After a crisis of the computer, I’m proud to present (albeit a bit late) two authors who came onto the YA scene with a series that epitomizes a slice of African American life that’s yet to be showcased on a consistent basis.
Denene Millner & Mitzi Miller hit the scene with the Hotlanta series in 2008. A series that screams potential for not only adaptation to big or little screen but also best selling or break out. However you choose to define it, the series should be among the most well-recognized brown YA series out there alongside it’s mainstream counterparts.
The fact that it’s not is the very reason 28 Days Later exists.
The ladies tag team and tell us about their journey, process and why Hotlanta is dear to their hearts.
BBS:The void that used to exist without Hotlanta and books like it is slowly filling. But not nearly as quickly as I thought it would. What’s your take on why it’s taking so long to see more books like these on shelves? And, while we’re at it – take a shot at poking a hole in the “books with people of color don’t sell” fallacy.
MM: Unfortunately, it seems that the recession hit hardest just as the “Black” YA movement was picking up speed. So publishers are forced to take less ‘risks’ and stick with the tried and true “mainstream” books that deliver sales they can consistently predict. So while the more established writers and highly marketable celeb names like a Monique might sneak through the cracks with new teen series, it’s challenging for new writers to get a toehold in the industry. And without new writers, the genre just doesn’t thrive and continue to grow, hence the stats that seem like we’re not selling.
BBS: How has Point, your publisher, marketed the series? In hindsight, are there things you wished you could do to get more awareness for the series but can’t simply because the dynamics of publishing take so much out of the authors hands?
DM: Point did a reasonably aggressive campaign to try and get Hotlanta into as many hands as possible when the first book hit stores. They hired a videographer to create a vlog featuring us talking about the series, the characters, and all of the incredible places around Atlanta that we highlighted in the book—spots about town that were characters in their own right. They also did online advertising and giveaways with a few websites and blogs that are popular amongst the black teen set, placed ads in a few teen magazines, and invited us to some high-profile book expos so that booksellers, librarians, and teachers could meet us face-to-face.
But again, we found it really hard to break through the stereotypes all-too-many tastemakers in the industry slam against books written by or featuring characters of color. The automatic assumption is that if there is a black face on the cover, the book has very little nuance beyond hard-luck stories about teens living in unfortunate circumstances, trying to scratch their way out of intense situations—stories that get short shrift when it comes time for reviews, features, and the traditional, tried-and-true ways more successful mainstream books get the attention they need to stand out. We still haven’t figured out how to crack that nut—to be able to have an institution like the New York Times review a book about black teens, or have, say, a hugely popular morning news show include a book featuring black teens in a round-up of great summer reads. It’s a shame, really, that this kind of oversight still exists.
BBS: Both of you have origins in adult fiction. Now, it’s been nearly two years since the first Hotlanta book hit shelves – what’s been the best part about the journey? What hasn’t been so great? How have either (good or bad) differed from your adult fiction journey?
MM: The best part of the journey was creating something that we are proud to see young women excited to read. There’s not a page inside any of the three books that either of us think would give the parents of a teenager pause. And that’s a huge statement considering the types of media that are readily available to teens today.
The most challenging part was definitely convincing older adults not to judge our books by their cover. For the Hotlanta series, Scholastic opted to take a chance and create something a little slicker than their standard teen book covers. Unfortunately, the knee jerk reaction from some of the more traditional librarians and older book buyers was reluctance in their support of the series because the cover’s look reminded them of urban street fiction.
For me, the biggest difference between the two journeys was the reduced face time with readers in the YA market. When writing for adults, book readings/ signings can go a long way towards generating buzz. But hanging out in or visiting bookstores are almost foreign concepts for most of the core YA market readers. The buzz is predominantly created and maintained online.
BBS: Does writing a series like Hotlanta have any special significance to you? How has Hotlanta changed the literary landscape?
DM: It has great significance for us, for sure. We created characters that bucked stereotypes—who in the arch of the series were able to become dimensional characters whose circumstances forced them to see past their own little worlds and personal biases to accept people for more than just their face value. The series as a whole is a testament to the diversity of our community and the beauty and spirit of the African American teen. They are so much more than TV and videos and music makes them out to be, and we feel like we shouted that from the rooftops in the Hotlanta series. So we’re probably most proud of that.
We’re not so sure Hotlanta changed the literary landscape. That’s a tall order for any one author to handle—for any one book to take on. But we do feel like the stories and characters we created with our series put a bold splash of color in an exciting genre that’s given birth to some pretty amazing institutions, like Gossip Girl and The Clique and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The TV rights to Hotlanta have been purchased; boy would it be amazing to see those characters come to life!
BBS: Give us a little insight into your writing process: Are one of you the primary voice of Sydney and the other Lauren? How does collaborating work for you?
MM: For the Hotlanta series, Denene penned the voice of Lauren and I wrote Sydney’s chapters. What’s interesting about this is that in picking characters, we went against our normal personality type; Denene is more conservative and I tend to wing it by the seat of my pants. We did this just to challenge ourselves, and it turned out to be a lot of fun!
As for the actual process, we collaborated on the overall book outline from start to finish. And then we retreated to our respective corners of the country (Denene is in Atlanta and I’m in New York City) to write our chapters. As we finished a chapter, we’d send it to the other person for editing.
BBS: How many books are planned for the series?
DM: There are three books in the series—Hotlanta, If Only You Knew, and What Goes Around.
BBS: If you had to choose one approach, which do you think is the key to getting multi-culti books like Hotlanta into the hands of more readers: A) Create a “Black” section for YA and put them all there so that readers of color can find them more easily? B) Distribute them more widely including a more aggressive push from publishers that may include front cover of the catalog, author visits with booksellers and other tactics reserved for front list books?
MM: YIKES, this is a hard choice! But I’m going to go with Choice B. I believe that more books will get sold if all readers—African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, etc.—are encouraged to feel like there’s something they can relate to in any story regardless of the ethnicity of the lead characters. You know, at the end of the day, I didn’t love Sweet Valley High any less because Elizabeth and Jessica were White. It was a great story and that’s all that mattered
BBS: Can we expect more YA from you ladies once the Hotlanta series ends?
DM: We look forward to telling more great stories about our teens—our people—for sure!