A frank conversation about YA literature, police brutality, and the nuances of Black storytelling
“We’re mad.” It’s a frank admission from Nic Stone, the No. 1 best-selling author of Dear Martin and other YA hits. An understandable one, too. While Stone prepares to launch Dear Justyce (Sept. 29), the sequel to her 2017 breakout (written as a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), which tackled systemic racism in America, Kim Johnson is launching her debut YA novel, This Is My America (July 28), and is confronting similar themes — in a suddenly prescient moment. From opposite coasts, the pair gathered over Zoom for a candid discussion.
KIM JOHNSON: For creators [and] Black people in general, trying to find the words as to how we’re feeling and what needs to happen is incredibly difficult. The thing that keeps going on in my mind right now is, people are saying, "Do nonviolence, do nonviolence." They're actually claiming Dr. King's name in this. They're using Dr. King's words about nonviolence without acknowledging that when he was engaging in nonviolence, he was assassinated. We don't talk about that. So Nic, I’m going to ask you the first question: How do you feel in this environment, having written Dear Martin, with what’s all happening in the world?
NIC STONE: What's so fascinating about everything going on right now and the use of Dr. King's quotes, his ideas in a very sanitized way [are used] to police the way that Black people right now are expressing their duress. Like, we are beyond stress. We are beyond anger. We are in a state of duress. This was literally one of the catalysts for Dear Martin in the first place. I remember working on Dear Martin and thinking about how Dr. King’s teachings had been softened, sanitized, and weaponized. Even now, the fact that Dear Martin has been in Amazon’s top 100 books for the past five or six days is really disheartening. I’ve had this internal conflict: On the one hand, it’s cool to be able to celebrate a success. But knowing the origin of the success makes [it] feel not as successful. You’re going to feel this in a minute, Kim.
JOHNSON: I feel it. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when my book is out.
STONE: Your book is hyper-relevant. What’s wild is I’ve had the exact same experience. Dear Martin came out in October 2017. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, came out in February 2017. [At] the releases, there were a number of [high-profile] deaths that were happening involving Black people. Here we are again in 2020. I think about George Floyd and how it took watching absolute monstrosity, it took people seeing the most inhumane thing, to wake up. And this is no different than the Birmingham children's crusade. It took people seeing dogs and water hoses being unleashed on children for them to be like, "Oh, maybe we do have a problem." I’m disappointed that it is relevant again. I want to know how you are feeling, Kim: Not only do you tackle racism and notions of police brutality, but you are also looking into the flaws in our criminal justice system.
JOHNSON: I started writing it at the moment Eric Garner [died] six years ago. I have a 12-year-old and a six-year-old. My [older child], he saw the video and was like, “Why are they doing that?” The Black Lives Matter movement really started to kick up, and universities across the country that had Black student unions or Black students had started to create their own demands. And so, it's almost like it's like I went through a cycle with one kid at six who's now 12, and now my daughter is six. When I started writing it, there was a piece of me that was bothered by the conversation that was being elevated in the media because [the media] was only focused, or the majority was focused, on police brutality as a sole function in itself at the point of when someone is being arrested.
And that is such a small picture. It doesn't even scratch the surface of the issues that are actually impacting the Black community. But even Eric Garner, that didn’t wake people up. Some of the stuff that I was writing then, I felt people were going to critique — “That’s not realistic, there’s no KKK anymore, white supremacy is not connected to the police system.” Things people would think were outlandish, but that I knew were truth, are now truth. It’s so sickening. I want my book in classrooms now, with Dear Martin and The Hate U Give, so students are exposed to it and can unpack those things. I want to write to young people so that they get it younger; they're not just exposed to the issues of the world when they get to college. Because I work with college students. That's what I see.
STONE: I talk a lot about not being exposed to books that [reflected] me in them when I was younger. When I was exposed to African-American characters in books, they were always suffering in some way. Now, five [of my] novels are out in the world. The one that sells the best is about racism, where a Black kid dies. I cannot express how painful that is, because it’s so important that we witness each other just being human.
JOHNSON: You've also just been expanding with Shuri, and looking at other works to expose people to issues that are not just about racism. I'd love for you just to talk about that space and how it feels to be amplifying that space.
STONE: Being an African-American young adult, or an African-American author period, and an author of fiction, is troublesome, to say the least. I think about Tom Robinson from The Great American Read. America's favorite book is a book where a Black man is falsely accused of a terrible crime because a white woman weaponized her tears, and he loses his life in this book. I don't even care that I'm spoiling it. To Kill a Mockingbird, it exploits the horrors that Black people face in this country for the sake of trying to teach white people a lesson. The other two characters I encountered were Jim, an escaped slave in Huckleberry Finn, and Crooks, a Black man in Of Mice and Men. Shout out to John Steinbeck: He actually tried, but most people don't even remember Crooks was there. And that has been my life experience: Existing in spaces and being invisible because that's what colorblindness does. This notion of colorblindness, "We don't see color."
JOHNSON: There are Black writers who, in the past five years, never even thought to write a book with a Black main character, because so much of what they've consumed about what sells aren't Black characters. And I've seen so much awakening from Black writers about doing what they never even thought that they could. Can you imagine someone who would go through the pain of writing a book, how hard it is to write a book, and not even see themselves on there?
