Jennifer Mathieu

Books

In Bad Girls Never Say Die, author and teacher Jennifer Mathieu reimagines S.E. Hinton’s groundbreaking 1967 YA novel, The Outsiders. She spoke with BookPage about “good girls,” “bad girls” and writing stories that help teens see beyond those labels.

Tell us about your relationship to The Outsiders before you started working on Bad Girls Never Say Die.
It was the book of my heart as a young girl. I read it in one night in the sixth grade instead of studying for a science test. I did poorly on the test, but I’ve never regretted that life choice. I was captivated by this book that was all heart but also packed with action. The characters became so real in my mind. 

Many years later, I had the experience of teaching the novel to my middle schoolers, and I discovered the book still has enormous staying power. Kids today love the emotion and the story just as much as I did. 

Which elements of The Outsiders were you excited to explore and preserve in your book? Which elements did you hope to challenge or reenvision?
I wanted to preserve the intensity, emotion and fast-paced plot of the original novel. As a teacher, I have seen how The Outsiders works magic on young reluctant readers, and it’s my hope that Bad Girls Never Say Die will have the same effect. 

As for what I wanted to reenvision, by centering the female experience, I wanted to broaden the reader’s understanding of the unique challenges and obstacles facing young women of that time period. I wanted to push the reader to see that while some things have changed for the better, there are many parallels to be drawn between contemporary life and 1964, the year in which I’ve set my novel. Certainly this is true with a novel set in Texas, my home state, which continues to enact legislation that oppresses women and girls.

In this book, you explore themes that readers will recognize from your earlier work—especially, as the title suggests, what it means to be a “bad girl” versus a “good girl.” Can you introduce us to Evie and Diane and how these notions play out in and are challenged by their stories?
Evie, our main character, is a girl from a working-class neighborhood. Her father is absent from her life, and she has chosen to align herself with girls who wear too much makeup, cut class and hang out with boys. She is seen as a “bad girl” for all these reasons. Evie’s mother’s biggest hope is that Evie will find and marry a good man who will support her; she believes it’s the best chance for Evie to improve her life, even if Evie sees this as limiting. 

Diane is a stranger to Evie at the start of the novel. She’s recently moved to Evie’s neighborhood from the wealthiest part of Houston, and she’s keeping a secret. For much of her life, Diane has been considered a “good girl” because she dresses neatly, lives with both parents and is polite. That said, if Diane’s secret were to be revealed, she would be seen as transgressive and bad by most people. 

While Evie and Diane seem different at the start and on the surface—in fact, Evie is at first quite suspicious of Diane because of where she comes from—the girls soon discover that they are both “bad girls” because they want to follow their hearts, speak their mind, and stand up for themselves. 

Without giving too much away, it’s also my hope that through Diane’s story, we can understand how often girls and women are shamed for being sexual beings, and how this common practice is so devastating to women and girls. Ultimately, I hope the reader is able to reflect on how we continue to label women and girls as “bad” and “good” based on stereotypes and sexist thinking.

“When I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman.”

You’ve mentioned that Evie is a character with whom you personally identify. How so?
In many ways, my life was very different from Evie’s. I grew up with both parents, I was the oldest sibling (Evie is the youngest), and I was a rule follower who earned excellent grades. That said, when I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman. While I was seen as a “good girl,” my growing interest in feminism and women’s rights made me suspicious in the eyes of some adults in my life, including teachers at my very conservative high school. I sensed a growing inner conflict as I began to really question some of the rules and systems around me, even if I couldn’t always articulate my thoughts.

Much in the same way, Evie senses something is not right in her world. What has happened to Diane is not right. What has happened to Evie’s older sister is not right. Evie’s mother’s limited plans for her are not right. Through the events of the novel, Evie begins to question all of that. By the end of the story, I think she is primed to act and make change. I think I felt much the same way as I headed off to college, found myself liberated by the environment there and fully embraced the label of feminist.

In The Outsiders, rival gangs of young men are always raring to fight, spitting at one another, switchblades at the ready. Who or what occupies the role of the antagonist in Bad Girls Never Say Die? Why was this reframing important to you?
Oh, I love this question! While violence between the social classes is touched on in my book like it is in Hinton’s, I would say the antagonist in The Outsiders is the pressures the characters are under and the misconceptions they have about one another. In Bad Girls, I think the antagonist is, similarly, the sexist system in which the characters live, a system that oppresses and represses them. In addition, the misconceptions Evie and her friends have about girls like Diane at the start of the story reflect what often happens in contemporary life. Instead of seeking solidarity in order to fight back against a suffocating patriarchy, women fall victim to that same patriarchy’s message that we should judge and shame each other, which only limits our collective power.

