Tag Archives: Black and/or African American Characters

On the Freedom of the Borderlands

By Shannon Gibney

gibney-seenocolorOne humid August afternoon many years ago, a 12-year-old girl huddled in the corner of a staircase, weeping. She was waiting for her parents to come home and comfort her, although she didn’t know if they could do it. A voracious reader, the girl had just found a copy of a book on transracial adoption — that is, a book about children of color adopted into white families — on the top shelf of her parents’ bookcase. Excited to finally find a book that spoke directly to her experience, the girl settled onto the family couch and dug into the worn paperback, devouring narrative after narrative on adult adoptees. After awhile, she began to notice her body heating up, as she read stories of black adults who had been raised in white environments. These grown adoptees stated that they would never fit in with white culture because they were not white, nor black culture, because they could not perform blackness. This is what will happen to me, the girl thought, and an alarm sounded in her brain. This is what has happened to me already. There is nothing I can do.

Of course, that girl was me, crouched, alone, and desperate for hope and some sort of recognition, on that step in my house as a teenager. Although it took me years to do it, I wrote See No Color for her. This coming-of-age young adult novel is for that scared 12-year-old mixed black girl, and all the other transracial adoptees out there, growing up alone without community, feeling like they will never really fit in anywhere and be “normal.” More universally, it is for anyone who has ever been outside the mainstream, and anyone who yearns to find a tribe where they can be truly accepted. It is for all those who have looked for themselves in the books and stories around them, and instead have only found a blank space, or something that scared them.

In telling the story of Alexandra Kirtridge, a mixed black girl adopted into a loving if somewhat misguided family, I wanted to offer that girl I was something else to pick up off that bookshelf. I wanted her to know that there are also stories of healing through the complexity of negotiating a multifaceted identity, not just stories of breaking under the weight of it. I wanted that girl to see herself years from then, as part of both black and white communities as well as others, standing right in the middle of that messiness and feeling all of it: the belonging, the not belonging, the shame, the joy, the endless questioning.

Now an adult with my own family, to me, this is the beauty of what Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua has termed the borderlands/la frontera: It is a place where one’s shifting identity and multicultural fluencies and deficiencies are assets — simply because one does not demand that the world make them feel safe or legible. There is a freedom to being misread, or not read at all. There is also a freedom in not being at the center all the time. I hope this is one message that See No Color conveys.


Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color, a young adult novel. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America Magazine, The Crisis, Gawker, and other venues. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, she lives with her husband and children in Minneapolis.

See No Color is available for purchase.

“Being Me” and the Complexity of Black Identity

By Pete Kalu

kalu-beingmeI began my literary life as a storyteller visiting classrooms across the UK. I found in the major cities — London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, pupils in one class might collectively know up to fifteen languages. In these same classrooms there would be children of amazingly mixed backgrounds — Turkish-Pakistani, Nigerian-Polish, third generation hyphenated Jamaican-Ghanaian-English-Irish children.

This hybridity is not an exclusively UK phenomenon. In Hong Kong I met third generation Indian-Chinese; in Lebanon I’ve met Nigerian bartenders who spoke fluent English having picked it up from American movies but who also spoke fluent Arabic and were engaged to Lebanese women. I’ve met Kashmiri villagers in Pakistan who spoke Scottish-English on account of Britain’s colonial ventures there hundreds of years ago!

Black identity is endlessly complex once you start to look up close. And to compound that complexity, culture (which forms a significant part of identity) is never static — it’s always on the move: absorbing new influences, throwing off the old. This is nothing new. I once traced a story that originated with the Mende people of Sudan and moved down into West Africa in different versions and which has now spread across to the Caribbean. In each location the story adapted itself, absorbing local influences. Hybridity is as old as the African hills.

Overlaying this aspect of hybridity and the resulting diversity of identity is the negative phenomenon of racism. Racism’s effect tends to be a flattening of the uniqueness of individuals and of the shifting variegation of cultures and their replacement with a monotone stereotype. Racism takes away individuation; it impresses its own images on individuals and communities. So Being Me tries to push back by exploring and celebrating the many complexities and ambiguities that black identity possesses.

In Being Me, Adele has an Ethiopian grandmother, a father who identifies as Italian and a white Liverpudlian mother. Adele considers herself black on account of her grandmother, but her father, who has a fine line in racism (see my first YA novel, The Silent Striker) considers her English-Italian. Adele occasionally speaks a form of urban slang which she attributes to her black grandmother. It is her confused way of boosting her ‘blackness’, as a means of pushing back against her father. Her frenemy Mikaela meanwhile has darker skin and two dark skinned parents. When annoyed, Mikaela rejects Adele’s attempt to identify as black and ridicules her for it. But if we hold the mirror up to Mikalea, Mikaela’s black identity is not ‘normal’ either. Mikaela’s parents are rich lawyers. Mikaela would prefer them to be poor in keeping with the stereotype of urban black families that she considers would make her look cool at school. To make things even more complicated, Mikaela’s parents were once Black Power militants and still champion the radical voices involved in anti-racism and pro-refugee campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and #refugeeswelcome. The whole bag of assumptions and expectations get thrown in the air in Being Me when Adele’s historically racist father inexplicably starts an affair with Mikaela’s mum.

To return to the source, as a storyteller, I would go into classrooms, tell a story or two from my life, then ask: what is blackness? Is it the way someone speaks? The way they walk? Is it where they are born? Their family? One story I would tell them   from my own adolescence was of how a white skinned Jamaican man arrived in Manchester, UK and set up a kung fu class popular with second generation Jamaican children. We were astonished when this white man opened his mouth and spoke more fluent Jamaican nation-language (patois) than any second generation UK born Jamaican kid. It had us all re-examining our understanding of Jamaican-ness, which at the time, was the coolest kind of blackness.

