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Five questions for Susan Juby

In The Fashion Committee (Viking, 14 years and up), author Susan Juby takes readers back to Green Pastures Academy, a high school for the arts and setting of her 2015 book The Truth Commission (Viking, 14 years and up). We follow a totally new cast of characters who are competing for a spot at the school through its Emerging Talent contest in fashion design. Charlie Dean eats, sleeps, and breathes fashion; John Thomas-Smith is a talented metalworker with a disdain for the fashion industry.

1. The Fashion Committee takes place at the same school as The Truth Commission, and during roughly the same time, but focuses on a different cast. Why return to Green Pastures? (And can we go there again?)

SJ: I used to dream of attending art school, and writing about Green Pastures is probably as close as I’ll get. Specific art programs in the school form the emotional and thematic centers of both books. The Truth Commission uses a character’s semiautobiographical graphic novels as a way to discuss truth and representation. The Fashion Committee uses fashion to explore how we create identity through our clothing choices and how the stories we tell about ourselves are reflected in our clothes. Not sure whether I’ll return to Green Pastures for another book, but there are certainly more stories to tell. The world probably needs a book about high school potters.

2. Your characters are all so interesting — any one of the contest entrants could have been a protagonist in his or her own right. What made you focus on Charlie Dean and John?

SJ: I wanted the protagonists to stand firmly on either side of the fashion divide and Charlie Dean and John certainly do that. Charlie Dean has used fashion as a way to help her create a reality she can live with. She has no perspective on it, partly because she’s in thrall to aesthetics, sort of like Paul in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” but unlike Paul, she has the skills to create the art. John hates fashion for reasons that are often legitimate, but he refuses to see that fashion is a serious art form and is sometimes profoundly revealing of our society.

3. How did the fashion illustrations come to be?

SJ: I knew I wanted illustrations in the book, and my editor Kendra Levin found Soleil Ignacio. Soleil is an amazing illustrator who lives in Manila. Some of the designs in the book must have been very challenging to draw and she did a brilliant job.

4. The fact that Charlie Dean and Jo-Ann start dating at the end is totes NBD, as the kids say; the story is decidedly not a traditional coming-out narrative. Was that always the plan?

SJ: Dating Jo-Ann is actually a huge deal for Charlie Dean, but I didn’t think she’d say much about it in the fashion journal she has to keep for the competition. Charlie has grown up hiding her family situation and she has used fashion as a shield between herself and the ugliness of the world. Jo-Ann immediately sees how special Charlie is and that’s something I wanted Charlie to experience. I wrote about their budding relationship knowing that getting romantically involved with anyone would bring up all Charlie’s fears and that she’d be very private about them. As far as it being a coming-out narrative, there was no grand plan. I wrote all the characters, and then made sure that Charlie got a truly fabulous love interest. The girl deserves it!

5. Do you think recovering-addict Mischa is going to be okay? We hope so, but it’s far from a given.

SJ: I don’t know. Drug addiction is devastating and there are no simple answers. Nice people who have every opportunity to get clean don’t make it. Seemingly hopeless cases suddenly turn things around. The terrifying uncertainty and senseless destruction that characterize drug addiction are brutal for families. That’s also why a kid growing up in such an environment might don the armor of fashion, or come up with some other, less healthy, way to cope. I, too, hope Mischa is going to be okay.

From the June 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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Comments

  1. Susan Golden says:

    I love ALL the Susan Juby books I’ve read, including the hilarious Woefield series. These last two are really special. I still think about the characters from The Truth Commission and I know that Chrarlie, Paul, and the others will still be rattling around in my brain for quite a while,

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