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Interview: July 2010

July 2010

In an interview with Teenreads.com’s Melanie Smith, Kristin Billerbeck discusses what inspired her latest work of fiction for young adults, PERFECTLY DATELESS, and shares her thoughts on some of the struggles today’s teenagers face regarding peer pressure, conformity, and our current highly sexualized world. She also elaborates on the messages she hopes both readers and their parents will take away from her work, and hints at what’s in store for main character Daisy Crispin in the next installment of the series.

Teenreads.com: PERFECTLY DATELESS is about one teenage girl’s obsession with getting a prom date, but the book focuses on more than just dating or the prom; subjects such as perfectionism, materialism, purity, and faith also come up and get at least as much attention as the dance does. How did you come up with the idea behind the novel, and what motivated you to write about these topics?

Kristin Billerbeck: I wanted the book to be honest about what today’s teenagers really face in our highly sexualized world. It’s a real struggle for girls to find their inner beauty when the girl next to them (even in some of our churches) has her cleavage out for all to see. Who do you think gets the most attention? But what I wanted to portray is that while life can be a daily struggle between the world and our faith, it’s always going to be that way, so we have to be firm in our reasons for what’s behind our actions. Some people will conform easier than others. Daisy wants to do the right thing, but she also wants to fit in and have the right to speak to others about her faith. That’s the reason I put the character Gil in the book. Parents can protect as much as they want, but ultimately if we don’t make our own decisions based on our own faith, there are going to be struggles we don’t know how to deal with effectively (like having a lecherous boss, who is someone else to the outside world but treats Daisy with respect.)

TRC: The effects of pop culture on teenagers, particularly with regard to fashion and lifestyle, is a recurring subject here as well. Like most high school girls, Daisy Crispin simply wants to fit in, but her parents won’t let her dress like everyone else and even make a list of forbidden stores and styles. I’ve noticed a similar mindset to this recently in a growing number of parents, with a resurgence of strict standards that many would say are old-fashioned. What messages are you intending to convey to teens and parents about fashion? Do you feel there is a danger for those who try to conform?

KB: I really do. I completely understand why parents want to protect their daughters from giving out the wrong message. I went to a prom for research, and while many gowns were darling and age-appropriate, some were very skintight and revealing and looked more like something a New York housewife might wear to an opera opening. To me, telling someone no doesn’t work as an answer. We need to know why the answer is no so that we are equipped to deal with things ourselves in the outside world. Daisy isn’t looking for the wrong kind of attention, she’s looking for a way to live her faith without standing out as a freak of nature --- to feel comfortable in her own skin. I have two teenagers and two tweens at home, so I know the struggle this is. I’m fine with my kids saving their money and shopping in a certain store as long as standards are met. An example? My daughter loves a particular store, and there are just certain rules she has to adhere to in order to shop there. (Shorts are not too short, shoulders are covered for school --- that kind of thing.) I see it as an ongoing discussion between parents and kids. “Why do you want to wear that? How could you achieve the look without your values being harmed?”

There’s a particular store that I, as a parent, do feel is too sexualized for my kids to shop in --- but I didn’t say that to them. I took my boys inside, showed them the price of the jeans, and said there was so much more for your money at PacSun at the other end of the mall. I let them make the decision that this store wasn’t worth investing in for overpriced jeans. Because I wasn’t going to pay for them.

TRC: You’ve chosen a diary format for much of the novel. Reading Daisy’s private entries on her tactics for getting a date is very funny and provides an excellent window into her personality. What prompted you to choose this format? Do you keep a diary yourself?

KB: I don’t keep a diary and I never have. Mostly because I’m a very verbal person, and if I think it, sadly, I say it. Teens struggle with always feeling like they’re on the outside, and there are things they don’t want to admit even to their best friends. So that’s why I gave Daisy that place where she could share her innermost feelings and the reader could identify with how hard it is to make daily decisions in today’s world.

TRC: The presentation of Daisy’s purity ring by her father is treated with much occasion, the weight of which seems to press upon Daisy. This purity ring concept is not a common one where I come from. Does it have cultural significance for your family, and could you elaborate on its origin?

KB: What I tried to show with the purity ring is that its origin was a source of complete embarrassment to Daisy. While she appreciated her father’s thoughts, I think the idea of an occasion for something so personal is one that would send most teenagers into a hole. A father is so important in his daughter’s life --- I think her knowing that is so much more important than a symbol. The ring, however, shows that her father knows she has value and she should value herself.

I have to admit watching a documentary on the purity ring and being freaked out by the pomp and circumstance. I’m not a big fan of the concept, I will admit, and that’s because I saw what happened when the girls did blow it. Their sense of worth was wrapped up in their purity, but they weren’t ready for what would happen when a boy showed them the “wrong” kind of attention. I think the ring is just a symbol if a girl doesn’t know why she has value in the world.

TRC: What would you say is the single most important life lesson for teenage girls to learn before they reach adulthood?

That’s a hard question. Even in my own kids, I see that their needs are different. We come to this world with different personalities, and our faith will look different in each of us. I think the most important thing, though, is to understand faith for yourself. Not your parents’ faith, not your church’s faith, but what Jesus dying on the cross did for you.