The school students loved debating this stuff and teachers said it was the first time they had had an opportunity within school to talk like this, there were no YA novels that gave UK black identity anything more than a token examination.

Coming back to Being Me, in the background of the novel, the questions I am considering (we novelists never have any answers — only questions!) relate to the nature of black consciousness as a lived experience. Does a black kid think any differently to a white kid? If so, when? All the time? If not all the time, then in what circumstances?

Take a math problem as an example. You might think on the surface everyone looks at a math question in the same way. Yet a black kid might go into class with reservations. One of racism’s early messages was that African people are not adept at scientific thinking. This translates down as black people cannot do math. When entering the math classroom, what examples of black scientific successes has the black kid seen, what role models of people good at math has she or he picked up, how does their black peer group see the idea of being good at math and what cultural influences have affected that wider peer group?

Add all this up and a black kid by the age of 14 may have been delivered a sufficiently negative message about their math ability as to be much more hesitant going into a math class.

So a simple task — the square root of nine — may be contemplated with completely different attitudes by a black kid and a white kid. That’s without any reference to the actual mathematical processing brain work that the task requires. The reverse might happen at Physical Education. Black people are expected to be good at that. How does it feel if you’re black and actually rubbish at sports or dancing or any of the other stereotypical things we are meant to be good at?

So much for being black in school. How about daily life? The UK born black journalist Gary Younge stayed for 12 years in the USA writing news reports for major UK newspapers, including the Guardian. He wrote recently about his decision to return from the USA, describing how his very young son did not want to walk down a certain street because he felt threatened. His son, even at that early age, was already adjusting his thinking and his behaviour to the fact of his blackness. Do all black kids come to learn which streets it is not safe to walk down, both literally and metaphorically?

Some might say, what about our common humanity? Surely we have more in common than that which separates us? Extending this reasoning, some writers consider that black consciousness (if I can use that phrase in a narrow sense of being aware of being black in society) is not central to the black child’s personality or experience of life: black awareness is an intermittent experience. It’s an argument that may hold some truth.

Such writers could therefore presumably write black characters as white and merely swap the name John for Kwame and, with a few extra touches here and there, arrive at a convincing black YA character.

To take the other extreme, if blackness or racism determined every aspect of a character’s life, what room would there be for individualisation, for showing the deeply felt unique emotions and distinctive intellectual life which we each have as individuals — is all that flattened out by racism? Does racism make us all the same?

The Holy Grail for a writer concerned with black identity is to create a black character who has a deeply felt emotional life, a highly individualized experience of the world and a fully active intellectual life, while not ignoring the societal structures which impinge on their world. Ultimately, I guess the emphases you choose as a writer when depicting black characters depends on your own experiences, observations and judgements.

With my own two YA novels I’ve plunged in and given two different takes on black identity. In The Silent Striker Marcus has a vociferous white mum who is a trainee magician and a proudly Nigerian postal worker dad who wants to be pop singer only he has a voice like a cat with its tail caught in a door. Marcus suffers racial bullying by a teacher and some of his classmates. In his own, Marcus looks set to go under. But his true friends rally round (including Adele, his sort of girlfriend) and in a ‘Spartacus’ moment help him oppose his scapegoating, lift his chin and get his dreams back on track.

In Being Me, Adele and Mikaela are best friends and worst enemies. Mikaela calls out Adele’s ‘skin privilege’ — the way Adele’s life is easier as she is lighter-skinned than Mikaela. Adele herself longs to be what she considers more authentically black but has wrong-headed ideas about what being black means. Teen life is a time of working out who you are. For Adele and Mikaela, bumping up against assumptions, trying out stereotypes and challenging expectations is part of their growing up. It is their enduring friendship that pulls them through it all.

Those are my two tales. Two approaches. There is room for a whole range of other takes on black identity. Currently there are very few YA novels with contemporary black characters published by mainstream publishers whether in the US or the UK.

As evidence of that I recently visited a Manchester branch of Britain’s leading bookshop chain. I randomly chose some YA stories that looked as if they were set in the UK in the 21st century and wrote down the first girl’s name I came across.   Here’s the list.

Rose. Minny. Penny. Eden. Zahra. Poppy. Mary Harriet. Anna. Georgia. Emmy. Evie. Lily.

A very white list. To find a black character anywhere on those YA shelves I had to leave contemporary YA fiction and look among books set either in a distant time, a distant land or in a fantasy universe. It’s time for YA fiction to fearlessly place black characters in the now. We are part of this world. We belong.


petekaluPeter Kalu is well known as a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date. In 2002 he won the Kodak/Liverpool Film Festival Award for his script, No Trace. In March 2003 he won the BBC/Contact Theatre’s Dangeorus Comedy Script Award for his play, Pants. He has lived in Hulme/ Moss Side/ Didsbury, Manchester; Edinburgh, Scotland; Leeds, Yorkshire; Lagos and Abia State (briefly), Nigeria; and San Francisco, USA. He has a degree in Law and further qualifications in software programming, Internet coding and Marketing. He runs a Hulme based Carnival Band called Moko Jumbi (Ghosts of the Gods) which takes to the streets at Manchester Carnival every year in July on three feet high stilts! He is learning to tightrope walk.

Being Me is now available.

Writing as an Ally

In Alexandra Duncan’s Sound, 16 year-old Miyole risks everything to help the girl she loves rescue her brother from a band of pirates who attacked their spaceship.

