Simone Thibodeaux’s life is sealed in a boy-proof container.
Her strict Haitian immigrant parents enforce no-dating rules and curfews, and send Simone to an all-girls school. As for prom? Simone is allowed to go on one condition: her parents will select her date (a boy from a nice Haitian immigrant family, obviously).
Simone is desperate to avoid the humiliation of the set up — especially since she’s crushing on a boy she knows her parents wouldn’t approve of. With senior year coming to a close, Simone makes a decision. She and her fellow late-bloomer friends will create a Senior Year Bucket List of all the things they haven’t had a chance to do. On the list: kissing a boy, sneaking out of the house, skipping class (gasp!), and, oh yeah — choosing your own prom date.
But as the list takes on a life of its own, things get more complicated than Simone expected. She’ll have to discover which rules are worth breaking, and which will save her from heartbreak.
Can you tell me a little about your writing process and inspiration behind Simone Breaks All the Rules?
It’s a pleasure to speak to you. Certainly, I can tell you. This is a book that has been on my heart for years. It was just about a decade ago that I wrote a very rough draft of the prologue, which is like Simone’s whole origin story. And over the years, I built the plot, tore it down and rebuilt another. This is one of those books I had to let out my system, particularly after the summer I had multiple conversations with friends about growing up in overprotected households. We exchanged war stories and laughed a lot, but underneath the laughter was a lot of head shaking and even some bitterness. I wanted to explore those feelings around the matter more.
A: Simone has a strong community built around her as the child of Haitian immigrants, and with her squad of friends, she calls the “HomeGirls.” How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel?
To me, community is a network of familes coexisting and becoming interconnected by extension. I say families, but I mean that in all forms of “related” people. But communities don’t necessarily have to be place-based. They also can be connected by common experiences, common interests or goals. I leaned on this aspect of community as I wrote the book. Yes, Simone is from the Haitian-American community, but by strongly relating to her HomeGirls, she finds an emotional home in their welcoming, newly-formed late bloomer community.
A: Were the items on the bucket list inspired by any real-life events from your teenage years? If so, did you have any experiences that were your favorite to use for Simone and the HomeGirls?
Like Simone, I was raised in a strict but joyful Haitian-American household, and during my teen years, I’d marvel at all the things friends were allowed to do and go. TV shows with teen house party scenes, dates, etc. especially had me wondering whether other teens were really out there living their best life. Simone’s bucket list includes a couple of those best life events I yearned for. Simone gets to experience way more than I did, which was fun to write. But that feeling of watching the clock when you’re having an adventure, and coming up with alibis and yes, lies to throw your parents off your scent, are very much pulled from my own experiences.
A: I was watching a live stream you were a part of for the I Read YA North Texas Teen Panel from March, and Leah Johnson said something that really resonated with me about your novel, which was that it is “so culturally specific without feeling voyeuristic.” This assessment felt so spot on because Simone’s love of her Haitian culture and how you use the Haitian Creole dialect and history inspired me to want to look up all the cultural references from your book. Was there a greater role you wanted your usage of the Haitian Creole language and Haitian history to play in reader’s understanding of your novel?
Even though Simone isn’t fluent in Haitian Creole, nor does she speak it all that much, she understands the language fairly well. From the perspective of someone a generation removed from their parent’s country, language has a way of interplaying with emotions. It’s a wildly expressive outlet, because your parent may only speak it when you’re in trouble, for example. I wanted to convey that in this book because it deals with so many hot button emotional triggers. No one can rile you up or make you catch the fuzzy feels more than a parent or guardian who knows you best. You’ll find that Creole or Kreyol punctuates the more contentious or humorous scenes. And not to worry, I had to look up some of the phrases while writing this. Plus I consulted with a language scholar of Haitian descent, who read over the book. Shout out to Professor Cécile Accilien!
A: Even though there is a slight “tug of war” between what Simone wants and what her parents desire for her, Simone remains mindful of how much her parents have sacrificed for her as immigrants. As a parent yourself, how did you go about writing this balance into your story when writing from the perspective of a teenager?
Interesting that you mention it, because there is this balance of carrying two buckets—one that draws from my teen years and the other from the well of adult/parental experience. A lot of times I tipped that balance in favor of teen me. Even during the audiobook recording, which I narrated, you may hear in my voice when those feelings bubbled up. I felt a lot closer to a teen than a parent in those moments. The teen part of me was still very much present in those moments. It was a sweet reminder that no matter how adult you are, you’ll always be a child to the one who raised you.
A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about this idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” because many publishing houses deem this as the key to bestsellers. What I found so refreshing about your work as a Black woman is that Simone’s story allows her to have the type of “ideal teenaged experience” that I’ve always seen on television or in rom-coms. Why was it essential for you to tell Simone’s story from this angle?
It is because of the diverse body of work Black kid lit authors who came before me that I am able to ground Simone’s story in this much joy. Their work showed the world that we are more than our trauma. Their characters knew terrible heartache, but also sweet joy. Their voices spoke of our ambitions, even if those ambitions remained tragically out of reach. It’s a privilege to be able to give Simone the space to work on herself, express her desires and claim her ambitions. Just like a lot of her white counterparts in kid lit, she is not so overburdened by the trauma threatening her existence that the act of indulging a prom fantasy is a luxury. And even if something traumatic were to befall her, it would be clear that she is so much more than her trauma. And this is also thanks to writers who are still engaged in the labor of birthing Black characters who view themselves through their own eyes.
A: On the Writer Writer Pants On Fire Podcast, you and Mindy McGinnis talk about how YA authors are called to help in “guarding the hearts of young people” as your write. You do an excellent job at pairing social justice with romance in your books, like Zora in Truly Madly Royally and Ben’s character in Simone Breaks All the Rules, without turning them into a trauma-filled narrative.
How do you approach striking such a well-rounded balance in your writing that allows readers to be informed without centering trauma as an author or for your readers?
Thank you for that feedback; I appreciate it. I write contemporary, and just like all of us, my characters aren’t immune to the times we live in. They are impacted by society and a part of them is understandably shaped by society. They contribute to society in ways that align with their interests and personalities. Keeping all this in mind helps me touch on social justice themes in a way that is accessible to the reader.
A: Do you have any advice for young writers or tools that you’d recommend for them?
My advice is to recognize the storytelling happening all around you. Studying storytelling in all forms and on all platforms can help you become a better writer. In the same way your education and training happens in and out of the classroom, writing instruction comes from the world of literature and outside of it. Pay attention to storytelling in all forms and in all the platforms that interest you. Why is there a strong emotional connection to a particular story? What makes the voice so engaging, the characters so layered? It’s a fun exercise and you’ll get great at identifying what storytelling structures and themes work and don’t work for you!
A: Thank you for answering my questions and sharing your art with us, Mrs. Rigaud! I can’t wait to read your next story!
Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. It’s been a pleasure connecting. 😀
About the Author
YA author Debbie M. Rigaud began her writing career covering news and entertainment for magazines. She’s interviewed celebs, politicians, social figures and “real” girls. Her writing has appeared in Seventeen, CosmoGIRL!, Essence, J-14, Trace, Heart&Soul and Vibe Vixen, to name a few. Her first YA fiction writing was published in the anthology HALLWAY DIARIES (KimaniTru Press/September 2007).