Atlanta author Nic Stone’s son was only 5 months old when Jordan Davis, an African-American teen, was fatally shot at a gas station in Florida after an argument about the volume of his music. It occurred to Stone that one day, people might see her son as a threat – instead of as a child.
At the same time, as the Black Lives Matter movement generated momentum, she noticed how people quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but to oppose the activism. It bothered her that people thought King would be opposed to a nonviolent protest movement.
Those events inspired her to write “Dear Martin.” Her debut novel tells the story of Justyce, an African-American honor student who is at the top of his graduating class and heads the debate team. His life changes the night he becomes the victim of profiling, police brutality and wrongful arrest. He copes with his feelings about injustice by writing letters to King until a terrible string of events occurs, including a police officer killing his best friend.
The book, published by Crown in October, garnered a starred review from “Booklist” and has been praised by renowned young adult authors such as Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas.
“Writing makes me feel like I’m doing something, because there’s this feeling of helplessness that I know I feel very often,” Stone said in a phone interview. “Because the world is not a nice or a kind place.”
Stone is one of several African-American young adult writers who are tackling the sensitive issue of police violence and inspiring honest conversations among young people – and adults.
Stone says the publishing world is seeing the importance of characters, writers and readers of color. She noted the fact that Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” also a debut novel, was No. 1 on the New York Times young adult best-seller list and topped many year-end best-of lists.
“This year has been a wake-up call for some people,” Stone said.
Stone will appear at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Jan. 28 to speak about her experiences in a conversation with Apex author Scott Reintgen, whose debut young adult novel “Nyxia” was published in September.
She will be at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill Jan. 30 to have a conversation with Renee Ahdieh, the North Carolina author of “The Wrath and the Dawn.”
We spoke with Stone about her book and how her life has been changed while writing it.
Q: What do you think Dr. King would counsel today?
A: I think he would say that we all need to do a better job of examining our biases and getting to a place where we respect each other.
Q: How has writing “Dear Martin” changed you?
A: If nothing else, writing the book helped me process things. I’m more empathetic; I just treat people better. There’s something very powerful about books, both writing and reading them, because they give you an opportunity to slip into someone’s shoes, and you just become a kinder person.
Q: How has the book changed your parenting?
A: I did a lot of interviews with teenagers and saw that there’s this indoctrination of a type of masculinity in this country that isn’t really helpful for anyone – boys shouldn’t cry, shouldn’t emote, you need to be tough, you need to be the biggest and the best. I try to make sure that I’m treating my sons with respect and help them figure out how they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it so that they don’t turn into these rage machines like kids who were told when they were little boys they weren’t allowed to feel anything.
Q: How will you teach your sons about the harsh realities of the world they live in?
A: (Last) year I took my 4 1/2-year-old to the King Center for MLK Day. They have a bus to remember history so we don’t wind up having to repeat it. I made my son move to the back and explained to him what it meant. I could see him connect the dots.
For a couple weeks afterward, I felt like the worst mother on earth because there is an instinct to protect your kids and keep them innocent as possible for as long as possible. It’s a constant conflict for me because I also know how the world is going to treat my kids and I want to prepare them. So I temper the truth with uplifting them and making sure they know that I believe in them and they can do anything, no matter what the world tells them.
Q: How were you raised?
A: I had parents who didn’t want me to think about or consider race as a factor in the way that people interacted with me. It took going to college to let me wake up to some of the realities of our society and getting a grip on things that made me feel weird, see that my feelings were valid in those moments and people were micro-aggressing me. I was also actively in avoidance of some of the things that I knew to be true because it was painful. I did the research and writing of “Dear Martin” back to back in two months. It was awful because all the things that I had been avoiding, I had to look at.
Q: What are you hearing from teens reading your book?
A: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a direct message on Instagram from kids who say it was the first book they’d ever finished. Kids message me on Instagram and ask me to come to their school, and of course I say yes. I didn’t grow up with books that I could see myself in, and I think about how amazing it would have been to meet the author of a book you’re picking apart for symbolism and theme.
Q: What kind of questions do they ask?
A: When I go into schools sometimes it takes students an hour to formulate a question because they’re taught not to ask about things. But I can see them coming alive to the fact that they do have to have the abilities to ask questions.
Q: Do you think publishing is changing for authors of color?
A: There’s a conflict between publishing as a business and publishing to create literacy. The business aspect is concerned with money and we need books to sell for publishing to continue. Now I think we’re starting to see how important it is that kids from all backgrounds get to see themselves in literature. Because the more kids you get reading, the more kids will eventually buy books.
Q: How do you feel about white authors writing diversity books?
A: For too long it has been difficult for people of color to have the opportunity to tell their stories. It is vital, vital, vital, that those stories come from people who are living those experiences because they will be the most authentic. I also think people should write what they want. But if you are writing about a different race, do everyone a favor by talking to people who are living the experiences of being that race.
I’ve done a lot of sensitivity reading, and while I’ve never heard a crime writer complaining about having to speak with talking to a lawyer, people are very sensitive to talk to other people about their experiences. If you’re resistant to talking to the people you’re writing about, why are you writing it? If we’re not working to understand each other better, what are we doing?
These young adult novels address topics like immigration, race and police shootings.
▪ “American Street,” by Ibi Zoboi (Balzer and Bray)
Fabiola Toussaint was born in the United States but was raised in Haiti. Immigrating to America, her Maman is detained by an ICE official. Fab negotiates life with her cousins in Detroit neighborhoods rife with gangs, drugs and violence and aids an undercover cop to gain her mother’s release. The author’s gorgeous prose balances the horror of police violence that shatters Fabiola’s dreams.
▪ “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas (Balzer and Bray)
Gifted Starr comes from a poor, gang-ridden African-American neighborhood but attends a mostly-white private school. Differences between these worlds widen when Starr witnesses the murder of her childhood friend by a white police officer. Emotionally intense moments are relieved by the rich characterizations, humor and the warmth of Starr’s unique and caring family.
▪ “I Am Alfonso Jones,” by Tony Medina, illustrated by Stacey Robinson & John Jennings (Lee and Low)
For nine short chapters of this graphic novel, readers will be charmed by bright, thoughtful, kind, hard-working Alfonso Jones. The 15-year-old is celebrating his wrongfully imprisoned father’s release, and that means buying a new suit. His joy ends in a small frame filled with five “pow”s, as he’s killed by a white off-duty police officer who mistakes his suit’s hanger for a gun. He wakes on a ghostly subway with “ancestors,” other victims of racial violence who aid him in understanding a world where justice doesn’t exist.
▪ “Tyler Johnson was Here,” by Jay Cole (Little Brown, March 6)
▪ “Ghost Boys,” by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little Brown, April 17)