By Alexandra Duncan

duncan-soundSometimes, like the adult that I am, I can be a little dense.

When I was fourteen, my dad and stepmother had a baby girl, my little sister M. When I visited them and wheeled her around the grocery store or carried her on my shoulders through the park, strangers often assumed I was her teenage mother and gave both of us the stinkeye. I adored her, but the gap in our ages and the fact that we lived in different states — her in Louisiana, me in North Carolina — meant that our relationship was more like that of an aunt and niece, rather than two sisters. At times, I envied her, growing up in a stable home with wealthy parents, a stay-at-home mom, and encouragement to develop her artistic skills. M has always been a remarkable visual artist.

I should have known that even with all of that going for her, things wouldn’t be as easy or perfect as they seemed.

M started dropping hints that she was unhappy a few years ago, when she entered high school. “I feel so different,” she told me over the phone. “I don’t fit in.” I sympathized, but I was sure it would pass. I had definitely felt like a dysfunctional weirdo in high school, stuck in a small, conservative community, and her high school was in an equally conservative, if larger, city obsessed with keeping up appearances. It was not her scene, but she would be away at college in a handful of years.

Then, last summer, my husband and I went to visit our Louisiana family. M had been having a particularly hard time that year, and I wanted to see her. I brought books for her and my other younger sister, like I always do, including Brandy Colbert’s exquisite and painful Pointe, about a young ballerina coming to understand and overcome her past sexual abuse by a pedophile. We had several wonderful days to hang out, share silly Youtube videos, play board games, make waffles out of cake mix, and catch up. One afternoon, M and I were sitting in the living room reading, like the introverts we are, when she let Pointe fall to her lap.

“Ugh. This is just like my life!” she said.

“What!?” I said, monumentally freaked out and ready to break kneecaps.

“This thing with Hosea,” she said. “It’s just like this girl at school.”

I calmed down marginally. Hosea is the sort-of love interest in Pointe who toys with the main character’s affections, not a creeper who preys on teenage girls. But in my momentary rage-cloud, I missed the really important part of what M said. There was a girl at school. Not a boy, a girl. It didn’t sink in until later. M was opening up to me about an important part of her life, and like an idiot, I’d missed the opportunity to talk to her about it.

M did end up dating the girl at school, and it wasn’t a Hosea situation at all. They really like each other, and as of this writing, have been together for a year. However, my desire to break kneecaps was back soon enough. While my father and stepmother supported M, the kids at school and her girlfriend’s parents reacted exactly the way you would expect in a conservative Bible Belt town. Bullying. Friends abandoning her. Lectures about Hell. Demands that the two of them break up. The whole nine yards.

Around the time all of this was coming out, I had been writing Sound. Miyole, the main character, is lesbian, but I wasn’t getting the chemistry between her and Cassia, the love interest, right. Their relationship was either moving too fast or not hitting the right notes. I knew love was love, but I hadn’t yet figured out that the power dynamic in a relationship between two women is very different than it is in a heterosexual relationship. I was getting it so wrong that my editor had suggested I pull back and make the two female characters friends. I was seriously considering her suggestion, though I felt like a massive failure.

Hearing about what M was going through strengthened my resolve to keep trying to make Cassia and Miyole’s relationship work on the page. I might have botched my chance to talk to M during our visit, but maybe this was a small way to make it up to her, to show her I supported her. Science fiction helped me escape a bad home situation as a teenager. I wanted to give M and other teens in her shoes a chance for escape, as well. I read more books with lesbian narrators, which are surprisingly harder to find in YA than those from the point of view of gay male narrators. I asked a friend and her partner to read my draft and give me feedback. I rewrote and rewrote, and with each draft, my book got a little closer to what I wanted.

Writing as an ally is tricky. Do you have the right to tell this person’s story? What if, despite all your research and your best intentions, you get it wrong? Are you helping or hurting the people you want to support? I’ve thought about this a lot while writing Sound (at least, when I wasn’t thinking about sci-fi pirates and sea monsters). What I’ve decided is that, even if I fail or only partially succeed, the only way to get better is to keep trying. If, along the way, one girl sees herself having fantastic adventures that she wouldn’t have seen otherwise, it’s all worth it. If M knows she’s not alone, it’s all worth it.


alexandraduncanAlexandra Duncan is an author and librarian. Her YA science fiction novels SALVAGE (2014) and SOUND (2015) are available from Greenwillow Books. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two monstrous, furry cats. You can find her online at www.alexandra-duncan.com.

Sound is now available.

Don’t forget! You can enter to win Sound and four other wonderful YA SFF novels at our Fantasy & Science Fiction Month giveaway (deadline Oct. 6)

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Ordinary Diversity in Fiction

By Nicola Yoon

yoon-everythingeverythingMany discussions on diversity in books center on so-called issue stories vs. non-issue ones. Issue books, like you’d expect, focus on a particular social issue: a gay protagonist, for example, comes to terms with his sexuality or struggles with the aftereffects of coming out; an interracial romance where the major roadblock is the interracial-ness of the romance; a poor, inner-city black girl struggles to escape the awful social history that sees her born into a troubled family in a crime-ridden neighborhood.

Issue books are important. I’ll say that again for emphasis. Issue books, especially the ones written for marginalized young adults struggling to come of age in a world that too often tells them they are deviant in some way, are crucial. It is important for a young gay boy to be able to locate himself in a book, to see that there are others like him, to know in his bones that he is normal, his feelings are valid, his sexuality is good and true. If a book can do that for him then it’s worth its weight in gold. Similarly, it’s important for that little black girl to know that life can be better, that you can find your own place in the world on your own terms.

