Author on Growl Power of 'Cheetah Girls'

Author Deborah Gregory talks about the inspiration behind her young-adult fiction series, The Cheetah Girls.

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TONY COX, host:

It's easy to pick author Deborah Gregory out in a crowd. The journalist and fashion designer spends a lot of time decked down in loud, bright, cheetah-print clothes. She brings this motif to her home as well and even to the clothes her dog wears.

So is it really a surprise that Gregory told NPR's Farai Chideya her teen book series, "The Cheetah Girls," was only a matter of time.

Ms. DEBORAH GREGORY (Journalist and Fashion Designer): I had a boutique in SoHo and you can imagine exactly what it looked like. And it was this wild, plus-size boutique. And I made this wild looking leopard, cheetah clothes, and the fashion editor of Essence would come in, borrow clothes from shoots, you know, that's what they do, you know - fashion shoots.

And that's how first you get it. I got the idea about writing. And so I started badgering her. And she let me start writing fashion beauty. Then, you know, fast forward, I did an article on liposuction in Essence where me and my girlfriend went and had liposuction. I used to love doing those personal essays, where you actually go out and do something and write about it.

And the liposuction, needless to say, got a big response. And I was on Oprah, and as a writer from Essence, and it was a show about liposuction. So that's how first the editor at Hyperian contacted me. So she just got my phone number from another writer - Joy Duckett Cain, as a matter of fact, an editor - and said you're really funny. I saw you on Oprah, the show about liposuction.

And she said, have you ever thought about writing for kids? And I said no, but you know, it's funny - I said, you know, someone else. I said mm, interesting. She said while, you know, if you take a meeting and you know, and if I came up with something that they liked, you know, we'll make you an offer. And that's exactly what happened.

FARAI CHIDEYA: So how did you come up with - when you were asked for the treatment? How did you come up with these characters?

Ms. GREGORY: They gave me… This is what was the impetus for me, was the fact that they said there were not enough books with urban characters, actually the word they used is black characters, African-American.

CHIDEYA: You know, you talked about the need for having more black characters…

Ms. GREGORY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: - and your main character, Dorinda, is African-American. She was a foster child. You were also raised…

Ms. GREGORY: I were also in foster care.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, you were raised…

Ms. GREGORY: Right.

CHIDEYA: …in foster care.

Ms. GREGORY: So you can say, I just pulled from myself. It was - that's how I created the characters. It was just for myself, and so that, you know, it's just a conscious decision I made. Okay, I'm going to make one of the girls Latin because New York is 25 percent Latin, that's all. It was just a marketing thing in terms of I always feel that they're under represented too, by the way.

So you now, what I did was I went to the bookstore, and I looked, and I was shocked. The books were boring, and there weren't enough books with, you know, different characters. It was all pretty white. And I thought, hmm, this is not right. You know, technically, I am biracial. You know, I'm half black and half white. So what it is for me is such an explosion of multiculturalism because that is what fascinates me.

The other part of my decision why I went ahead and did this, this was in 1998 - there was this huge article on the papers about the kids failing the reading exam. And that 40 percent of the children in the public school system were going to have to go to summer school to prepare to retake the reading exam. So there again, it was. So it's about making it interesting enough that they want to read. Like, you know, how we have our escape fiction as an adult. That's all I was creating for kids.

CHIDEYA: And finally, when you were younger, who was your inspiration? Someone, you know, who was real or fictional that made you feel like you had cheetah power?

Ms. GREGORY: I didn't have that when I was younger. I grew up in foster care, and it was a very difficult, difficult situation. And I didn't have that. I didn't grow up with dreams. And my dream - my big dream was to get out of foster care. So I didn't get any of that really until I was an adult and the person who inspired me as an adult was my psychotherapist. I went into psychotherapy at the age of 22. She's the person - she's the one who encouraged me to become a writer. She's the one who tried to help figure out what are my skill set, what is it that I have to offer so that I could sort of, you know, overcome a lot of the struggles that I was having. So I would say it was her.

CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, Deborah, thanks so much for sharing your growl power with us.

Ms. GREGORY: Growl power forever.

COX: That was Deborah Gregory, creator of the "Cheetah Girls," a series of novels for teens, speaking with NPR's Farai Chideya. For more of growl power, and to hear Deborah Gregory recite the "Cheetah Girl" credo, visit our Web site at npr.org.

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