In a photo studio high above midtown Manhattan, five of the most accomplished new voices in young adult fiction have gathered. While getting glammed up, Tomi Adeyemi, Akwaeke Emezi, Elizabeth Acevedo, Angie Thomas, and Nic Stone chat about everything from preferred moisturizers to career updates, the latter of which there are several. Only yesterday, Emezi’s Pet was named a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature—a prize Acevedo nabbed the previous year with The Poet X. Stone was gearing up to release three new books (Jackpot, Clean Getaway, and Shuri). Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which reportedly landed her a seven-figure deal, was being adapted by Fox 2000/Lucasfilm. And Thomas’s The Hate U Give was holding strong at or near the top of the New York Times Young Adult Hardcover Best Sellers list (141 weeks and counting).
The room is buzzing with laughter and mutual admiration, but also solemnity. After all, less than a decade ago, such a scene might have been hard to imagine. An annual study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 94 were about black people. The late Walter Dean Myers, who’d written over 100 books about young people of color, took the publishing industry to task in a Times op-ed: “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?… There is work to be done.” In the years since, to the benefit of all young readers, that work is being done: In 2018, those numbers nearly quadrupled. And the authors in this room—and countless more outside of it—are just getting started. “[Growing up], I was always searching for brown girls and black girls in literature that felt like they were written with love,” Acevedo says. Here, she and four of her peers share their influences, their creative process, and the very real impact of representation.
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Expertly weaving together West African mythology with current social justice themes, Tomi Adeyemi’s blockbuster debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, follows a teen on a quest to restore magic to her homeland after a ruthless king kills her mother. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon named it the show’s inaugural summer book-club pick, Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) was tapped to direct the film version, and early profiles wondered, “Is Tomi Adeyemi the new J. K. Rowling?”
Meanwhile, the second title in her Legacy of Orïsha trilogy, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, continues to build upon the hype. Summing up the sustained frenzy surrounding her work, the 26-year-old San Diego–based author says, “It’s very surreal.”
In spite of the intensity of the whirlwind—or perhaps because of it—Adeyemi wants to be perfectly frank. “A lot of authenticity comes from laziness, where I don’t have the energy to pretend,” she explains. Naturally, a slew of young writers are now looking to Adeyemi for tips on the creative process, and here, she makes a point of being equally candid about the most crucial step: revision. “The number one thing I tell people is, ‘Yo, my books are bad for a long-ass time.’ But my theory is, no matter what you do, you have a lot of shit to wade through, so you might as well be doing something you love.”
But before she even began wading through the many drafts, a literal downpour helped inspire the world of Orïsha. While visiting Salvador, Brazil, on a research trip, Adeyemi ducked into a gift shop to stay dry. There she saw a postcard with an illustration of a West African deity, and the entire world of Blood and Bone emerged “almost fully formed” in her head, she says. “When I try to make representation quantifiable, it’s like, ‘Let me show you the income I’m generating from seeing myself in a gift shop by chance.’”
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While working as an eighth grade english teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Elizabeth Acevedo fielded a question from a student that made her think differently about the poetry she’d been writing for most of her life: “Where are the books that sound and look like us?”
“Here was an opportunity to give this child a book, something she could carry in her book bag,” says Acevedo, 31. ”Something she could refer back to even if I wasn’t in the room.” Acevedo quickly got to work—not just plugging away at the novel in verse that would become The Poet X, but scouring the internet to learn about the nuts and bolts of the publishing world. “I started going to conferences and just paying attention—following other authors, and being like, ‘Okay, let me demystify this for myself.’ ”
Needless to say, her research paid off. The Poet X considers, with unflinching focus, what it means to step into womanhood as a young person of color, and the feelings of shame and confusion that often come along with it. It has been a fixture on the New York Times Young Adult Best Sellers list and has won numerous awards. But even more meaningful are the many emails Acevedo receives from readers with messages like, “You wrote me down.”
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While Acevedo is undoubtedly a publishing success story—her third novel, Clap When You Land, arrives May 5—she’s looking forward to a day when work like hers is the rule and not the exception. “We need more writers of color who are given space beyond their first book,” she says. “We need more editors, copy editors, graphic designers. It has to be across the industry, from the marketer to the publicist. If it’s just writers, the creativity is there, but the machines behind them that get these books into the spaces they need to be in—mindfully—will be lacking.”
Link to the rest at Elle