As a teenager, Alaya knew writing was in her future. From listening to her storytelling family to reading every issue of Writer’s Digest to writing a novel, she followed her dream. Her fans are happy that she stuck to those plans because now she is the accomplished author of The Summer Prince.
Today, the 3rd day of our annual 28 Days Later Campaign, we’re honoring Alaya Dawn Johnson for her writing successes and her contributions to the world of children’s publishing.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My mom taught me to read, an experience that remains magical in my memory, and my dad loved to tell us stories from his childhood, of hunting dogs and playing hooky to go fishing in local swimming holes (he grew up in the small town of Lawrenceville, Virginia). Storytelling is important to my family, and it always felt natural and right for me to do it in words on paper. In high school, I subscribed to Writers Digest and read each issue cover to cover. I had this vague knowledge that publishing was a business, and I needed to figure it out in order to become a professional writer. Writers Digest is oriented at a very beginning level, but it taught me a lot about the wider world of writers and publishers. I clung to the writing advice and attempted to incorporate it in my short stories and novels, with varying degrees of success. I was lucky enough to have wonderful teachers who nurtured my ambition and encouraged me to write stories and submit my work. I got my very first rejection letter when I was fifteen. What’s funny in hindsight is how surprised I was! Even now, there aren’t very many published teenaged novelists, but I was vain enough to think I’d be an exception. The real turning point for me happened when I was 17 and 18. I finished my first real, plot-heavy novel and I knew that I finally had something that might one day get published. It didn’t (thank goodness!) but the effort of wrestling that book into somewhat decent shape taught me more about writing than everything I’d learned up until then. I learned that I could finish, even if it seemed impossible. I learned that it’s really not the best idea to use an adverb every time a character “says” something. I learned to think about my words critically, and then do that again and again until I could hardly stand to look at them anymore. The next book I wrote was my first published novel, so I guess it worked.
Growing up, my favorite writer was Diana Wynne Jones. Fire and Hemlock and Hexwood especially inspired me, because of their complex narrative styles that wrecked havoc on reader expectations. I also hugely admire Ursula K. Le Guin, who is of course famous for her Earthsea series (what I guess would now fall somewhere between middle grade and young adult). But it was her adult novel The Left Hand of Darkness that truly showed me the transformative possibilities of social science fiction. Le Guin made everything I did in The Summer Prince possible.
Her diverse future that questions many of the pieties of modern society made me understand the potential scope of science fiction. And finally, Kindred by Octavia Butler is also an adult novel, but one I had assigned by a particularly intrepid eighth grade English teacher.
Her use of speculative tropes to explore the legacy of slavery has resonated with me ever since.
The Back Story
The Summer Prince is truly the novel of my heart. I had a completely different book under contract and I really needed the money I would get for finishing it, but I could not get the story of June, Enki and Gil out of my head. It got so bad that I finally decided that I would drop everything for a month, redeem some Amtrak rail points I had building up and take a three day train journey across the country. I figured I would start writing on the train, continue writing in an apartment in Vancouver, and when the month was done, I’d go back to my life and be the responsible, deadline-meeting writer that I wanted to be. Instead, it became clear that I couldn’t finish enough to satisfy myself in just a month. Even though it seemed like a terrible plan, I decided to forget about the other book for however long it took me to finish The Summer Prince. No one thought this was a good idea.
Ironically, it turned out to be the best move I could have made for my career. When I finished that draft I was looking for a new agent, so I sent it to a good writer friend of mine. She put me in touch with her agent, who read and loved the book, and after revisions sold it within two weeks to Arthur A. Levine. I ended up with a better deal than I’ve had for any of my previous novels, and a fabulous publishing team who really gets my book and my writing. (And I did finish that other book, by the way. My editor was remarkably understanding, given that I turned it in nine months late!)
I’m ecstatic to report that as of this writing, The Summer Prince has gotten two starred reviews, one from Publishers Weekly and the other from Kirkus. Kirkus called it “Luminous,” and Publishers Weekly said, “With its complicated history, founding myth, and political structure, Palmares Três is compelling, as is the triple bond between June, Enki, and Gil as they challenge their world’s injustices.”
It’s also a Junior Library Guild selection for the Spring.
Find out more about Alaya Dawn Johnson by visiting her website at alayadawnjohnson.com.