Education

‘Dear Martin’ Author Shares Her Story With Students

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Author Nic Stone remembers when she lost interest in reading.

An avid reader through middle school, her interest waned with the books she was told she had to read, which didn’t represent her perspectives as a black young woman.

“I wasn’t in them in any way, shape or form,” she recalled.

Stone, whose works include New York Times bestsellers “Dear Martin” and “Odd One Out,” addressed an audience of 75 students and members of the general public Tuesday at the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County’s Newport Library. It was one of two presentations by Stone as part of the Public Library’s Black History Month programming, her second taking place in the afternoon at the Campbell high School auditorium.

During the program, which lasted about 80 minutes, Stone offered brief remarks but mostly fielded questions from the audience in the branch’s large meeting room. During her presentation, she covered topics ranging from her published and upcoming works to the mechanics of writing.

“I write my books for you,” she told the students. “For me, the most important thing is you don’t experience what I did when I was in high school.”

The Atlanta native, who engaged her audience throughout the program, drew laughs early with her comments on the far cooler Mahoning Valley climate. “We don’t do adolescent temperatures in Georgia,” she joked. Along with being a reader, Stone told the audience she was a “compulsive liar” as a child, a combination that signals a future as a storyteller, she said.

“That is what storytelling is: knowing how to put a sentence together and telling really excellent lies,” she said. “I like to tell people that I get paid a pretty significant amount of money to make things up.”

As a kid, Stone’s favorite book series were “Encyclopedia Brown” and “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle,” she said, and she was “hooked” by the Harry Potter books when the first one came out while she was in seventh grade. However, during grades eight through 12, she read three books in school that had black characters, all of whom were male and “didn’t exactly get the best endings,” she said. Reading changed from something she enjoyed to something she had to do.

It was during a 2008 trip to Israel that Stone discovered she needed to be a storyteller, she said. There she encountered a family with a daughter a year younger than her who wanted to go to England to pursue her education. Because she was a resident of the West Bank and “had no country of citizenship,” she was unable to get a passport. Interacting with the young woman and her family opened her eyes to the number of stories that she hadn’t heard, leading her to think that if she wasn’t hearing them perhaps she needed to tell them.

“She was kind of the spark that relit my ‘liar fire,’ as I call it and made me want to tell stories,” she said.

Stone finally wrote her first novel for young adults four years later. She was inspired by the Divergent series of books by Veronica Roth because, unlike other dystopian novels and series, it was “the first series I ever read where the black character lives all the way through the end.”

Her book, which she characterized as a “trash fire,” was about a biracial girl who glowed in the dark and featured “every fantasy trope known to man,” including a forbidden romance and a prophecy. Despite the book being “terrible,” it helped Stone land her first literary agent.

Stone wrote “Dear Martin” in response to a series of racially charged incidents including the 2014 shooting of an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown Jr., by a white police officer.

“I really wrote it for my sons,” she said. “I have two little boys and I wanted to explore systemic racism through the young black male lens.”.

The young adult, or YA, book tells the story of Justyce McAllister, a black student at the top of his class attending a predominantly white prep school. Following a “really traumatic experience with racial profiling,” McAllister begins a journal of letters to the late Martin Luther King Jr. to explore whether the slain civil rights icon’s teachings hold up in the 21st century, Stone said.

“I wanted to dig into this myth of respectability,” she said. “There is always a reason that a black kid’s death is his own fault, so I decided I was going to create a character who does nothing wrong. He is as upstanding as upstanding can be. … He is just doing all of the things that we’re told that we’re supposed to do to be respectable, but that does not make him exempt.”

In the United States, race is something people are willing to talk about, which “puts us ahead” of other places around the world, she added.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to people being willing to be wrong and being willing to examine the things that they think and believe without realizing they think and believe them, which is why I write the books that I do,” she said. “It’s important to stimulate critical thinking and get people looking at things maybe from a different perspective.”

“Odd One Out” is “a little more personal to me than ‘Dear Martin’,” she said. The book is about three high-school students attempting to navigate the intersections of friendship and love, and to figure out who it is OK to love. “It’s a book that I desperately needed when I was in high school,” she said.

Her upcoming books include “Jackpot,” which comes out in September, and a sequel to “Dear Martin.”

“Jackpot” follows a young woman working as a gas station clerk who attempts to track down the woman to whom she sold a winning lottery ticket worth $106 million. “I’m hoping that that book will also get people thinking a little bit more about income inequality and what we can do to remedy it,” she said.

“Dear Justyce,” due out in October 2020, follows the story of Quan, a character from “Dear Martin” who is incarcerated and awaiting trial on murder charges.

“I wanted to do a book about the black boy that everybody is afraid of,” she said.

Stone hadn’t intended a sequel to “Dear Martin” but was talked into it by her publisher, she said. “I’m glad they talked me into it because as I work on this story it’s a story that needs to be told,” she said. She also said writing has made her much more compassionate and empathetic.

Stone offered several pieces of advice to anyone who wants to write for a living. The first was to “be OK with rejection because there is going to be a lot of it,” she said.

The second was to write, something a lot of aspiring writers don’t do, often because they want what they write to be perfect, she pointed out.

“Every first draft is terrible,” she advised. “The whole point of the first draft is to get the clay on the wheel.” She also told them to read as much as they can.

Alex Harper, assistant supervisor for the Public Library’s Newport Unit, said she saw Stone speak in New York. She said she had never seen an author who was as personable as Stone but also “brings a voice” to black teens in the area, which is part of what Project LIT Youngstown is about.

“What I really want to do is get teens interested in reading again because a lot of them don’t do that,” Harper said. “A lot of that is due to not being able to see themselves in books.”

Sekou Stanley Jr. and Katie Murray, students at Valley Christian School who attended the program, were impressed with the author.

“It was really inspiring,” said Stanley, a sophomore form Youngstown. “She was talking about real-life situations and addressing them.”

“She was so open with us. There was no topic that was off limits,” added Murray, a ninth-grader from Austintown.

Jocelyn Dabney, a storyteller and retired high-school librarian from Youngstown, also said she enjoyed Stone’s talk.

“She really grasps young people today,” she said. “She addressed a lot of issues that are in the African-American community that I’m not sure the general population knows about.”

Pictured: Nic Stone is an author of Young Adult novels, including “Dear Martin” published in October 2017.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.