TRC: PERFECTLY DATELESS is versatile in that it seems to offer almost as much constructive advice for adults as for teenagers. Did you intend for any particular message to be directed toward parents? 

KB: If I did have any message for parents, it’s to listen to your teenagers. They are people with their own gifts and talents. Some will be more prone to dress provocatively, some will be more prone to gossip. But building up your teen’s strengths while minimizing their sin natures is, to me, more important than any hard-and-fast rule.

TRC: Several of the book’s characters seemed familiar, and there are a few aspects of the Crispins’ parenting approach that reminded me of the way my own parents were. Are any personalities based upon actual family members or people you know?

KB: I did not grow up in the Protestant faith, but my kids have been in the church their whole lives. They have gone to Christian schools and they have gone to public schools. We’ve seen it all, but one aspect of parenting is that parents love their kids and want what’s best for them. Parents make mistakes, teens make mistakes, but God’s grace is sufficient.

TRC: Daisy and her friends view her as a classic nerd, though it’s easy for readers to see through that label and recognize what makes her special and likable. But Daisy often feels invisible to her peers when she’s actually very well liked. She has a steady, trustworthy group of friends who enjoy her company, but she seems to feel inferior to the girls who tend to harass her. What are your thoughts on why so many intelligent, socially capable girls view themselves negatively, while others often see them differently?

KB: Yesterday I met with a former cheerleader friend from high school. We hadn’t seen each other in 26 years and we discussed this very thing --- how we were complete nerds in high school. Since we were cheerleaders, we did fit in to high school in many ways, yet we knew the “truth” --- that we went to see Barry Manilow (not cool, even back then) and that we couldn’t afford to dress cool like the rich kids. We definitely felt like outsiders, and the thing is, I think most people felt that way. We’re getting comfortable in our own skin, but it’s hard to find your place in the high school world, no matter what your skill set. Looking back at high school, I can remember the mean girls easily --- the cruel words they said, the way they went out of their way to make life uncomfortable for others less socially capable --- but now I have the gift of time. Now I see that those girls look like haggard women 20 years older than me. What seemed a “gift” in high school was a life-destroying reality. They were loved for being popular and never seemed to figure out who they were.

High school seems to be one big comparative game, and it’s hard to see what we have to be grateful for when we’re always looking at what we don’t have. The same thing applies to us as adults. Words are very harmful. I think if you ask any adult what they were teased for in school, they can tell you without delay. That’s why it’s so important to hear God’s Word about our intrinsic value over what a popular high school girl with daddy issues will say to you.

TRC: Daisy and her parents struggle with finding balance in the way they live, particularly in their tendencies to actively plan the future as opposed to living in the moment, and also in dictating broad activity restrictions versus trusting teens to be honest and stay out of trouble. Few characters evolve as much as Daisy does in finding balance in her life. What are your thoughts on the need for balance?

KB: The need for balance is an ongoing relationship that changes as kids develop their own sense of responsibility. Some are simply more responsible than others. I tried to show that Daisy was a responsible child who really wasn’t trusted, which made her do things she knew were wrong (like help her friend throw a party). I’ve heard a lot of parents blame their kids’ friends for their actions, but kids need to be responsible for themselves. One of my son’s friends wrote something inappropriate to a girl on my son’s Facebook wall. I explained why it was his job to protect girls from this kind of thing and basically made him “man up.” Finding balance is a daily thing, and I always remember that God looks at our hearts. He sees our motives, and it’s those we have to check --- not our outside activity so much as our hearts. Even in her sin, Daisy is trying to protect her best friend from what she might do. So while her behavior is sinful, her reasons are loving. Balancing the two of those things --- behavior and motive --- is harder than it seems.

TRC: One reason Daisy is desperate for a prom date is that she wants “evidence” that she had a social life in high school, which makes the dance pictures become a kind of treasure in her mind. This is funny to me because I distinctly remember all of my own dance pictures seeming important at the time, but I haven’t looked at them once since high school and don’t even have them anymore. Do you know any adults who cherish their prom pictures, and do you have any thoughts on why teenage girls care so much about this while guys seem not to?

KB: I think it’s not so much the pictures as the evidence that we “mattered” in high school. Which, of course, we know is ridiculous as adults, but when everyone in your circle is going to prom, it’s a very big deal that you go as well.

TRC: Do you have any favorite authors of young adult books?

KB: I really was a nerd in school. In high school I read all the Jane Austen books, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy --- that kind of thing --- and I was in love with THE THORN BIRDS. I had a love for words very early on, but it never translated into my being a great student. I am voracious for information, but not information I deem unimportant. I never identified with most of the young adult books because I wanted a bigger, broader picture early on, and I didn’t like horses. It seemed everything for girls involved horses.

TRC: Do you have any plans in mind for a new novel or writing project?

KB: I am working on two more Daisy Crispin books as she navigates the end of her senior year and the transition to college --- PERFECTLY POINTLESS is the next one. I’m also working on an adult contemporary romance with a 1940s swing-era wedding called A BILLION REASONS WHY.