This fall, New York Times best-selling author of young adult fiction, Nic Stone, dropped the highly anticipated follow-up to her 2017 novel, Dear Martin. Dear Justyce tells the story of an incarcerated teen through a series of letters addressed to Dear Martin‘s protagonist, Justyce, while giving a voice to the thousands of teens who are in the American juvenile justice system. We talked to Stone about both novels and the messages she wants readers to take away.
MadameNoire: Congratulations on Dear Justyce. I teach middle school and Dear Martin was always a favorite — especially among reluctant readers.
Nic Stone: Thank you! I definitely write specifically for kids who don’t realize that they like to read.
MN: Tell me about Dear Justyce.
Nic Stone: In Dear Martin, Justyce is racially profiled by a police officer in the opening chapter and in the second chapter we find out that the police officer has been killed. The person who confesses to the murder is a young man who Justyce grew up with named Quan. We meet Quan in the second half of Dear Martin. Justyce visits him in the detention center where he is being held until trial. Dear Justyce is actually a book that follows Quan’s life. We see him as a kid. We see him as a teen and then we see him so of wind up on this road where he ends up in detention on a gun charge. The whole goal of Dear Justyce was to give a different perspective than the one in Dear Martin. I honestly got sick of white teachers coming up to me at conferences and saying things like, ‘Justyce is the kind of Black boy that other Black boys should strive to be like.’ It was so frustrating because it showed complete and utter ignorance of the fact that Justyce had opportunities that a lot of Black boys don’t get and I definitely meet far more Quans than Justyces. This was my attempt to kind of level the playing field a bit.
MN: That was actually going to be my next question. I haven’t read Dear Justyce yet, but there’s a very stark juxtaposition between Quan and Justyce. It’s highly relevant to the Black experience because of this perception of “good” Black boys vs “bad” Black boys. Was this intentional?
Nic Stone: Yeah, I actually had a pair of mentees who have sine outgrown me. One has gone to college and the other is actually locked up right now. I met them when they were sophomores in high school. They’re both boys out in Columbia, Missouri and when they were sixteen, this was like a year and a half after Dear Martin, I got these messages from them basically asking me if I would write Dear Justyce. As much as they loved Dear Martin, they didn’t really feel like that book and Justyce’s experience reflected theirs. One of them said to me, you’re our voice. There’s no not replying to something like that.
MN: In a previous interview, you mentioned a book editor who wouldn’t bid on The Hate U Give because they felt that Black kids don’t read. As someone who teaches literacy to Black children, it was hurtful. People like to talk about test scores and achievement gaps while placing the ownership on the shoulders of Black children and then you have situations like this where people in publishing don’t even want to publish books for Black children.
Nic Stone: They don’t care and it was revelatory. For me, as a person who loved to read as a kid, and I struggled to find books with me in it. Well, now I know why. You have assholes out here like we’re not going to publish these books because Black kids don’t read. It’s very frustrating, but what I can say is that there are absolutely publishers who see that Black children exist, that they have value, and know that that child will pick up a book and read if you give them something to read about. They don’t want to read about the white girl who falls in love with her neighbor over the summer. I don’t want to read about that either and as a fifteen or sixteen-year-old, that wouldn’t interest me at all. I think publishing is really starting to realize that being driven by numbers and money isn’t really the best thing when dealing with books and children. I’m really glad that that is starting to shift.
MN: So as an author and mom, I have to ask what your boys are reading these days? Do you have mandatory reading lists for them or are they free to choose?
Nic Stone: It’s a combination for me. My 4-year-old is learning to read. He has a reading tutor, which is probably a little ridiculous. I should probably let him learn at his own pace, but I’m like, ‘No, you’re going to have tutoring twice a week until you learn how to read.’ He has his books that he asks for right now and then there are books that I give him. His favorite book series right now is Grumpy Monkey. He is the grumpiest little creature so it makes sense. He’s just obsessed. My older son, he’s into all of the Jeff Kinney stuff, The Bad Guys, The Last Kids on Earth — all of these really cool graphic-chapter book hybrids. I just need more Black people writing them. I need some Black people so that he can be exposed to people who look like him doing it, but I think we will get there. Then, sometimes, I’ll make him read some of the heavier stuff.