By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Tina Wells to the WNDB blog to discuss her middle grade novel Honest June, illustrated by Brittney Bond—out now!
Middle school is hard—but it’s way harder when a fairy godmother puts you under a truth-telling spell!
June has always been a people-pleaser, telling harmless little lies to make her friends and family happy. She’s convinced being honest about her feelings will only hurt the people she loves!
Until, out of nowhere, a secret fairy godmother appears to “bless” her with the ability to only tell the truth! Seriously?! As if June didn’t have enough to worry about!
Now, June has no choice but to be honest about how she feels. And the truth is: what June feels is stressed out. Middle school is no joke—between field hockey, friend drama, and her parents’ high expectations, June feels so overwhelmed that sometimes it’s hard to breathe.
When everything spirals out of control, will June find freedom in telling the whole truth and nothing but—or is she destined to battle the curse for the rest of her life?
Hi Tina! Thanks so much for speaking with We Need Diverse Books! Let’s start with how Honest June came to be.
So, I love this idea that you’re really coming into your own in middle school, you’re really starting to develop your personality, yet you are still a bit attached to your parents, right? And their opinions matter so much. And so, I was drawn to this idea of creating a character that couldn’t tell a lie and thinking about all these moments, these awkward moments that pop up in middle school and, you know, what that that kind of tension would be like in a series.
And so, I knew in creating June and crafting who she was going to be that she would just be this funny person. But I think starting with the idea that June can’t lie, how is she going to navigate this world—that’s incredibly tricky at that age.
What came first, June Jackson or the story idea?
June came first and then, when I start to write, I always think about the central character and then I build an entire world around her, and her friends, and the people who are going to be prodding her and antagonizing her. And so she came first, and then I really started to layer things on.
I would say another big inspiration was just talking to a lot of my friends about their kids. I was starting to hear a lot more about anxiety and having panic attacks and just stress. I started June around the same time I started my first series, Mackenzie Blues—that was back in 2008/2009 and I picked the idea back up early last year—and so, if you think about where we were, we were in a place where everyone was anxious. So I think that became a bigger theme in the story. You know, how this character deals with her anxiety.
Middle grade is really great at depicting those big life moments, those first lessons we learn that will hopefully pay off down the road, whether it is our teenage or adult years. So, Honest June strikes me as the perfect middle grade story. Was that the case from the beginning?
Oh, absolutely. I am a through and through middle grade writer; I love this age. I love that we have the opportunity to insert some really important life lessons along with the fun that this reader is looking for aspiration, so I always say that if I were to do the math like 60% of what my characters do is attainable, and then there’s the 40% that’s aspirational, giving the reader a bit of escapism.
And I also think in this age they’re still playing around with what’s real and what’s not real, living in their heads a lot, and so I think there’s a lot of freedom to write for this demo. But for me the real draw is the ability to influence, and to influence in a positive way, and to also try to capture some at-risk readers and really get them on the track of reading. For me, reading has just completely changed my life and as a tween I was reading Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley Twins and Fear Street. I was such an avid reader and it just opened a whole new world to me as a suburban New Jersey kid. Plus, being a sibling in a family of six kids with my parents, books were how I got a lot of my escape and that middle grade period was really important to me, and so it’s just my favorite audience to write for.
I’m sure the Venn diagram would explode if we were to look at the correlation between the pressure kids face today, whether it’s at home, school, or online, and them navigating these circles being as honest a person as they can be. In that sense, they are left with a difficult choice, aren’t they?
Yeah, it’s really tough, and I think that what I loved about telling June’s story, and any of my characters’ for that matter, even if they don’t always make the right decision in that moment, we are able to experience their process and to see how they get to the right side of it.
I remember from my first book Mackenzie Blue, someone steals her diary and reveals her secrets and she gets caught going through the locker of one of her best friends, and it’s a cringe-worthy moment, but we see like, Betsy recognizes this is wrong, that she figures out how to be better and all of that. And so I think it’s important to sometimes expose that life is messy, these things are messy, and you can always course correct.