But there’s another kind of book too: the non-issue book. This is the book where the gay protagonist isn’t struggling at all. He’s already come out. The people that matter have accepted him, everyone else be damned. Maybe he has a boyfriend, or a long time crush. Maybe he’s also about to discover that he’s a wizard, and that’s what the book is about: an adventure story about love, friendship and believing in yourself. This imagined book, this non-issue book, is not firstly about being gay. It’s about magic.

When I started writing Everything, Everything, the protagonist was always going to be of mixed race — not because there was a particular racial issue I wanted to address, but because that is simply who she is. We live in a world where diversity is a fact of life. Diversity is the natural state of things. There are about 20,000 species of butterflies on our planet. 23,000 different kinds of trees. The idea of a single homogeneous anything, let alone “race,” is a construct of culture that goes against everything in nature, and our books should reflect that. We breathe oxygen. The sun rises and also sets. We are diverse.

Issue books are important. And non-issue books are just as important. I don’t spend the majority of my days thinking about race and where the color of my skin locates me in the world. I spend my days as most people do: I work, I laugh, I worry, I dream, I strive to be happy. I believe in love. And magic. I hope that my mixed race daughter will be able to spend less time than I do thinking about race. I hope she will read stories about people that are just like her and stories about people who are not. I hope that she’ll read scary stories, issue stories, funny stories, romantic stories and fantastical stories with dragons and beasts that need slaying.

And I hope that the heroine of some of these stories will look just like her.


nicolayoonNicola Yoon grew up in Jamaica (the island) and Brooklyn (part of Long Island). She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and daughter, both of whom she loves beyond all reason.

Everything, Everything is available for purchase here.

Words That Wake Us

By Ashley Hope Pérez

perez-outofdarknessMy third novel Out of Darkness takes the 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion as the backdrop for a secret romance between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. It’s a book about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

When I began Out of Darkness, my goal was to write a historical novel that would capture the imagination of even my toughest, most reluctant readers and expose them to experiences largely excluded from the sanitized historical accounts in Texas history books. I wanted to approach the past in a way that would also prompt my readers to engage in a fuller consideration of the present and the shape of the world around us.

Growing up one county over from New London, I heard powerful stories of loss and of survival related to the explosion, and I felt that a school disaster offered considerable dramatic possibilities for a YA novel. But the most important reason for choosing this particular period, community, and event was what I didn’t know, the stories I didn’t find collected in the archival materials on the disaster. Because New London school was intended to serve white children, historical accounts of the explosion focused on the tragedy as the white community experienced it; no one had recorded how people of color in the area had responded or how they viewed the disaster.

New London School after the explosion
New London School after the explosion

Still, I wondered, for example, what the event meant for African American teens who were spared from the explosion precisely because they’d been denied access to the better-funded white school in the first place. Because I wanted to explore this question, I knew from the start that there would be an important African American character in my novel. Then, early in my research for the novel, while reading through a list of the children who had died in the explosion, I came across a name that surprised me: Juanita Herron. I found a photograph of Juanita and studied it. I imagined her name as it would have been written in Spanish: Juanita Herrón. I wondered, could a Mexican American child have attended the school?

It was possible, at least. Larger cities in Texas with established Latino populations had three-fold segregation: white schools for white children, “colored” schools for black children, and “Mexican” schools for Mexican Americans and other Latinos. In New London, however, there were only white and “colored” schools. This made it more plausible that light skinned Mexican American families—likely new arrivals attracted by jobs related to the oil boom—could have enrolled their children in the New London school. And it would have been an attractive option, especially in comparison to the grossly underfunded and overcrowded “Mexican” schools in other parts of Texas. From there, I began to imagine what it would be like for a Mexican American teenager to enter the black-and-white community of New London.

The gaps in the historical record on the New London school explosion catalyzed my imaginings of the two characters whose fictional story is at the center of Out of Darkness: Washington Fuller and Naomi Vargas. Having always lived in East Texas, seventeen-year-old Wash prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy high school senior who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). Until the opening of the novel, the three of them have lived in San Antonio, but Naomi’s white stepfather convinces the children’s grandparents to send them to live with him in East Texas so that the gifted twins can attend the New London School. The light-skinned twins quickly settle into their new life in New London, but Naomi encounters hostility because of her darker skin and struggles with the demands of living with a stepfather whose own needs trump any concern for his children. Time spent with the twins and Wash is a welcome relief, and Naomi and Wash fall in love through secret meetings in the East Texas woods. They know that they can’t hide forever. What they don’t know, though, is that the worst school disaster in U.S. history awaits, threatening to shatter the school, the community, and their hopes for a future where they can be together.

Given that Out of Darkness is set in the South during the 1930s, it will come as little surprise that racism shapes the direction of the story. In San Antonio, for example, Naomi and the twins are forced to attend “Mexican” schools with overcrowded classrooms and low-quality teachers. Almost invariably white (as college education was very difficult for Mexican Americans to access), many of these teachers found theirs an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students. Naomi may be able to attend a better school in East Texas, but in the absence of stores that cater to Mexican Americans, she faces blatant hostility when she tries to buy groceries at the one New London general store. Wash attends a “colored” school with a shorter school day and year, not to mention the absence of critical materials and resources.

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Although forced segregation of schools may be a thing of the past, the effects—and reality—of segregation linger on. Unfortunately, racism is not just an unfortunate artifact from our past. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride—to cite just two examples—make plain the continued relationship between racism and violence in America. In both cases, attackers claimed to feel threatened by unarmed teens. The rationale for that “threat” seems to hinge on the notion that black bodies should not be in (what the killers consider) white spaces. Those who defend the aggressors in these situations tend to focus on the shortcomings of the victims, as if to suggest that their poor decisions were responsible for putting them “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (note the scare quotes).

