February 15, 2016

Meet Author, Ni-Ni Simone

She has been in love with writing since she was a child.  
Her affair with words resonates with teens and adult readers.
The stories she is privileged to tell are mixed with little humor and life lessons.

I had the pleasure of speaking with author Tu-Shonda Whitaker on a snowy Saturday morning in January.   The conversation that was supposed to last only :30 minutes instead lasted two hours.   We talked about the importance of family, her childhood, writing for teens and adults and her commitment  to continue to delivering the stories that we have fallen in love with.   The humor that is present in Whitaker’s books is a reflection  of the woman herself…..she’s naturally funny!  I truly believe that she missed her calling as a stand up comedian.  

Whitaker writes for teens under the pen name, Ni-Ni Simone.  The name ‘Ni-Ni’ has nothing to do with Jazz great, Nina Simone, instead the name has a much deeper meaning.  While she is a fan of Jazz music, she wanted to pen her books under a name that would capture the attention and sounded like the name of teen we would meet.   She also felt that her first name was too 70’s-ish and really wanted to choose a name that they could identify with.  Given that today’s teens drive off of nicknames, she decided to use her daughter’s nickname, Ni-Ni and the rest is history.  

Whitaker is from New Jersey and is the only child of two parents as she describes,  ‘have been together forever.’   She earned a degree in English from Kean University and has taken additional coursework in African-American History, Creative Writing and Fiction Writing.   Whitaker takes her work as a teen author seriously and understands the impact that she can make on their lives.    She believe that the art of simplicity is the skill that an author has to hone in on and master.  Whitaker credits ‘The Color Purple,’ by Alice Walker and ‘Jazz,’ by Toni Morrison as excellent examples examples of this skill that she tries to emulate in her books.

Her work with teens as a social worker was also a catalyst in jumpstarting her career for writing for teens.  She wrote her first teen novel, ‘Shorty Like Mine,’ in two weeks.  She loved the story and ten books later is now hooked on writing for teens.   One of Whitaker’s strengths as a writer is her ability to observe the challenges teens are faced with today and incorporate it into her stories.  Her new series,  the ‘Throwback Diaries,’ accurately describes what happens in the lives of second generation adults affected by the crack epidemic within the African-American community.  As Whitaker describes, this series will take the reader on a journey with teenagers who have nothing, no stable homelife, poor family life, and little  guidance from parents/grandparents who have personal issues.   

Some of her most popular books to date are, “Shorty Like Mine,”  “Upgrade You,”  and  best selling, “Teenage Love Affair.”  These stories carefully blend struggles, love and hip-hop music/social media for a memorable journey that leave teens wanting more.   It is these stories that keep Whitaker’s fans reading and their feedback provides her with the inner drive to continue to write.   Frequent comments she receives from her teen and adult fans are that the characters accurately reflect the struggle within their lives.  Based off of these responses, Whitaker is convinced that the top three challenges teens are faced with today are:
  • Teens are living in poverty and it affects their view of themselves and the world
  • Drug use, not just for themselves, generational use i.e. grandparents, parents etc.
  • Teens today suffer from not understanding their rich history as a people

Whitaker’s Facebook fan page is her favorite social media site to use when promoting her books and interacting with fans.    Some of her most memorable responses/comments from teens are:
  1. Can we hang out?  
  2. (After the kids see her picture on social media) OMG….I didn’t know you were that old!
  3. Can you write a book with me?
  4. This story is MY life!

Check out her books today!