Yeah, it seems like the lesson in this book also is that it has to be a resolute decision at that age. Because until you’re an adult, and you understand the complexity of things, I don’t know if you’re afforded any nuance in something like being an honest person or not. I think at that age you have to choose to be honest, right?
It’s funny when I think about some real-life stories that my friends have told me. It’s always hilarious when they were like, “My child said this!” and I would be just mortified. How could they say that in public? Because when you think about real life, sometimes parents just want you to be quiet, not saying anything out loud out of fear.
But I think it brings up that question of if it is ever okay, because the truth can hurt as well, and I think the book asks a lot of questions, and hopefully we answer some as well.
So to me, the target audience is pretty clear here, but I feel like this is a lesson that folks of all ages can and should appreciate. Depending on our point of view, we can each receive the message more or less clearly than others, of course. What’s that lesson in your mind, and who do you think benefits the most from this story? The kids, or the parents?
You know, I appreciate that from my readers sometimes there’s some co-reading and I always want parents to feel safe with anything I’ve written, that they can walk away and know that their child is reading a story that will be safe for them. But I think that there are lessons for both and I think the idea is that it can provoke some interesting conversations between parents and their kids.
Like I said, I hear from my friends this idea of omission, where they wish their child hadn’t said something inappropriate or was really embarrassed when they said something like, “Oh my gosh, you know, Grandpa, Mom really didn’t want you to come over today!”
And so I think to your point, how we talk about truth, and we see this in so many places in society, right? About what’s true, what’s not. Are we inventing terms to have, you know, a certain outcome, whether it’s political or in other ways? Are we okay with the ends justifying means? We actually deal with these questions every single day. What is my truth and is it true for everyone else?
And we certainly don’t want our 12-year-olds to know the definition of utilitarian either, right? So, Honest June has a very strong, fairy-tale aesthetic, but obviously the problems June faces though are anything about bestiary. Talk about using Victoria and the Fairy Godmother aesthetic to make this serious message more palatable for a younger audience.
I think about my tween-age cousins. I have a niece in that age, and I think about the people that surround our children. And so in my mind, Victoria is this member of the village, but she’s also her fairy godmother at the same time. But she’s a bit of a mess herself. She’s not quite getting it right either, and I just liked adding the humor of this woman who is supposed to help June, but she really needs to fix herself. And so June gets the idea that she’s going to outsmart her with the blog.
I also found it interesting, thinking through when June is talking to some of her closest friends about Victoria, the idea that no one thought she was crazy. And even though none of them saw this woman show up, they are all going to buy into the fact that June has a Fairy Godmother now, and this is what’s happening with her. I thought that was also just a very funny element, and something that felt very tween, right? Like you’re still in a place where you believe in magic a bit, right? Like you still believe in Santa Claus?
All these things can still be possible, and so that was really the idea of bringing Victoria in. It was about a lot of different things coming together, the imagination, the making of personalities and people out to be so much larger than life. Like, if you have an aunt, who’s really cool, or your cool uncle, and that in those tween years, those people can become larger than life.
Yeah, that’s really leaning into that middle grade thing too, right? Like having these kids just buy into this stuff, while the more cynical adults can’t see it, even though it’s right in front of their face a lot of times, right?
June’s parents are very much a product of their time, and while you can clearly see that their intentions are well-meaning, this desire to “over-protect” June from a systematically racist society tends to manifest itself in a sternness, or strictness. Talk about that a little bit. Is this something you’ve experienced or witnessed in the Black community? This fear Black parents have about sending their children out into the world?
It’s interesting; June is actually being raised in this, like, Black, utopian, wealthy town in the South. And you know, I’m the oldest of six, was raised in suburban New Jersey, all six of us went to private school, all six of us have graduated from college. Many of my siblings have Master’s degrees, and so we had a bit of a utopian upbringing.