Readers of Out of Darkness will recognize that the same logic behind the actions of angry white men who feel threatened by Wash’s very presence at the site of the New London explosion. He’s there because the superintendent has hired him to do an afternoon’s work on the grounds, and he rushes into the school, saving several children from being crushed when the building collapses. Instead of being met with gratitude, though, he encounters the suspicion of those who think he has no business being near the white school—or their children.

Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion
Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion

Factual details influenced how I imagined the fictional events in Out of Darkness, especially Wash’s experiences after the explosion. For example, during my research I learned that an angry mob converged on the school superintendent’s house, hungry for someone to blame for the deaths of their children. In real life, they were turned away by mounted Texas Rangers charged with protecting the school board members from vigilante violence. The crowd dissipated, and no one was harmed. In the fictional world of Out of Darkness, however, this is the point when the mob turns its energies against a scapegoat not granted such protection.

As a black American, Wash experiences the heightened vulnerability that still characterizes the lives of many today. This vulnerability and its terrible consequences have deep roots in our history. Upwards of four thousand people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and of that number, 3,445 were black. In contrast to the long-overdue mainstream media attention to killings of unarmed African Americans in recent years, news coverage of lynchings—as well as other discrimination endured by African Americans—was either altogether absent or sensationalized and justified the violence against black community members. According to Dr. Richard Perloff, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, news accounts of violence against black Americans generally assumed without question that the victim was guilty of a crime. Newspaper stories often used dehumanizing terms like “wretch,” “fiend,” and “desperado” to refer to the victims.

This historical pattern informs how Wash Fuller’s mistreatment is portrayed in newspaper stories within the world of Out of Darkness. But if I’ve done my job as a writer in Out of Darkness, the whole of the novel refutes the racist narratives perpetuated in the white press, both in how it details Wash’s encounter with those who seek to harm him and in how it portrays his beautifully imperfect and perfectly valuable life.

James Baldwin once noted that, in the U.S., “words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not wake him up.” Reading fiction is no substitute for engagement with the world around us. I hope, nevertheless, that Out of Darkness confronts readers with words that wake them to the need for change. Perhaps knowing Wash—knowing his brilliance, his sense of humor, his human character, and the tremendous love he has for the people in his life—will lead readers to consider more deeply the human cost of violence against African Americans.


ashleyhopeperezIn addition to Out of Darkness (September 2015), Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two other YA novels: What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Out of Darkness has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and both What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on YALSA reading lists. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is currently a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University. She teaches topics that range from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. Visit her online at http://ift.tt/1hryVm1 or find her on Twitter at @ashleyhopeperez.

Out of Darkness is now available.

The Ballet Blanc

By Dhonielle Clayton

charaipotra-clayton-tinyprettyHow far is too far? At one of Manhattan’s most elite ballet schools, wafer-thin ballerinas pull their hair into sleek buns and lace their pointe shoes high, waiting for their chance to shine. But beneath the pretty, polished surface, these girls are hiding some terrible secrets and telling some twisted lies.

Privileged Bette is tiny and beautiful–like a ballerina in a music box. But living forever in the shadow of her ballet-star sister and under the weight of family expectations brings out a dangerous edge in her. 

Perfectionist June can turn a flawless fouette and diligently keeps her weight below 100 pounds. But she’s never landed a lead role. Tired of always being the understudy, this year she’ll settle for nothing but the best–even if she must resort to some less-than-perfect means to get there. 

And new girl Gigi isn’t your traditional ballerina. A free-spirited California girl, she’s not used to the fierce competition. Still, that doesn’t stop her from outperforming every dancer in the school. But even she is hiding a ticking time bomb, and the very act of dancing just might expose her secrets to everyone.

Being a prima isn’t all satin and lace; sometimes you have to play dirty. With the competition growing fiercer with every performance, and harmless pranks growing ever darker, it’s only a matter of time before one small spark ignites … and even the best get burned.


“Brown bodies look different on stage and Asian faces can sometimes be distracting in classical ballet productions.”

While I was an academic teacher at a pre-professional ballet academy, I asked the other teachers in our shared office about why there weren’t any black and Latin@ dancers at the academy, and about how the Asian dancers fit in during the holiday and spring performances. After being at the school for a few months, I was secretly dismayed by the lack of varied diversity at the school, and by the social dynamics. Dance is such a vital part of many communities, so I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t reflected in the student body. I had a few Jewish girls, an Argentinian girl, a Hawaiian boy, as well as a group of girls and boys from Korea, a Taiwanese girl, and one boy and one girl from Japan.

The ballet historian at the time gave me a quick lesson on how diversity in ballet worked. Or, in actuality, how it didn’t work. She started with the quote above, and boiled it down to the Russian aesthetic: a desired body type, a long silhouette, a certain muscle-fat ratio, proper technique, flexibility, the look of one’s face and more. She used stereotypes about lean Asian bodies to explain their entry point into the art form, and how Asian ballerinas couldn’t be denied due to their small frames and discipline-oriented cultural backgrounds. She also referenced the phrase ballet blanc several times.

A quick search of the term ballet blanc will give you definitions such as ballets danced in the romantic styling of the 19th century, referring to ballerinas wearing all white, and considered to be the pure classical form of ballet.

The great classical ballets — the ones we all sort of know a little bit about because they’ve seeped into popular consciousness — are those that magnify white fairies, white sylphs, white swans, white wilis, and white shades. The term develops a deeper meaning and moves from a discussion of costumes and stage aesthetics to actual bodies. From Giselle to Swan Lake to La Sylphide, the image of a ballerina is marked with whiteness and exclusivity.

