Nic Stone wants young people of color to see themselves on the page. Growing up, she did not see writers who looked like her, and now wants young readers and writers to know that their stories matter.
Her bestselling debut Dear Martin was born in response to a specific political narrative blasted across news media whenever an unarmed black teenager is killed: Maybe we wouldn’t see so many young black men slain by police if these kids weren’t in the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes at the wrong time.
Using highly empathetic young characters, Stone directly combats that narrative to show it as unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst.
“My goal was to dismantle the myth that if you are doing everything right, nothing bad will happen to you,” she says. “Every time a black boy is killed you see that argument come out all over the place — there are so many reasons (given) that a black boy’s death is his own fault and often those reasons are the notions of stereotypes.”
Enter Justyce McAllister, a 17-year-old African American honor student and debate team captain on his way to Yale. Justyce plays by the rules that his Atlanta private school — full of privilege, opportunity, wealth and mostly people who don’t look like him — and society set for him, but the finish line keeps getting pushed further away.
After being profiled and falsely arrested, Justyce embarks on a social experiment to emulate his hero, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Writing letters to King, Justyce explores and analyzes the racism he faces daily through the lens of civil disobedience asking himself in diary entries, “What would Martin do?”
Justyce is particularly compelled by King’s definition of integration, which throughout the book, he comes to understand as more than just the elimination of segregation. If true integration by King’s own definition is “inter-group and interpersonal living,” Justyce can’t help but wonder why more people in school don’t look like him.
He still faces daily discrimination by classmates who claim to be “colorblind.” He still feels like he doesn’t belong in either of his separate worlds as he attempts to straddle both — he knows he’s seen as a “sellout” to his childhood friends and neighbors and as “the token black kid” and affirmative action beneficiary in the eyes of his mostly white classmates. And worst of all (*story spoiler*), he now lives with the permanent echo of police brutality that left him with a gunshot wound and killed his best friend.
No matter what rules Justyce plays by, he can’t win.
This book is for everyone. It’s for teachers who want a book palatable to young people who both have and have not faced discrimination. It’s for young people who feel like they don’t belong. It’s for adults and teenagers alike who grapple with what seems like never-ending police brutality and wonder how it keeps getting excused away in our political narrative. It’s for those who relate to the police perspective, but want to understand a young black man’s experience, too.
Stone puts us smack in the shoes of a teenager who — on top of dealing with normal teen stuff like young love, changing and challenged friendships, grades and college applications — knows what it’s like to face the pistol of a police officer and live to tell about it. Through Justyce, Stone illuminates the all-too-common aftermath narrative that is largely spun by people who weren’t there and likely never will be.
And for the forthcoming sequel, Stone plans to focus on the flip side of the story — the kid who doesn’t get access to private school education and takes a different path. “I want to look at that kid as well because they are just as worthy and just as needing, if not more needing, of our empathy and our compassion as the kid who’s doing well,” she said. “And honestly, books are the best way for people to have the opportunity to experience the life of someone else.”
Nic Stone will appear on the panel, “Hope (Nation) and Other Four-Letter Words,” at 10:45 a.m. at Galloway Sanctuary. Other panelists include Rose Brock, Becky Albertalli, Julie Murphy, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon.