Debut YA author Julie Israel talks to us about the importance of giving oneself permission to persist in publishing, and shares why sisterhood is the bond on which her young adult novel, Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index, is built.
Give us your elevator pitch for ‘Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index’!
A grieving teen finds the love letter her sister wrote to “You” the day she died and vows to deliver it — as soon as she figures out who “You” is!
Grief, sisters, secrets, and an edge of humor. If you like to laugh and cry in the same book, this one is for you!
Where did the initial spark of your story stem from?
Juniper actually started with the title! Besides being love at first thought, the phrase Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index piqued my curiosity and exposed just enough of a seam for me to start pulling at — and when I did, so much else unraveled. The first thing I knew, for instance, was that the title was too bright and cheery; a false front for something. What? Why wasn’t Juniper happy? How did she find happiness again? What if she had lost someone—and what kind of goal would be next to impossible, but could still give her purpose and bring closure?
Congrats on your first book! Tell us about your journey to becoming a published author.
Thank you! So much of the publication journey has been about the simple act of giving myself permission. Permission to write (this came at a moment when, between jobs and very uncertain about where my life was headed, I sat down to interview for a position I realized I had zero interest in); permission to fail; permission to keep going even as a first book didn’t take, as I doubted, as my peers advanced and I didn’t, or at least had little to show for my efforts.
But really, once I started writing, I knew I was in the right place because I loved what I was doing. I began reading more seriously (about a book a week); I joined writers’ groups and found critique partners; I could lose myself for hours at a time in the work of writing a single scene. Even if it didn’t succeed, I was proud of what I was making. Even if I didn’t have a book deal, I was learning and my writing was getting stronger. Even if it didn’t look like progress on the outside, life felt rich and full and wonderful both within and on the page.
Eventually (as I think is bound to happen when one is driven by passion), somebody else loved my work, too! Juniper and I found a home with my super agent/fairy bookmother Susan Hawk, and then a second with an editor who loved her as much as we did – and now she’s in bookstores!
What is one thing you wish you’d known when you sat down to write your first novel?
That it’s much easier to construct a satisfying plot if you start as small as possible and then expand. With my first novel I wrote the whole thing and then tried to summarize and pitch it; but I think if you tackle the pitch and synopsis first (your book in a sentence or two and then a couple of paragraphs), it means you’re starting with the core of the story and building out. That gives you the chance to make sure that the premise sings and the stakes are compelling before you start — which will save you time, wasted efforts, and a world of revision.
How are you most like your main character? How are you most different?
We might be most alike in that we’re both list-makers, using bullets to document something or get our thoughts out before us.
As to where we differ, we might both have pessimistic leanings, but I think I’m much closer to neutral and also able to frame things more positively—while Juniper lies squarely in Camp Negative and is salty to boot.
Juniper and Camilla’s relationship as sisters is the backbone of much of this book. What inspired you to want to write about sisterhood?
The dynamic between siblings is so powerful and so unlike any other. Siblings are like your friends, but more than friends, because they’re family; your family, but more than family, because they’re friends. As a middle sister myself I think I could not imagine a loss that would cut deeper or feel more irrevocably like losing a part of yourself, of your whole history and being—and so when I knew this book was headed in a grief direction, it had to be sisters or nothing.
What kinds of stories do you feel most drawn to?
I especially love stories with dark and/or fantastic elements, but I’m also drawn to those that capture something of the human experience.
What do you most hope young readers get out of your book?
As Juniper learns, everyone struggles with things that they don’t wear on their sleeve—and so I hope readers will come away inspired to show kindness to everyone, even if it isn’t obvious that they need it.
Finally: what makes you passionate about Juniper’s story?
The fact that the story is about sisters really brings it home for me, and so I think from the beginning I felt for Juniper and wanted her to be able to find some closure, even if her life would never be the same again. But it was more than that she’d lost someone; it was that someone she’d looked up to all her life had been keeping this huge secret and maybe not been as perfect as she’d always thought. The secret compelled me, and I wanted Juniper to be able to make peace with that, too—whatever she found.
About ‘Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index’
It’s been sixty-five days since the accident that killed Juniper’s sister, and ripped Juniper’s world apart.
Then she finds the love letter: written by Camilla on the day of the accident, addressed mysteriously to “You,” but never sent. Desperate to learn You’s identity and deliver the message, Juniper starts to investigate.
Until she loses something. A card from her Happiness Index: a ritual started by sunny Camie for logging positives each day. It’s what’s been holding Juniper together since her death – but a lost card only widens the hole she left behind. And this particular card contains Juniper’s own dark secret: a memory she can’t let anyone else find out.
The search for You and her card take Juniper to even less expected places, and as she connects with those whose secrets she upturns in the effort, she may just find the means to make peace with her own.
This is a smart, funny, poignant book guaranteed to make you laugh and cry – and maybe even take notes.