However, I wasn’t satisfied with her answer. So I asked a few of my students. One mentioned a talented black girl who had attended the school and left after a few “stressful” incidents and issues with ballet teachers. I didn’t get any more details, but it piqued my curiosity enough to think about how race plays out in the pre-professional ballet world.

I also thought about what it might be like for an Asian dancer, whose body and technique and stereotypically perceived compliance might please the ballet gods, but how those dancers still had uphill battles when it came to being cast as leads in traditionally ballet blanc productions. After all, for all their desired qualities, they still don’t fit that old school ballet russe aesthetic.

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The seeds for the characters in Tiny Pretty Things started to bud. I thought about what it might’ve been like to be that lonely black girl or the overlooked Asian girl at a cut throat ballet conservatory. I danced for several years in the suburbs of MD, and Sona danced in New Jersey, so we’d experienced the feeling of being the only “other” sort of girls in a ballet class. Brown arms, brown legs, brown faces on stage and photographed, never quite fitting in.

Thankfully, just as Tiny Pretty Things is hitting shelves, we’re starting to see change, with rising stars like Misty Copeland, Hee Seo and Michaela DePrince changing the face of modern ballet. As in publishing, diversity is still the exception, rather than the rule — and there’s a long road ahead. But as more and more dancers of color step into those toe shoes, they give the next generation of petit rats hope that they, too, can follow in those hallowed footsteps.

Want to read more about diversity in the ballet world?

Check out these links:


Dhonielle Clayton

Dhonielle Clayton spent most of her childhood under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. She hails from the Washington, D.C. suburbs on the Maryland side. She earned an MA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University and an MFA in Writing for Children at the New School. She taught secondary school for several years. Now, she is a librarian at Harlem Village Academies and co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative kitchen whipping up decadent — and decidedly diverse — literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers. Her YA fantasy series THE BELLES is coming soon from Disney/Hyperion. Twitter: @brownbookworm

aa-charaipotraSona Charaipotra is a journalist published by the New York Times, People, ABC News, Cosmopolitan and other major national media. A collector of presumably useless degrees, she double-majored in journalism and American Studies at Rutgers before getting her masters in screenwriting from New York University (where her thesis project was developed for the screen by MTV Films) and her MFA from the New School. When she’s not hanging out with her writer husband and two chatter-boxy kids, she can be found poking plot holes in teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars. Call it research: a strong believer that three-act structure can work in fiction, Sona puts her outline-obsession to good use as the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. Tiny Pretty Things hits shelves May 26. Twitter: @sona_c

Tiny Pretty Things is available for purchase here.

You’ve Got Mail, Young Writer

By Lamar Giles

newbird
The one secret she cares about keeping—her identity—is about to be exposed. Unless Lauren “Panda” Daniels—an anonymous photoblogger who specializes in busting classmates and teachers in compromising positions—plays along with her blackmailer’s little game of Dare or … Dare. But when the game turns deadly, Panda doesn’t know what to do. And she may need to step out of the shadows to save herself … and everyone else on the Admirer’s hit list.

Three weeks ago I got an email from a 15-year-old girl in Ohio. I’ve been waiting on her email for 20 years. That math is weird, but not a typo. More on that in a bit…

I remember when email became a thing (yes, I’m THAT old).

In 1995, America Online was the most popular way to access the Internet, and you paid by the hour (unless, of course, you had those FREE TRIAL disks that came in the mail…10 hours at no cost to you). When someone contacted you through your AOL Account, a perfectly chipper synthesized voice announced, “You Have Mail.” If you’re not ancient, like me, this probably sounds like nonsense. Hang on, this rabbit hole gets wider and brighter. I promise.

With increased web presences, a bunch of writers opened up a new corridor of accessibility by adding a simple “contact” link. Not the super famous writers mind you. You weren’t going to send Stephen King a .jpg of you and your cat in your Pet Sematary Halloween costumes. Though, many of the mid-listers, including some of my very favorite writers, were suddenly a click away. I wasn’t shy about sending a note to a writer I liked, particularly after reading their latest. I complimented them, asked questions, and told them about my aspirations because I knew, even then, what I wanted to do. Most were extremely cool, and gracious, and encouraging.
However, none were like me.

I didn’t know of any black males who liked horror and fantasy stories, let alone wrote them. When I asked for recommendations at my local library, I got pointed towards Alex Haley and Malcolm X…great men and writers, but not quite what I was looking for. As much as the Internet and email opened up the world of pro-writers to me, I felt as lonely and isolated as ever. Perhaps moreso. In all the World Wide Web, I felt like an anomaly. Until, I wrote to a man named Brandon Massey.

Brandon was me. An older, wiser, published version of me. A black male who liked and wrote fantastic horror stories. I enjoyed his first novel, Thunderland, a great deal and I told him so, via email.

I expected the sort of responses I’d been getting. Polite, encouraging, but essentially an upgrade on the form Thank You letters from the pre-email days. Not so this time. Brandon answered all of my questions in detail, asked about the sort of things I wrote, and what I was working on currently. For the first time in all of my letter writing campaigns, I sensed I wouldn’t be overstepping my bounds by writing him again. And again. And again.

I’d moved on from America Online by that point, but I was more excited than ever to know that I had mail. I won’t bore you with extensive details of what happened next, because it’s a retread of my publishing history, from my first major short story sale to the Dark Dreams anthology to Endangered, on shelves now. I just want to stress the importance of connecting with Brandon.

I saw what I COULD be.

