I have a special treat for you this Valentine’s Day week: a delightfully romantic book giveaway!
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may have seen me mention my amazing friend, critique partner—and wonderful YA novelist—Sandra Barnes. Today I want to introduce her to you again, along with her newest novel about teen relationships, 28 First Kisses. In this story, 16-year-old Janaclese grapples with her first big crush while struggling with fear that her own parents’ marriage is breaking apart.
I’m so excited to have you here, Sandra—thank you so much for taking the time to visit. I’ve gotten to see this book develop from its early stages to now published form, and I love the story and characters. So let’s dive in!
- The title of this book catches my eye yet makes me stop and think—because how can you have 28 first kisses? Where did the title come from?
I’m chuckling because I’ve been asked that question a lot! 28 first kisses sounds quite puzzling, doesn’t it? But, believe or not, some people think it’s possible. Actually, the first time I heard this statistic was in a commercial that advertised chewing gum. It was announced within a split-second in the opening, but people like me don’t miss stuff like that. It seemed irrelevant for the most part, but it got me real curious, so I did a little investigating and I found an actual study on this.
I don’t remember the sample size or much about the research, but it certainly sparked the idea for the title of my book. It also motivated me to hurry up and write, because I know the average teen takes information like that at face value. No one has to do that much kissing to find the “right one.” It’s not like trying on a gazillion pairs of jeans until you get the perfect fit … at least, it shouldn’t have to be.
- Your characters are so real I feel like I could meet them in the grocery store—or maybe, since they are high schoolers, in my classroom. How do you develop your characters?
I study people! No really, studying people and behavior is what I do for a living. I’m also subtly nosey. I know that sounds strange, because it kinda is. 🙂 Outside of my job, I do a whole lot of people watching. I really, really like people! I absolutely love entering their world and becoming totally intrigued by how different people of diverse cultures experience life.
- Janaclese, Hassan, and Cyndray are caught right in that transition period to young adulthood—needing and wanting both more freedom yet continued security from the adults in their lives. How do you capture that struggle so well? Do you have vivid memories from your own teenage years?
Yeah, I sure do remember! It’s a delicate and fascinating time period. Even though some things seemed really complex for me, I now better understand what was happening developmentally. It happens to all of us … the exploration, seeking identity outside of what has been passed down or inherited, and needing validation. I think Janaclese vividly characterizes these traits in 28 First Kisses.
- We get a lot of mixed messages about love, dating, sex, and marriage in our world today—from our communities, the media, churches, magazines like the one Janaclese reads. How do you see this story fitting into that conversation?
I could go on and on about the media and its powerful influence. Sometimes that’s good. And sometimes, not so much! I’ve noticed that far too often the media promotes sex to sell a product. Whether it’s food, or clothing, or consumer goods like cars, there are underlying sensual themes. Books, movies, and magazines portray uncommitted casual sexual relationships as the norm.
I think some teens begin to think that this is what’s expected, and that something must be wrong with them if they desire something different. This is the challenge faced by the characters in 28 First Kisses. As Janaclese learns, it’s especially confusing when church values conflict with media messages. I’ve discovered that many adolescents can’t determine when programming is strictly entertainment and not meant to be educational, even though some facts may be sprinkled in.
That’s the trickiness of mixed messages—it’s difficult to decipher truth from fiction. I think, as a society, we have to do a better job of teaching critical thinking.
- How did you draw on your own or others’ experiences with love and dating in writing this story? Any funny/embarrassing stories to share?
First of all, I didn’t really date in high school, though I do believe it’s developmentally normal and appropriate. I was just busy doing other things that interested me. I guess what doesn’t get talked about are the added responsibilities and consequences of dating. Sure, dating is fun and exciting, but there are risks. There are not always happy endings.
In terms of my young dating experience, I just have a little advice. Never, ever order spaghetti and meatballs on a first date!
- What was the most fun part of writing Janaclese and Hassan’s story for you?
Anyone who has ever been in love knows it’s a wonderful feeling. I had fun writing all of the different dating scenes like bike-riding and picnicking. And I thoroughly enjoyed being all giddy in a teenagery-kind-of-way as I lived vicariously through Janaclese.
- You do capture those feelings so well! So how does this book connect to the previous one, Presence of Cyn? Do readers need to read them in order?
Definitely not—the storyline in each book is unique, so each book is a stand-alone. However, the characters in Presence of Cyn, namely Cyndray and Janaclese, are neatly woven into 28 First Kissses because they are best friends who attend the same school and church.
- What can you tell us about the cover? Any stories there?
The cover of the book features my daughter and my friend’s son. What’s interesting is that these two cover models had not seen each other since they were in preschool. They seemed shocked to see each other “all grown up,” so the innocence and awkwardness of boy-meets-girl is pretty real in the photo.
Here they are in preschool:
And all grown up, taking selfies:
9. So cute! I love those photos. So, Sandra, what do you hope readers take away from 28 First Kisses?
I hope readers will pick up on the theme that things are not always what they seem. But just as importantly, I want readers to think carefully about how to date responsibly and to know that waiting till marriage for sex is not old-fashioned nonsense, but a personal decision that deserves respect.
Thank you so much, Sandra!
I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to visit with Sandra as much as I always do. And now, you have a chance to win your very own copy of 28 First Kisses! All you have to do is leave a comment on this post. Plus, if you SHARE this interview on social media, you’ll get an extra entry! Our winner will be announced next Wednesday, February 22.
So, let’s get started this conversation started! How do you think the messages of the media influence how we see love? Do you have an funny romance or dating story to share? Please join the conversation!