One of the ways that Bad Girls Never Say Die departs from The Outsiders is how you not only highlight socioeconomic divisions between groups of teens but also touch on the history of integration and the unique challenges facing Mexican American students who, like Evie, live on the wrong side of town. The character and story of Juanita, one of Evie’s best friends, is a great example of how you did this. Can you talk about how and why you included this perspective in the novel?
I loved researching this novel, and I definitely felt my former reporter muscles kick in as I got to work on it. I spent the summer of 2019 taking several older people here in Houston out to lunch to discuss memories of their teenage years. I also spent hours in the downtown library paging through old yearbooks and newspaper clippings. (Shoutout to librarians!) As a proud Houstonian for over 20 years, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the nation. I teach at the most racially diverse high school in the city. We are not a perfect city, of course, and while I’m proud of many elements of my hometown, I also wanted to be honest about it in this book.

Set in 1964, Bad Girls Never Say Die reflects the reality that Houston, like much of this country, has a history of segregation that is quite complicated and painful. The school system in Houston was still racially segregated until the late ’60s and early ’70s. Black Houstonians attended different schools and lived under a racist legal system that oppressed them and still has ripple effects today, even if certain laws regarding public transportation, schools and restaurants have changed.

Since it is relatively close to Mexico, Houston also has a large population of people with Mexican roots. As I researched, I learned that although Houstonians of Mexican heritage were classified as “legally white” and attended school with white Houstonians, they were often subjected to discrimination. For example, their names were often Anglicized without their consent. In one of my interviews, a man with Mexican heritage shared with me that his teacher suspected him of cheating because he was Mexican. This informed the character of Juanita, Evie’s neighbor and dear friend.

At the same time, in 1964, the world was changing rapidly. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed just a few months before the events of this novel. Evie is a white girl, but like most teenagers of her day, she is aware of the events going on around her and has thoughts about them. While I could not write a fully racially integrated school like the one I work at now because it would not have existed at the time of the novel, I wanted to make sure that I crafted a world that was authentic and reflected the reality of the city and the country at that time.

I would be remiss not to mention the book Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City by Dr. Tyina Steptoe. Dr. Steptoe’s book about Houston’s complex racial and ethnic history was instrumental as I crafted this novel, and I’m grateful not just for her work but also for her time on the phone and via email.

Read our review of ‘Bad Girls Never Say Die.’

Did you learn anything about Houston’s history that surprised you or that made you see the place you live in a new way?
Something that made me laugh was the fact that so many of our city’s highways had not been built yet in 1964. Houston is a very freeway-centric city, and it sort of blew my mind to hear interviewees reminisce about a time when you went everywhere on surface roads. It’s almost hard to imagine!

You’re a high school English teacher. Do your students influence your work as a writer for teens? 
I am currently in my 17th year in the classroom. My job as a teacher keeps me around the rhythm of adolescence and reminds me daily that young people deserve good stories that treat them like the nuanced, complex human beings they are. My students sometimes want to know if they are in my novels, and I have to honestly tell them that the characters are fictional, but the energy, hope, rage, frustration, joy and confusion that surrounds me daily certainly makes its way into my work.

What’s the best or most rewarding thing about writing for teens?
The best part is how sincere teenagers are and how enthusiastic they are. If they like your work, they REALLY like your work, and they share that with you. There’s no artifice with teenagers. Young people are the best fans because what they love, they love deeply.

What kinds of teens do you hope find their way to Bad Girls Never Say Die? What do you hope the book offers them?
As an English teacher, I hope this book makes it into the hands of reluctant readers. Its short chapters and fast-paced plot will hopefully hook some of them. I’m a big believer that everyone is a reader, but sometimes we just haven’t discovered the books that work for us. 

I also hope this book empowers young women to make connections to their own lives and draw parallels between the past and the present in terms of how women and girls are treated. I think it offers them a way to understand that, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner, the past is never dead. Bad Girls is historical fiction, but I also hope it’s a call to arms for modern-day girls to stand up for themselves and follow their hearts.

If Vivian, the protagonist of your novel Moxie (which was set in the present day when it was published in 2017), and Evie somehow found themselves at the same lunch table, what do you think they’d talk about? Are there things you think they’d be surprised to hear the other say?
Another amazing question! Certainly there would be a few laughs as Evie learns about social media and modern music, and Vivian might be fascinated by Evie’s eye makeup and clothing, but I sense the girls would be fast friends because they would recognize in each other what I see in the young women I teach every day: a fighting spirit that seeks out joy, validation, love and liberation in a world that constantly wants to tell them they need to shut up, sit down and be quiet. Evie and Vivian refuse to listen to that message, and it’s my hope that the young women who read my work learn they can refuse it, too.

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