It only took a total overhaul of the way the world communicated to make it possible. Imagine that.

What Diversity in YA, and We Need Diverse Books, and The Brown Bookshelf, and everyone else raising diversity awareness in the industry does isn’t just about showing the books. It’s showing the possibilities. All of these groups are the AOL of modern publishing. A new way of doing things, with no hourly charges. Yay!

For those aspiring kids who, for far too long, were unable to find the books and writers that represent them, there are resources. They can tweet the writers, and follow all those awesome Instagram photos from conferences. The modes of connecting are changing daily (I’m still trying to figure out SnapChat). By comparison, simple emails seem way obsolete. That’s okay. Change is good (despite what the haters say).

While email might be doing a slow fade, I’m so happy it hasn’t gone away completely. Remember that 15-year-old girl I told you about? Right.

She read Endangered, and likely clicked the contact link on my website. She loved the book, specifically the character Panda, who reminded her of herself, and wasn’t a stereotypical sidekick to a more important dominant character, and she hopes to be a writer someday.

That. Last. Part.

I was in a time loop. Back to ’95, writing to writers, waiting for responses. But, wait, I was on the other side now. In the present, connected to the past, or something…didn’t I just see this in INTERSTELLAR?

It’s amazing to be doing what I’m doing, and to be in the position to respond to her email. I gave her her first editorial note. Cut “hopes to” and “someday”. Just be a writer.

I shared a bit of my personal story, passed on some advice that Brandon Massey once gave me, and invited her to ask more questions as needed. Then, I gave her my expectation…that she do the same for the young writer who contacts her through whatever means are available (Mind-Mail?) in 20 years.

Maybe, by then, the massive gap in publishing representation will be as outdated as screaming modems, those AOL trial disks, and all that other stuff that seems so ridiculous now.

Though I wouldn’t mind more notes like the one I told you about. It’s still quite nice to know when you’ve got mail.


Lamar Giles

Lamar Giles writes novels and short stories for teens and adults. He is the author of the 2015 Edgar® Award Nominee FAKE ID, a second YA thriller ENDANGERED, a third, currently untitled YA novel from HarperCollins, as well as the forthcoming YA novel OVERTURNED from Scholastic Press. Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. He resides in Virginia with his wife. Check him out online at www.lamargiles.com or follow @LRGiles on Twitter.

ENDANGERED is available for purchase here.

Not Otherwise Specified

Hannah Moskowitz writes about her personal experience with eating disorders, which informed some of the experiences of the main character of her new YA novel, Not Otherwise Specified.

By Hannah Moskowitz

moskowitz-nototherwise

“I don’t think I have an eating disorder,” I told my therapist on Tuesday, after an hour of listening to the nutritibitch talk about my food issues and telling me that my way wasn’t the healthiest to lose weight.

She said, “Oh yeah?”

“I’m not thin.” I shook my head. “And I eat. I eat pizza and ice cream and rice krispies. I don’t think I have an eating disorder. I think I’m an attention whore.”

“Why does that have such a negative connotation?” my therapist said. “Wanting attention? Everyone wants attention.” She sighed. “Let’s check the book.”

She took out her DSM and searched the index, read for a minute, and said, “If I had to diagnose you, I’d say–”

And I could have mouthed the words along with her.

“Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.”

She said, “Look, Hannah, you don’t do things halfway. You say you’re going to have to write a book, and you get it published. You want to be thin, and you get an eating disorder.”

I didn’t tell her that EDNOS is totally the definition of halfway.

I’m Hannah Not Otherwise Specified.

I wonder how it happened.

I started laughing in the nutritionist’s office because I forgot, for a second, that this was my life.

One thing they don’t tell you is that you have to remember every morning.

Thoughts upon waking up.

Ghhhh.

Goddamn, it’s early.

That was a weird dream.

I have an eating disorder.

The nutritibitch tried to play the guilt card. She had my mother come in and talk about how this was making her feel.

As soon as my mother left the room, I cried so hard even plastic skinny nutritibitch felt bad.

* * *

I wrote that when I was seventeen, the same age as Etta in Not Otherwise Specified. I’m almost twenty-four now, so that should probably seem like longer ago than it was.

Eating disorders are not exactly uncharted territory in YA. They’ve been done incredibly and painfully and accurately—Wintergirls—as well as every Lifetime-movie issue-of-the-month. The thing is, though, that you’d be hard-pressed to find a girl who had an eating disorder like I did, and I’m actually part of one of the most common groups of eating disordered people.

Everyone knows anorexia and bulimia, and at least some people know binge eating disorder, but EDNOS—Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified—rarely gets mentioned. The simplest explanation is that it’s an eating disorder that doesn’t quite fit in the extremely stringent diagnostic criteria of the named disorders. You don’t purge often enough to be bulimic, or eat enough calories at once for it to be a textbook binge, or weigh little enough that you no longer get your period (and if you’re a guy, until very recently you couldn’t get diagnosed anorexic at all, because of that whole have to stop getting your period thing).

That last one was me, and it’s Etta, and it was the scariest part of writing this book, and it’s the scariest part of its release.

I think a lot of people shy away from writing diverse books because of that fear of messing up the “other.” It’s easy to be annoyed by this, and that’s okay, but it’s also important to keep in mind that these people are trying to be respectful. But the idea of “otherness” can be very intimidating, whether you’re inside of it or out of it. If you’re a white Jewish girl, like me, writing about a black girl. If you’re a girl who couldn’t even spell plie before she started the book, like me, writing about a ballerina.

So it’s kind of funny that even before I started doing all of the research into the worlds I didn’t know, the part of this book that terrified me the most was an illness that I know more intimately than I’ve ever known a person. An illness that makes seven years feel like absolutely nothing.

