Shannon Freeman’s Port City High series is Sweet Valley High in an urban community, and reaches out to girls of color who aspire for greatness.
Growing up the ’80s, I never really searched for books about little girls that looked like me. It never crossed my mind to wonder why teen fiction didn’t include characters that were African American. If they did, I had never come across a copy of them in my library.
I can remember sitting in the library of Woodrow Wilson Middle School. Red-and-white Coca-Cola sweatshirt, acid-washed blue jean skirt, scrunched down red leg warmers, and British Knight tennis shoes decorated my seventh-grade frame complete with spiked bangs and side ponytail-framed face. I sat on a bean bag engrossed in a book by an author who was not new, but new to me. It was Judy Blume. I had never before read one of her books and my friends told me that it was a “must read.” That day, my love for reading was reignited by fresh fiction that I could relate to in my life. Books like Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Superfudge, and Blubber were my favorites. I loved these books and would read them over and over again.
My next love affair with literature began with Sweet Valley High. I felt my whole world shift as I began to read about twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. I had found my reading home. For a whole year, I tried to read every Sweet Valley High book that I could get my hands on. My mom wasn’t big on purchasing books, so I borrowed from friends, checked them out in the library, and reread my favorites like The New Jessica, Deception, and Kidnapped! (which inspired my own book Taken). I dreamed of wearing the clothes that the Wakefield sisters wore, having a twin sister to plot and plan with and against, living in a home as immaculate as theirs, and having a life worthy of print.
Don’t get me wrong…it was important to me at an early age that my baby dolls’ skin was reminiscent of my own, but that was easy because they were available. Right there on the shelves of Toys”R”Us, as I was just starting to notice the lack of brown-colored baby dolls, were Cabbage Patch dolls with brown skin, just like mine. That was a sign that things were changing, but literature was slower to catch up. After all, the books that I was reading were still based on teenagers navigating through the drama of high school. I was just happy to be reading, so I devoured every word and didn’t focus on the lack of African American characters. Now, the lives of the Wakefield twins were much different from mine. I grew up in a small Texas town, and they were in the beautiful city of Sweet Valley right smack in what sounded like the Promised Land to me. At that point, I could only dream of living in a place like California (which would become my home nearly a decade later).
I became a teacher shortly after graduating from college and taught for two years before moving to Southern California to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. At that time, I left the classroom and did not return until I moved back to Texas eight years later. Young adult literature had definitely changed while I was away. I was surprised and impressed that there were actually books that depicted girls of color. That was the first time I realized the coming-of-age tales that I had grown up reading never really represented me. Yes, they had taken me into different worlds and allowed me to experience a different lifestyle, but I was not the target audience.
When I began to read the Bluford series in my classroom, I was happy with the direction literature was taking. The Bluford Series is a collection of contemporary young adult novels set in the fictional inner-city high school of Bluford High. It was exciting that there was a group of writers who found it important to represent black and brown students alike. I knew that if I had grown up reading this type of literature, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it; however, I still felt like something was missing. I wanted that Sweet Valley High feel in an urban community, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. My friends and I had grown up as girls of color who knew they were destined for greatness. We weren’t ducking gunfire and being abused by our boyfriends. We were living in the suburbs as beautiful ethnic girls who had dreams and aspirations. That is who we were, and I knew that there were other girls out there living the same way. When I began to write, I wrote for them.
I found there was another story to tell. There was a story of girls who aspired to be surgeons, lawyers, social workers, nurses, authors, teachers, television personalities, and CEOs. I wrote for the girls growing up with those dreams and who were destined to see them come to fruition. That was how my series set at Port City High was birthed. When it was completed, I felt the need to diversify even more. There was a still small voice in me that said, “More.” I wanted my next series to represent even more of the cultures that I had grown up with. One of my best friends from middle school is Vietnamese. She is beautiful, smart, talented, funny, and definitely underrepresented in teen literature and the books that came across my desk. I felt bad for leaving out that whole community that had been so significant to my story. So when I starting writing my second series, Summit Middle School, I was determined for young adults growing up in the Vietnamese community to be able to relate to the characters in my book, and that is how the character of Mai Pham was created.
Every time I complete a book, I ask myself, “Who did I miss?” I try to figure out a way to reach them, not in a cheesy, forced type of way, but in a way that they can relate to. I want them to walk away from my book and be surprised that I get them. When they look at the back of the book to see if we are of the same race, I want them to say, “How did she know?” I am not under the assumption that I will be able to cover everything for everybody, but I believe that I can write and inspire minds that can reach places that I may not be able to reach.
My goal is to write books that are diverse enough to reach across racial lines and stereotypes and build bridges in communities. I want us, as a people, to be able to identify with different cultures in a real way that makes them less of an anomaly.
Growing up in the ’80s taught me so much. I had to navigate through cultures and stereotypes on my own. Through writing, I want to change the mindsets of young adults because they are the future of this country. I want students from multiple backgrounds to open my books and find themselves. But not only that, they need to be exposed to new worlds, new views, and a new way to appreciate and love each other’s differences. Exposure changes who you are and how you think. Writers have a unique platform that allows us to change the world one story at a time. How blessed I am to be a part of that change.
Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, Shannon Freeman works full time as an English teacher in her hometown. Freeman’s debut series, Port City High, was geared to readers on the high school level. Summit Middle School is the author’s second series and she looks forward to it reaching students from a multitude of backgrounds. “It is definitely a series where students can find characters that relate to them and what they are going through. Middle school can be a challenge, and if I can help students navigate through that world, then I have met my goal.” Freeman looks forward to writing a series that her children and numerous nephews and nieces can enjoy at an early age.
The Port City High series is now available.