STONE: Like you, I debuted with a book that looks at ways that Black people are oppressed. I want to know, did you feel pressure to come out of the gate that way? To write this type of book? Do you feel like you can write a different type of book?
JOHNSON: For me, actually, I didn't feel pressure to write this book, because the work that I do with students is around Black Lives Matter, and they're very focused on attacking issues of anti-Blackness. And I wanted to bring a voice to it. This is the book I wanted to write. I felt there was a spirit that moved in me to write this story. I needed to do This Is My America. But when I went on my submission round, one editor said that she was going to pass because it wasn’t going to be bigger than The Hate U Give. Can you imagine that the biggest, top-selling book that sold millions of copies is the standard for a Black writer? Is that the expectation they will always hold for a Black writer?
STONE: An editor [I know of] wanted to enter the auction for The Hate U Give. This is back when he was at Simon & Schuster. But [he said] a person in a position of authority basically said, “Black kids don’t read, so we’re not entering this auction.” That is a thing that just — sorry. [Crying] As a kid who, at 12, was obsessed with Michael Crichton, Sphere, Jurassic Park, to have my entire identity erased by an industry that I am now expected to come into and help fix? It’s so painful. People, especially white people, are less interested in books about Black kids falling in love or saving the day, Black kids interacting and engaging in time travel, or going into space. They don’t want to read the books where we are actual people.
JOHNSON: [Pause] I'm just trying to catch my breath from everything that you said. Focusing solely on Black pain is problematic. My issue actually is in pushing back with publishing, pushing back with schools, pushing back with readers. There should be an entire ecosystem in the world of books around Black experiences because there is one for white books: for fairies, dragons, vampires, werewolves. And honestly, I have a huge issue with the lack of conversation around the history of English literacy and how English literacy for a long time has been a tool of oppression. It's been a thing used to uphold the status quo. Literature in its inception, when books started to be printed, you had a very specific type of person who was able to afford a printed book. They were rich and they were white. When English literacy was brought to the United States, the only people permitted to read and write were rich white boys. Girls weren't even taught to write in the beginning. Slaves were taught to read the portions of the Bible that supported their enslavement. And that was it.
STONE: As appreciative as I am of what I get to do, it bums me out that literacy is a for-profit industry. Just like it bums me out that healthcare is a for-profit industry. You create a society where it is impossible to get any kind of work without being able to read and write, but then you monetize the ability to read and write. Learning how to read or write is the thing that you have to pay for. That is a thing that I find intensely heartbreaking. I think about the way Black stories, full of Black characters, written by Black people, are summed down into, "Okay but how much money can I make out of it?" It is f---ed up on a number of levels. And I say this as a person who is a descendant of slaves. I am descended from slaves on both sides of my family. I know because I've done the heritage. I've looked and figured out who was bought from where, et cetera.
I’m glad you’re writing what you write. I can’t wait to see it in everybody’s car and on everybody’s bookshelf. I’m thankful we [can] both thrive in our career paths, but it’s also very bittersweet. That needs to be acknowledged.
JOHNSON: I'm a mystery writer. I write Black books with Black folks. I am interested in history and justice. I want my book to be on a panel with other crime writers. Because if you were to take away race from my book, of course I'd be aligned with them. And I think that's what the publishing industry needs to do is to sort of unpack the packaging that they're so used to. And think about how do we actually, we have this other author who was huge in this other industry, but we have another Black writer who actually is touching on this industry. Why aren't we amplifying them together?
I think of readers like me. I read all kinds of crime books as a kid. Nancy Drew was my jam! Let me be the next version of her.
STONE: It's a weird time, especially in YA. I've noticed, because I follow the marketing trends: even COVID-19 aside, going into 2020 the books I saw the most hype about were books that are a part of pre-existing dynasties. The new Hunger Games book, the new Twilight book, Kiera Cass (The Selection) has a new book coming out. So it's more just boosting the voices that already make a lot of money.
JOHNSON: We're in a time of protest and young people, too. And I think that there are people who are going to read our books who are awakened and in this moment. And I do have just some thoughts, especially for young people: I want you to read. I want you to be engaged. I want you to listen. You have the ability to vote. I want you to vote. I want you to vote educated. I want you to vote on Black matters and use your voice in that way and not be focused on your own specific thing. You have this entire summer to actually make what's going to happen mean something and do something different.
Nic, I don't know if you have thoughts right now about, just what would you say to young people going through this right now, and that are either out there on the streets or at home trying to think about what they need to do to be a better human, to make things change?
STONE: The young people that I have encountered are already better humans than any adult that I know. And I encounter a lot of young people constantly in schools, middle schools, high schools, Zoom calls recently. And these young people, they do care. So my word to young people is: You don't have to ask for permission. You don't need permission to be compassionate. You don't need permission to care about other people. You don't need permission to disagree with your parents. It's not going to be an easy or a fun experience, but your passion is your power right now. No successful movement in this country was successful without youth voices.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To help combat systemic racism, please consider donating to these organizations:
- Campaign Zero, which is dedicated to ending police brutality in America through research-based strategies.
- Color of Change, which works to move decision makers in corporations and government to be more responsive to racial disparities.
- Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal services to people who have been wrongly convicted, denied a fair trial, or abused in state jails and prisons.