banned voices: Nic Stone

from the publisher:

Justyce McAllister is a good kid, an honor student, and always there to help a friend—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

In 2019, school officials in Columbia County, Georgia implemented criteria to review books that they were considering for use in school classrooms and libraries. According to The Root, a criteria was established to evaluate the books, yet how some books were banned and others were left in use was difficult to explain. Dear Martin was one of three books that was banned because of it’s language. The National Coalition Against Censorship defended the books in a letter to the Columbia County School Commissioner. Referring to Stone’s book, the NCAC wrote, “Dear Martin speaks to many black teens’ experiences with racism and explores the different historical approaches to confronting racist violence, while offering words of affirmation and healing.”

Just last week, parents at a high school in southwest Missouri complained about the implementation of the book in English classes. After reviewing the process used to contact parents, students were given the option of reading Dear Martin or wait for it…… To Kill A Mockingbird.

Stone’s work, which she focuses to address inequity, is informed by her work as Spelman graduate, teen mentor, by time living abroad and by being a mother. After you read her interview here, go connect with her on Twitter or IG. Then, go get a copy of both Dear Martin and Dear Justyce from the library. If they don’t have copies, request them!! If you decide to purchase the books, donate them to a local teacher for their classroom library when you’re done.

Nic, how are you doing?

Edi! All things considered, I’m pretty excellent! I hope you are also well.

I’m hanging in there, thanks for asking! You’ve been very busy these last few years! In fact, you just had a Shuri book released. Congratulations!! How has writing this series challenged you as a writer?

Photo by Nigel Livingstone

NS: The Shuri books were my first time writing *true* fantasy in the sense that the world the stories take place in—Wakanda—doesn’t actually exist. And as a person who is usually very reliant on the typical conventions of realism, the worldbuilding aspect of the series was quite the learning curve. I will say that by the time I was working on the third book, we were almost a year into the pandemic, so what was a struggle at one point became a source of reprieve: the Wakanda I was putting on the page became a place I could escape to and dream… you know, without a frequently mutating virus eating away at the fabric of human civilization. Lol.

You wrote Dear Martin years ago and it was soon challenged right there in your home state, Georgia, for being “unacceptable” because it contains “extreme content and explicit language”. Should books mirror real life our should they be made up stories? How do we use literature to inform us of better and other ways of being?

NS: You know, the most interesting thing about having books challenged in this way is the fact that I have memories of reading what felt to me like “ban-able” content in the books I was assigned in high school. Angela’s Ashes for instance. The Scarlet Letter (like homegirl got knocked up by a preacher!). Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Oedipus Rex (that was certainly a wild one!). But I think it safe to say most, if not all, of these texts, mirrored life at the time they were written. Stories have always been the source of information about how to live life, and literature is the only medium that gives us access to a myriad of experiences while leaving room for us to think critically and interpret things according to the way we each see the world. The best way to use it is to merely engage with it. It does its own work.

When you first went through that challenge, what did you learn about yourself?

NS: That I’m not as invincible as I thought. Initially, I was very gung-ho about going down to this county and making sure the local independent bookstore had free copies it could give out to any kid who wanted one, and I decided to host an event so say my peace, so to speak. But despite the people who showed up being “on my side,” I found myself in the thick of individuals who really just saw me as a receptacle for their stories of racism they’d witnessed (and had done nothing about, mind you). It wound up being quite traumatic, and it really helped me to see how kids like the ones in the books that get banned might be made to feel in environments where the realities of their lives are deemed “inappropriate.” That softness, that vulnerability that leaves us open to being hurt? That’s the part that makes us most human. And that’s the part I want to preserve at all costs because the minute we lose the ability to feel and hurt is the minute we turn callous and bring harm to others.

Do you have thoughts on what we as a literary community can do to protect Black voices in youth literature?

NS: Honestly, I’m still trying to figure this one out. It’s been the question of my career since that initial ban in 2019. The crass, though legitimate answer is pretty simple: buy the books so publishers are encouraged to continue publishing them. But I do hate that so much of this is driven by capitalism and greed. I truly wish I knew how to get people to care about others simply because others are also people, you know? How do we get to the point where we are all able to connect at the level of our shared humanity?

And, what did you learn about why and how people challenge books?

NS: Oh man, this part was truly enlightening, especially from 2016 through the present: people, especially those in positions of power who are accustomed to being prioritized (even if they don’t realize they’re accustomed to it) really dislike things and ideas that challenge the beliefs that serve as the foundation for their elevated status. Discomfort is the root of pretty much all book bans. Discomfort with who the books are about. Discomfort with what the books might reveal. Discomfort with the possibility of being wrong. Discomfort with the notion of uncertainty or loss of control. Those with power wield it mightily when it comes to what their children may or may not be exposed to in school. And it’s such a curious thing to me… Like take the pushback against books that mention or discuss human chattel slavery in America. Nobody alive today owned slaves. So why is there so much opposition to learning about people who did and seeing/believing the documentation that supports slavery’s existence?

What do you hear from young readers about Dear Justyce and Dear Martin?

NS: My favorite thing to hear is “I’ve never read a whole book before, but I couldn’t put this one down and now I need more to read.” I may not single-handedly obliterate racism and all of the nasty little ideologies that spring from it, but creating the catalyst for a young person seeking out literature and beginning to engage with it is more than enough for me.

What do you need to say that I’ve not asked about?

NS: Just that I really do believe we’re on the right track. It’s really easy to get disillusioned at times like these when the world is very much on fire and it seems like we’re fighting a losing battle. But the (figurative) night truly is the darkest just before the dawn, and if history tells us anything, it’s that great change requires great upheaval. Let us not be deterred from humanizing ourselves and others, and staying open and vulnerable to that shared humanity. It’s the only way forward.

Nic, thanks for taking the time to speak out and speak up here, and always! I wish you all the best