I don’t talk about it with people. It’s in my past. We talk around it. We don’t mention treatment. We don’t mention self-injury. We don’t mention the time I tried to run away.

I dreamed two nights ago that my mother read the book and called me crying, saying she didn’t realize I was still in “that place.” It was the first time we’d talked about it since the nutritionist’s office, except that was real and this wasn’t.

I wrote about my eating disorder in the Dear Teen Me anthology a few years ago. We got edits back and they wanted me to add the line, verbatim: “But there is hope.” I wouldn’t do it, because that is a ridiculous sentence.

But I think in a lot of ways that’s why I wrote this book. The rest of Etta’s diverse characteristics—her race, sexuality, rich background—have been with her since the very first time I tried to put her in a book six years ago (back when I didn’t realize the girl demanded her own book, none of that split-POV nonsense). But the eating disorder aspect was something I intentionally gave her, and I wanted to show the weird kind of hope that is there.

I’m not recovered 100%, and I don’t think many eating disordered people ever are, and Etta, though she’s deep in recovery for the entire book, probably won’t be. But her life is still okay, and it will keep being okay. It’s something she’ll have to fight on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes that will feel astronomical and sometimes it will be feel like nothing. We look too often at eating disorders as catastrophic events—the bit of writing I posted above is from an essay I wrote called Notes on a Scandal—when really they’re chronic illnesses. And chronic illnesses need more visibility, perhaps mental illness most of all. And I like writing about intersectionality way, way too much to include it with a cisgendered heterosexual white girl.

So, sorry about that, Etta. I wanted to write about a character with an eating disorder and I knew you could handle it.

We’ll be okay.


hannahmoskowitzHannah Moskowitz is the author of over half-a-dozen books for young adult and middle grade readers, including BREAK, a 2010 ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults, ZOMBIE TAG, TEETH, and GONE, GONE, GONE, a 2012 Stonewall Honor Book. She lives in New York city and tweets a lot as @hannahmosk.

Not Otherwise Specified is now available.

Home Is a Complicated Place

By Renée Watson

watson-thissideofhome“Wow, there are black people in Oregon?”

“Are the people in Portland really like the characters in Portlandia?”

These are the questions I get when I tell people where I’m from. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which means I know the necessity of carrying an umbrella at all times. It means I know the beauty of majestic mountains in my rearview mirror as I drive through the city. It means I know the sour taste of huckleberries and the smell of marionberry cobbler baking in an oven. It also means I know the evils and violence of Skinheads, how to swallow my tears when a white teacher is surprised at how smart I am because I live “over there” on the northeast side of town. It means home, like for so many others, is a complicated place. People know Portland to be a haven for hippies and cyclists. It’s known for its clean air and rolling mountains, but the painful parts, the experiences of blacks in Oregon — our arrival, treatment, and contributions — are often missing.

For Maya Younger, the main character in This Side of Home, home is complicated because everything she’s known is changing. Abandoned storefronts are being renovated, houses are getting facelifts and new faces — white faces — are showing up more and more in her community. Maya isn’t so sure these changes are for the best, but her twin, Nikki, is all for the urban renewal that’s taking place.

I see myself in both twins. I started noticing changes in my neighborhood my junior year in high school. Gentrification was not a word I knew at fifteen but I knew the feeling of not belonging. There was something about the changes that made it seem like they weren’t for the people who already lived there but for the people who were coming. Yet, even with that feeling, I still wanted to go out and enjoy these new places. So for me, I have both of their perspectives — I want the change, appreciate it even, but I question the push out that often comes with it.

I also question the silencing of a people’s story. No one ever talked with me about how African Americans got to Portland, or how The Vanport Flood impacted the black community. When I was in the fifth grade, Skinheads beat an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat. Only one of my teachers talked about it in class. I wanted to talk about all of it — needed to know my history, my story. I needed a space to process what was happening in my neighborhood.

In high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Christensen, introduced me to myself through novels and poetry. We read Zora Neale Hurston, BeBe Campbell Moore, Alice Walker, and Lorraine Hansberry.  We studied the poetry of Martín Espada and Sherman Alexie, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton. We watched excerpts from Eyes on the Prize and learned about the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. I was able to connect the dots and see the bigger picture of the world I was living in. I was able to see myself on the continuum of social change. I learned about white allies and had meaningful conversation with white classmates about race and class.

In our English class, books were not just something to read for entertainment, not something to skim through just enough to be able to write a book report or pass a quiz. Books became essential to our growth as human beings. They were the catalyst for debates and discussions. They were mirrors, sometimes showing me my world, validating its existence. Sometimes books were windows, giving me opportunities to learn about someone else’s experience. I hope This Side of Home does for students and educators what the books I read in Mrs. Christensen ’s class did for me.

It is my hope that readers of This Side of Home not only learn about Portland but that they investigate and find out about their own home towns, that they celebrate and critique the places and people they were raised by, that they tell their stories and learn the stories of others.

Maya learns the history I wish I’d known when I was her age. She gives us all permission to ask questions, to find our beginnings, to hold on to our story.


reneewatsonRenée Watson is the author of This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015) and Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House 2012). Her work has received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Her one woman show, Roses are Red Women are Blue, debuted at the Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists. One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. Her picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), is based on poetry workshops she facilitated with children in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Renée has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers through out the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. Renée has given lectures and talks at many renowned places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon and currently lives in New York City.

This Side of Home is now available.

Another Story to Tell

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.

By Shannon Freeman

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.


shannonfreeman125x125Born 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.