Nic Stone, best-selling young adult author, says she never saw characters like herself in books growing up. That’s why she’s on a mission to make sure every child feels represented by the books on their bookshelf. Her latest book, Dear Justyce, tells the story of a Black boy who ends up in juvenile detention after confessing to the murder of a police officer. Plus, Nic shares her #1 piece of parenting advice. “I think that the best thing that we can do for our children is to create in them a desire for awareness,” she says. “And I’m not just talking about awareness of the world and how the world functions, but also an awareness of themselves, an awareness of their emotions, an awareness of other human beings and their emotions.”
You can follow Nic Stone on Instagram @nicstone or on Twitter @getnicced.
Interested in learning more about Nic and what she does? Check out the links below:
- Buy Nic’s latest book, Dear Justyce, here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/594995/dear-justyce-by-nic-stone/.
- Read Nic’s 2018 Huffington Post article ‘To Be Black And #Woke Is To Be In A Rage All The Time:’ https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-mike-brown-rage-racism_n_5b6992cee4b0de86f4a52959.
- Listen to Scott Simon’s recent interview with Nic Stone on NPR’s Weekend Edition: https://www.npr.org/2020/09/26/917185916/nic-stone-discusses-her-new-childrens-novel-dear-justyce.
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[00:01:09] Hello, I am Nic Stone, and you are listening to Good Kids. I am an author and I write books and essays and articles and things of that sort. Today, I want to talk about the importance of awareness both in our lives as adults and also in the lives of our children. So I grew up mostly in Atlanta, partially in Kansas City, Kansas. Oddly enough, I don’t think people even know there’s a Kansas City, Kansas. But honestly, those Kansas City, Kansas years were super formative for me because we were living with my grandmother. And Kansas was a place that I first encountered actual white people on a daily basis.
[00:02:10] I grew up in Atlanta in Stone Mountain and Decatur. But I was always surrounded by black people, other black people. I can’t remember a single white student. I do remember one white student in like my first four years of elementary school. But then we moved to Kansas and I encountered whiteness as a concept for the first time. And I was very conscious of it, even at like seven years old. So then we come back to Georgia in fifth grade and I test into the gifted program and all of a sudden I am surrounded by people who do not look like me. There is a Huffington Post article that I wrote really rooted in this James Baldwin quote, “to be Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.”
[00:03:12] And the thing about that quote is like no truer words were ever spoken. I think what’s interesting is like there is no choice in the matter. If you are an African-American person and you do not bury your head in the sand — because that is a thing that’s possible, you can decide to shut out everything. We each get the opportunity to choose what we’re going to believe, so if you’re a person who decides to believe something different and you’re deciding that you don’t want to believe that racism is the thing, you do not want to attribute some of your struggles to systemic oppression, cool. I’m not one of those people. It’s important for me to examine history and to look at all of the ways that pieces of policy and ideology have come together to create a status quo that puts people like me at a disadvantage.
[00:04:07] And I remember for me, that point was probably in fifth grade on the playground at recess. I had a friend, she was a first generation American. Her parents were from Ghana and she was very dark-skinned. And I heard someone make fun of her skin. And I was just so angry. And I knew that there was something to it that I couldn’t pinpoint. Like, obviously, it was race. It’s race and racism. The idea of somebody making fun of a person for being dark-skinned is rooted in racist ideas. But I didn’t know exactly what that was. If I’d had this quote, I think it would have made a little bit more sense to me.
[00:04:52] I have two black boys that came out of my body. My older son right now is eight years old and my younger son is four. My older son is lighter skinned, and he’s the spitting image of his biracial father. And my younger son is literally me in like a little boy body. He looks exactly like me. But they also exist in these male bodies that are frequently targeted. The most important thing for me when it comes to my boys is helping them to recognize that, yes, the world is garbage when it comes to the way that you are treated. However, you are not garbage and you don’t have to believe anything that anybody says about you. You get to decide what you believe about yourself. You get to decide what kind of magic you want to bring into the world. And if the world is still as awful and racist as it is now in like 15 or 20 years, you’re still going to have to make those decisions about how you want to present yourself with it.
[00:09:04] I remember watching, like, The Cosby Show. I knew that there were black doctors and lawyers and that they had like a whole gaggle of kids and that those kids were really funny and interacted on TV. But when it came to books, the books that I was reading at that point were like Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and everything Louis Sachar wrote, so all the Wayside School books. I was reading Beverly Cleary, I was reading Judy Blume and none of those books had me in them. So there was almost this awareness that the world was not made for me in a way. And that did absolutely come from schooling. It came from the things that we learned in school. It came from the type of things we were taught. It came from the books we were told we had to read. When you’re told, here’s the book list for the year, and none of those books that you have to read for school, which is a place that you have to excel in order to get ahead in life, if school is giving you stuff that you’re not in, you start to wonder if you actually exist. And so there was this awareness of this type of person I see in these books as being the standard for all things. And people like me not being there at all.
