yeah.

LIMBONG: How did this character come to you?

HIBBERT: Wow. I just really love writing women and girls who don't necessarily fit the so-called ideal of how a woman or a girl is supposed to behave. I really like writing female characters who might be labeled as difficult or unlikable. And so I really enjoyed this idea of like, an outcast, a quote, unquote, "weirdo" who's super unapologetic about it and is also maybe a bit of a nerd and is super unapologetic about that and is just going for what she wants and doesn't care what people think of her.

LIMBONG: Yeah. She's the type to wear, like, Docs, you write, with a dress. Like, she's that type of girl.

HIBBERT: Yeah.

LIMBONG: And so the other main character in the book is a guy named Brad. He is, you know, he's like that guy, right? He's popular. He's charming. He's handsome. And we learn early on that he and Celine used to be really good friends. But then, you know, high school drama gets in the way. Tell us a little bit more about Brad.

HIBBERT: So with Brad, I really wanted to dig deeper into the trope of like, the golden boy and show how you can have someone who's really charming and successful and popular. But that doesn't make them kind of a perfect stereotype. And also, especially with Brad being a Black boy, I wanted to be able to show the reality of Black boys being three-dimensional people and having more to them than the way society might read them. And so it was important to me that he be able to have a full and complete personality.

LIMBONG: Yeah, he's actually the first person you thank in the acknowledgments, which I didn't see coming. Can you talk a little bit about that?

HIBBERT: Yeah. So I thank Brad because Brad has OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and I also have OCD. And it was something that I hadn't thought a lot about or explored in terms of what it meant for me personally because it is something that runs in my family. And so it's something that I've grown up thinking, you know, maybe I have it, probably I have it. I'm not really going to think about it. But then I had a diagnosis, and I was writing Brad, and it was playing a more prominent role in my life, both in my work and personally. And writing Brad being someone who really handles his mental health very responsibly and also tries to sort of treat it as something that he's dealing with without necessarily letting it consume him - that was a really positive experience for me, and I felt like I was sort of writing a blueprint for myself.

LIMBONG: Yeah. He - like, he's very self-aware when, say, like, intrusive thoughts come in, right? Or when he's like, hyperfocusing. He - there's all these like, little bits in the book, but it doesn't take up his whole personality. Did it, you know, force you to sort of like, reckon with it in your own life. And then did you, like, do a bunch of research and start like, thinking about how to handle it and deal with it?

HIBBERT: So one thing I did was at the time, I was having like, cognitive behavioral therapy to try and deal with my OCD. And a lot of the time, I would leave a session, and instead of being like, how am I going to apply that in my life? I'd be like, ooh, Brad would do this or that. And I - you know, I think actually, in the end, that helped me kind of remember and prioritize and process things for myself because I'm just a bit more passionate about what I'm writing than I am about the boring day-to-day realities of taking care of myself. So it was a useful kind of intertwining of research and experience.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So this isn't - you know, this is far from your first book. You've written a number of romance novels that are mainly aimed at adults. What drew you to writing YA novel?

HIBBERT: So this book is published in the U.S. with Joy Revolution, and the mission essentially is to show people of color having these joyous love stories. And I was just really inspired by that idea. And they reached out to me and asked if I had ever considered writing YA because they felt that my adult novels sort of fit the bill. But obviously, this imprint is for teens. And at the time, I hadn't, and I told them as much. But I started thinking about it, you know, and after a few days, I went from I've never done that before, and I don't know if I can do that, to, well, I really like YA, and I think this sounds really cool, so why shouldn't I do it? And so I asked if I could, you know, come up with some ideas and pitch them. And I thought about it, and when I came up with the pitch for "Highly Suspicious And Unfairly Cute," I was like, you know, I really want to write this, actually. You know, I really changed my mind.

LIMBONG: There's long been a conversation in - at least here in the U.S., about, like, representation, especially in literature aimed at younger readers. But, you know, we know that different countries have different experiences. And I think it has to be said that the U.K. press has come under scrutiny in recent years for its treatment of at least one person of color in a high-profile relationship. I'm talking about Meghan Markle. I'm wondering what the response to your books have been. What have you been hearing from readers?

HIBBERT: So here in the U.K., it's a funny status quo, and it has been highlighted to the rest of the world more recently with the treatment of Meghan Markle. I've always, from the start of my career, noticed and been unsurprised by the fact that American readers, they make up a much larger percentage of my readership. And...

LIMBONG: Oh, really?

HIBBERT: Yeah, definitely. And I definitely found a lot more success, in every meaning of the word, in the U.S. before I sold my books in bookshops here in the U.K., for example. You know, I was getting pictures sent from readers in the U.S. saying, I saw your book at the airport. I saw your book in a Barnes & Noble. But I couldn't go to any bookshop here and pick up my book. You know...

LIMBONG: At, like, the Waterstones, right? Is that the big chain?

HIBBERT: Yeah, from Waterstones. I remember when "Get A Life, Chloe Brown" came out, I was like, oh, this is my first traditionally published book. Like, this is a big deal, and it's doing so well in the U.S. I'm going to go to Waterstones and see if they have it. And I went to a few, and they were like, no. And I was like, OK, well can you order it? Because like, I live down the street, so it seems like you should have my book. But, you know, it's just been a bit more slow going. But the thing is, I do think that readers here are just as eager for this. And, you know, librarians and booksellers and everyone in the bookish community here are just as eager for these types of stories as people in the U.S. are. I just think that the way things are set up here makes discoverability of this sort of thing a lot harder.

LIMBONG: Before I let you go, I know this is a Y.A. novel, so, you know, it's aimed at younger readers. Is there, like, a specific teen in mind that you had in mind as you wrote this book? And what is it that you hope they take away from it?

HIBBERT: So I have a lot of teens and young people in my life who I really love, like my nephews and friends with a family and things like that. And I definitely had all of them in mind when I was writing this, thinking, what would I be really happy to see them reading? And what do I think they might read and think, oh, that was so fun, oh, I really saw myself in that? So I think that was my aim when I was writing the book was to write for someone who wanted to have a fun time but also wanted to feel sort of recognized and included.

LIMBONG: That was Talia Hibbert. Her new book, "Highly Suspicious And Unfairly Cute," is out now. Talia Hibbert, thanks so much for talking to us.

HIBBERT: No, thank you for having me. It's been great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.