Today begins the Brown Bookshelf’s most-anticipated, and our favorite series of posts of the year, 28 Days Later. Celebrating Black Kidlit creators across the diaspora has been a passion for us, but is also necessary. Books by Black creators continue to be out-paced by books about Black children from people outside of the community. So it is with great pleasure, then that I introduce a new #ownvoices author, Mariama J. Lockington.
I was asked to blurb Mariama’s forthcoming debut, FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME. This was a pleasure. I loved the world that Mariama created and I particularly loved the relationships she conveyed between the main character and her adoptive family, particularly as she delves into dealing with a parent with mental health issues. Like her character Makeda, Mariama is a trans-racial adoptee, and this adds an important, and perhaps yet unheard story of Blackness. I hope everyone has a chance to read this incredible book. Now, I’ll let Mariama tell you all about her work.
A couple of years ago my mom gifted me a large plastic tub full of papers she saved from my childhood. As I began to sort through the tub, I realized that not only did it include papers with scribbles and abstract toddler art, but a series of homemade books and journals. I have been a storyteller since I was old enough to hold a crayon—crafting poorly spelled, but in-depth stories about adventurous girls, animals, and imaginary friends. As a child writing was a way to survive. Growing up in the 80s and 90s as a transracially adopted black girl with white parents, I often felt acutely unseen and hyper-visible at the same time. I was always searching for a place to belong, for stories that mirrored my experiences with racism and grief, and when I didn’t find them I wrote my own. As I grew up, writing not only became a way to survive but a way to connect with others. The daughter of two classical musicians, my family is deeply dedicated to the arts. My senior year of high school I was afforded the opportunity to attend an arts boarding school in Northern Michigan and it’s there that I began to formally study writing and call myself a writer. I went on to earn a dual BA in African American Studies and Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Michigan, where I also participated heavily in the collegiate SLAM poetry world and found a community of beloved writers and friends. But writing can be a solitary, isolating act, and when I graduated college it became clear to me that not only did I want to write, I wanted to teach and support young people in telling their stories. I went on to earn a Masters in Education from Lesley University, as well as an MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University— both degrees allowing me to work for youth literacy centers, youth service and leadership nonprofits, and more. In my career I have had the privilege of helping young people tell and publish their stories, share their ideas and visions, and build change. This work paired with my own writing is what fuels me. Writing for me is about truth telling, learning, and connecting with others. I want to write and uplift stories that do work, that don’t shy away from the messy or complicated, and that celebrate the ways in which marginalized voices are unique and powerful.
The Back Story
I started writing what would become For Black Girls Like Me when I was an MFA student at San Francisco State University. I began writing a series of prose poems all featuring a nameless adopted black girl who was at odds with her white family and the desert landscape of New Mexico. The poems were much more autobiographical and very abstract. I went on to craft these poems into my thesis, and when I graduated in 2013 I had a manuscript of about 60 poems. After graduating, I struggled with what to do next with these poems. I began to unsuccessfully submit the manuscript to poetry prizes, I moved to New York for a new job, got married and moved again to Michigan, and then in 2016 Buzzfeed News reader published my article: “What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew.” I had no idea of the impact this article would have—I heard from adoptees, adoptive parents, adoptive siblings—and within hours of it being published I had an email from my now editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The email asked if I’d ever considered writing a fictional book based on my own experiences as an adoptee, but for a middle grade audience. I was very excited by this prospect. When I thought about this girl, about writing her story more concretely for a younger audience, giving her a name, it all made sense. I dove back into the manuscript and began to write Makeda’s story with a new lens. Today, For Black Girls Like Me is a story about a young black girl named Makeda who is trying to find her voice. When Makeda’s family moves, she leaves behind her best friend Lena—the only other adopted black girl she knows—and everything changes. Makeda starts a new school, deals with bullies, fights with her big sister, and feels a growing distance between herself and her mother. And all the while she begins to wonder: What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me? This book is my love letter to adoptees everywhere, and it is for anyone who has ever asked themselves: where do I belong?
I grew up playing flute and piano, attending my parent’s symphony concerts, sitting in on rehearsals, and watching my mom and dad pour over their scores late at night or early in the morning. For Black Girls Like Me is full of music. Not only does my main character Makeda love to sing and listen to jazz, her big sister, Eve is obsessed with musicals, and her parents (like mine) are both classic musicians. Here is a playlist featuring music that drives the novel:
FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME — a playlist
“Achingly honest, and so well-observed, FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME is like the most haunting blues song: lyrically rendered, heartbreaking, a wail of a novel that will offer young people and adults alike hope in the fact that we are not alone in our pain.” —National Book Award Winner of THE POET X, Elizabeth Acevedo
“For Black Girls Like Me is the book I needed as a young girl. My heart ached for Makeda in the difficult moments and swelled as she slowly learned to use her voice. This is a beautiful, necessary book.” —Brandy Colbert, author of Finding Yvonne and Little & Lion
“Lockington’s debut is a revelation. Her voice is a much-needed addition in a field that is far too sparse on #ownvoices stories, and this story in particular is one that only lived experience could bring to life. The language is delicious. Keda’s story is searing and essential. I can’t wait for everyone to read this.” —Tracey Baptiste, New York Times bestselling author of The Jumbies series
“I don’t think I’ve ever read a more moving rendering of the complex dynamics of growing up as a young, black transracially adopted woman today. Debut novelist Mariama Lockington, herself a young black transracial adoptee, nails the experience of being ‘loved and lonely at the same time.’ She somehow manages to do this while exploring family mental illness, sibling relationships, moving schools and geographies, and the messiness of pre-adolescence. This is a gorgeous new voice that we desperately need in this time of overly-simplistic stories of race, family, and childhood in popular culture.” —Shannon Gibney, author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning YA novel, See No Color
The State of the Industry
When I was a girl I’d scour the bookstore and library shelves for covers displaying black faces— faces of black girls in particular—and come up short. My parents did their best to make sure I had some mirrors, littering our house with books like A Chair for My Mother, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Amazing Grace, and others for me and my siblings. But as I got older, and began to hunt for books on my own, I was met with limited middle grade options that displayed faces like mine. I turned to Toni Morrison books when I much too young, simply because I saw some small part of myself in those covers and wanted so much to have my experiences validated in fiction. I am heartened by the amount of really wonderful diverse middle grade and young adult books I see on shelves today, but I know there are so many more marginalized writers of #ownvoices stories that are not getting published because the industry is still preoccupied with quotas. I am honored to be one of handful of black women debuting a middle grade book this year, but a handful is not enough. The industry can do better, and I think teachers, parents, authors, book bloggers, librarians, and most importantly, young people, are demanding it. Let’s have even more black and brown faces on book covers in 2020, ok!? We deserve love stories, apocalyptic science fiction epics, mysteries, and more. We contain multitudes.