As the sole resident YA author on the BBS team, I’m often consulted about potential candidates to cover for 28 Days Later. Having returned to the campaign after a very long hiatus, the sound my colleagues heard when asking that question was akin to *crickets.* Not because I’m unaware of the authors out there, but because there aren’t nearly as many as there should be 10 years after somewhat of an explosion of Black YA authors. Nearly everyone I suggested, BBS had already covered. Why hadn’t the explosion continued? How could I not find five solidly under-the-radar YA authors?
As I looked around, I realized a few things 1) Those of us who debuted 10 years ago are now writing MG and 2) Today’s YA is a bit edgier, a true reflection of our fragile social times, and so…go back to number one.
Out of this conundrum, a fantastic idea presented itself – chat with YA authors who were 28 Days Later “Alum” and put publishing under the microscope. On top of the chat being more fun than I’ve had in a long time, it was insightful. Treat yourself to today’s spotlight: an industry chat with authors Justina Ireland (Dread Nation), Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion) and Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles).
BBS: Finish this thought – “Before I was published, I thought YA was missing…”
Brandy: Before I was published, I thought YA was missing black people, in general. But especially black people with agency, who weren’t reduced to stereotypes by authors who were writing outside of their experience.
I grew up in a very white community and probably 100% of the books on my shelf were by and about white people, so I’m not sure I noticed. Which is sad to think about now. I started writing when I was seven years old, and that also affected my stories, which were all about white people. I felt that I was meant to be a writer but I didn’t think anyone wanted to read about black people.
Justina: Like Brandy, I didn’t really notice how white books were, because I kind of thought it was just that all of the Black kids were in books I didn’t want to read (Like Sounder, Roll of Thunder). It was until I got older that I realized Black characters existed, just in a very narrow range. As I scooted over to the adult section I found books about Black people…in the African American literature section.
BBS: The narrow range is important to note because not existing was issue one and then existing only in one frame was the other.
Brandy: Yes, exactly! I remember the first time I saw the African American section in a bookstore. It was a very strange feeling. Like, yay! But also—why do we have to be shelved in a different section entirely?
Dhonielle: Before I was published, I thought YA was missing stories of brown kids and magic, Brown kids falling in love, fantasies that featured non-western worlds.
BBS: So, now what? Because whether it’s sexuality, mental illness, racism and zombies, or the power of beauty in society – looking at today’s landscape, through the three of your books alone, makes it clear that a broad variety of books featuring characters of color are here.
Justina: Exactly, and that’s awesome. And now we need people to show up and buy them.
Brandy: Yes, indeed. And we need to allow Black/POC creators to publish a wide range of books and not pigeonhole us into certain categories or celebrate a certain type of narrative over another.
Dhonielle: Now, it’s times for marginalized and black content creators to get the same roll outs that white women have gotten for decades for their books. Tours, big marketing campaigns. Our books deserve a shot at big audiences.
Justina: Seriously though: THUG by Angie Thomas has opened the door for a lot of other authors also writing gritty contemporary YA. Imagine what Dhonielle’s book could do for Fantasy or Brandy to do for intersectional contemporary or mine for whatever Dread Nation is this week. I think it’s horror this week. And of course I’m talking about Black authors, since this isn’t a problem for white authors.
BBS: My next question came about specifically because Dhonielle is a sensitivity reader (SR). In the Vulture article about her work as a SR, she hit on a lot of great points. One being that the most important piece of the conversation revolves around the number of white authors writing about characters of color. Are we reaching a point where publishers are starting to overthink sensitivity reads? How do we refocus the discussion on what Dhonielle believes is the important piece of the conversation?
Brandy: I’m not actively doing sensitivity reads but I find the whole topic fascinating. I had a LOT of reads from friends on Little & Lion because I wrote outside of my experience for so much of it.
Justina: So, I do sensitivity reads and I had to back away for awhile because of everything D said in that article. But I stopped doing the reads because I started to feel like I was helping other folks tell my story and that pissed me off.
Dhonielle: Sensitivity reads are a bandaid.
Brandy: Yup. I just wish there were more of our stories being told by us so there was less of a need for sensitivity reads to begin with.
Justina: Exactly! Because if there was, editors would know what a good story looks like because they’ve had a sampling, instead of the one or two books from the prior year. But we also need ownvoices books that meet the basic elements of craft. There are a lot of ownvoices books that are getting rushed through editorial that are just not going to help, and that’s unfortunate.
Dhonielle: I agree, Justina.
BBS: Own voices shouldn’t be a fad. My concern is this type of thing becomes a campaign. We have far too much catching up to do for it to be that.
Dhonielle: We can have mediocrity from every group, because gods knows so many mediocre white folks get published every day, but we need marginalized folks to win the marathon and not the sprint.
Justina: My fear is that if they finish poorly in the sprint they’ll never even get to run in the marathon.
Brandy: And a lot of it seems like back-patting, so publishers can feel like they’re doing their part to participate in the “diversity movement” instead of seeking out stories they actually believe in and authors they want to nurture through a successful career.
BBS: But what’s great about right now – with just the three of you – finally we’re in a moment where more than one of us is winning! That’s a big step.
Brandy: It is! I still remember getting my first contract and being like, But they’re just gonna let me publish this book about a black girl who looks and acts a lot like me? And that’s it??
BBS: Pay it forward – shout out two or three YA authors who are either an up and coming author, someone unsung or someone who has been dormant and deserves a fresh look by readers. Extra points if that author hasn’t already been covered by BBS.
Justina: There’s a lot of exciting YA by Black authors this year. [Goes on to name authors being covered in 2018 28 Days Later and those we’ve already covered. The struggle was real!] Kosoko Jackson will have a book out here in a minute. His book is slated for late 2019, I think.
Brandy: I’m a big fan of Tiffany Jackson’s work. And I’ve been reading Janice Lynn Mather’s Learning to Breathe, which is an extraordinary debut that comes out in June, and I can’t wait for everyone to read it.
Dhonielle: Sarah Raughley. Rebecca Barrow. JA Reynolds – not to be confused with Jason. *laughter* I dropped in non-US based Black authors. They need a little shine. Sarah Raughley is from Canada. Rebecca Barrow is in the UK.
Brandy: It is interesting seeing how much the landscape has changed since we were first published a few years ago. I think black-authored debuts are much more accepted and celebrated. Oh and I just saw a cover reveal for a new debut: Dana L. Davis, Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now.
Justina: Yes! That’s a great cover.
Dhonielle: I need them [Kosoko and Dana] on my radar.
BBS: Good stuff. The fact that I’m able to only get a few names new to me shows that it’s not as many of us out there doing YA as it should be.
Come back, tomorrow, for part two of our chat where the authors discuss author social media etiquette in the age of outrage and tell us what soap box they’re on.