[00:10:28] So eight through twelfth grade, I encountered three African-American characters in books. One was Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird. Certainly didn’t want his life. One who is Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, definitely didn’t want his life. And the third was Crooks from of Mice and Men. And most people don’t even realize he — if you talk to somebody about whether or not they read of Mice and Men and you ask that they remember Crooks, most people are going to say, no, he was such a minor character, which again, don’t really want to imitate his life. It took me being in my late 20s, mid to late 20s, before I saw a book or read a book series that was actually a series that I felt like I could actually identify with. And this is after having read most of Toni Morrison’s catalog. I’ve read Alice Walker. I’ve read Ralph Ellison. I’ve read Zora Neale Hurston. I’ve read all of these amazing — I went to an HBCU, I went to Spelman College, which is this all-Black female school. So we were reading the books with us in them. The only thing was the books with us in them were all published like in the mid-20th century, and they featured characters who looked like me but who were not living a life remotely similar to mine.
[00:11:49] Like, of course, there are always similarities between what black characters were going through in the 1950s and what black characters would be going through now, because while some things have changed, a lot of things haven’t. But it took me reading the Divergent series by Veronica Roth — it was the first book series I ever read where the black character lived all the way through the end of the series. I’d never read a book, and especially never read a book series, where the character that I could genuinely identify with survives the whole thing. And it was that that moment that something switched for me and I came to realize I can exist in these spaces and I can place myself into the spaces that I don’t exist. And so I decided that I was going to write a book in the vein of what was popular at that point. So I wrote this like semi-paranormal-urban-ish — I call it a suburban fantasy because it’s like a fantasy that takes place in more of a suburb than like an urban setting — about a black girl who glowed in the dark. And it had every possible fantasy trope that you can come up with crammed into this one book. But it took me writing that book and finishing it, despite the fact that it will likely never see the light of day in a publishing sense, finishing that book and recognizing that this was something that I can do is what made me decide this is what I’m going to do. I am going to create the books that I did not have so that kids who are like me will have them. So that they won’t be 28 years old and seeing themselves in a book for the first time. And they won’t have to kind of go through this whole identity crisis in college because they have no idea who they are. I think that we underestimate the amount of identity formation that happens as a result of reading books.
[00:13:52] So having the opportunity now to tell the stories that I didn’t get to have is so, so powerful. And it is definitely not a thing I take for granted. Dear Justice is a book that was super hard to write. But it’s a book about a kid in juvenile detention after confessing to the murder of a police officer. And in it, you’re seeing kind of what this kid’s life has been like and how he got to this place where he is. And I was able to craft this narrative by visiting juvenile detention centers and going in and sitting down with these kids and sitting on their cell blocks and listening to them cuss and bicker and like me kind of jumping in there, too. So they would know I was safe. These kids know they’re not being exposed to anything that they’re not ready for because they live in the world that this stuff is pulled from. And I think that it’s important that we give them that credit, like we give them the credit for being able to handle these things because they have to face them every day, especially kids of color. These black kids not out here worried about conversations about racism. They’re desperate for them. They want to talk about these things because these are things that affect them. So as long as I am writing, I will be making sure that I write books that young people will be willing to engage with, because I do recognize the importance of having literature that reflects the world around you so you can figure out how to position yourself.
[00:15:32] I think that the best thing that we can do for our children is to create in them a desire for awareness. And I’m not just talking about awareness of the world and how the world functions, but also an awareness of themselves and awareness of their emotions and awareness of other human beings and their emotions. And awareness of the things that makes them happy. The things that make them sad. I think that self-awareness and others’ awareness, those are things that aren’t as valued as I think they should be. So making sure that our children are aware of as many things as they can be aware of, but especially of themselves is the most important thing that I think we can do for them. And that’s what I aim to do in my work.
[00:16:49] Good Kids is a Lemonada Media original. Supervising producer is Kryssy Pease, associate producer is Alex McOwen. And Kegan Zema is our engineer. The show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music is by Dan Molad, with additional music courtesy of APM Music. Check us out on social @LemonadaMedia. Recommend us to a friend, and rate and reviews us wherever you listen to the podcast. If you want to submit a show idea, e-mail us at hey@LemonadaMedia.com. Until next week, stay good.