And by that I mean, my dad used to make us his own coloring books for Black History Month, and we were really like, “Oh my gosh, here he comes with these coloring books again!” But they really took on the responsibility of teaching us our history, where we come from, and really celebrating all the accomplishments of Black doctors and people that I would have never heard of had my parents not taken our education into their own hands.
My parents were honest about the reality of things, but growing up there was a lot of content in our home that was banned because they didn’t like how it was depicting Black people. And many people thought my parents were kind of going to the extreme. For June’s parents, they understand that the world is going to tell her a very specific story about her, and it’s their job to really do the work now so that when she hears that story, the impact is not going to be the same as if she didn’t really have this strong sense of self.
We wanted to create this world to say, you know, June’s parents obviously understand the reality of what’s coming, but that is also why they are on her now, saying you’ve got to be extra super successful because you have no clue what’s potentially coming your way in five or six years.
Right, it’s almost sort of filling her toolbox with as many tools as possible so when she does encounter sort of these harsh realities, she’s prepared I guess, is that the best way to put it?
That’s exactly right.
You teamed up with Brittney Bond, who provides some wonderful illustrations sprinkled through the book. Talk about the decision to make Honest June a visual story as well as a written one.
Yeah, I mean, Brittany Bond is incredible and I just remember seeing her work on Instagram and I thought her work, and her, were just magical. Her art is magical and she just infused even more of that into June’s story and I think the visuals are so important. I think when we talk about the statistics around representation in middle grade fiction, less than 10% of the protagonists are Black, so having an all-Black cast in this series, it was really important to work with an illustrator that could really just bring them to life. And we spent a lot of time talking through what June was going to look like, and having her natural hair and her braids, showing the different hairstyles that she can have. It was really important in just the hair celebration, and having those moments, that the art was important. And I think Brittany just did an amazing job of creating the characters that we put on paper, really bringing them to life visually to create a full experience for our readers.
For fans of Honest June, are there any other books that you would recommend? Besides future Honest June books, obviously.
There’s a book that I think is amazing called From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks; that book was huge last year. I’m also trying to think of what my niece reads, who’s 12. She definitely loves the Dork Diaries series by Rachel Renée Russell. That’s another series of books that centers on best friends.
It’s funny, as much as I’m in the middle grade space writing-wise, I’m not really reading a lot of other titles because I’m always trying to think about the next thing I’m going to write. But I would say From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a book that I saw last year and thought was just incredible.
Last one, what does the future have in store for June Jackson and the Honest June series?
I will tell you that in the second book, June gets cast in a musical, and it’s The Wiz. And so, it’s going to be really interesting to see this come to life because we already know that June’s dad really wants her to be on a specific track, but instead, June is interested in art and creativity. And so, getting cast in this musical, and then having to hide it from your dad, is going to be quite an interesting feat for her.
And even though June knows she has to tell the truth, she thinks she’s outmaneuvered Victoria with her blog, and we see what happens with that and how that goes for her. The big question the next book asks is, has June really learned anything at all?
Tina Wells is a business strategist, advisor, author, and the founder of RLVNT Media, a multimedia content venture serving entrepreneurs, tweens and culturists with authentic representation. Tina has been recognized by Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business, Essence’s 40 Under 40, and more.
For over two decades she led Buzz Marketing Group, an agency she founded at age 16 with clients like Dell, The Oprah Winfrey Network, Kroger, Apple, P+G, Johnson & Johnson, and American Eagle.
Tina is also the author of seven books, including the best-selling tween fiction series Mackenzie Blue, its 2020 spinoff series, The Zee Files, and the marketing handbook, Chasing Youth Culture and Getting It Right.
She has also served as the Academic Director for Wharton’s Leadership in the Business World Program at the University of Pennsylvania and is a member of the 2017 Class of Henry Crown Fellows within the Aspen Global Leadership Network at the Aspen Institute.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.