Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

The Whitening of Voodoo in YA Literature

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On November - 10 - 2013
ThisWickedGame Cover The Whitening of Voodoo in YA Literature

Copyright Dial Books

I’m obsessed with all things voodoo, and even more so, hoodoo, but that’s a separate topic for another blog post. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading anything and everything about it, especially books that used it as the foundation for the magic in their worlds. I was in love with voodoo because I was inundated with the western image of witchcraft, religion, and spirituality. Many books that feature witches pull their magical traditions and world-building from pagan European traditions. I loved those witches, but I didn’t find many brown ones as a young reader. I wanted to be included. So the use of voodoo, voodoo priestesses, and magic extrapolated from voudon or vodou, excited me. It’s from Africa. I found it refreshing to see something that reflected people who looked like me and encompassed many of my cultural values, whether it be superstitions or beliefs about my ancestors.

From this season’s American Horror Story: Coven to the CW’s spin-off show The Originals set in New Orleans, voodoo is showing up on TV, and trickling into the publishing industry. There has been a surge in voodoo appearing in YA Literature over the past few years. Two titles have come to my attention lately: Michelle Zink’s This Wicked Game and Kiki Sullivan’s The Dolls.

As a middle school librarian, author, and literary development co-founder of CAKE Literary, I consider myself a stakeholder in the children’s/YA book community, and I have been keeping my eye out for these books. And honestly, as a member of an American subculture, I watch for titles that present aspects of my culture or representation of black iconography in YA and children’s fiction. I always hope that the books do the traditions justice. But there’s always a nagging worry that the traditions will be trampled in the name of entertainment and universal marketability.

I was excited to read Michelle Zink’s This Wicked Game because I’ve read a few of her other books, and enjoyed her Prophecy of the Sisters trilogy. Her writing is smart, clean, and compelling. Plus, I am a librarian that needs diverse titles to serve a diverse student body.

The plot in a nutshell (SPOILERS AHEAD): Set in New Orleans, Claire is apathetic about Voodoo, despite being the great-great-granddaughter of voodoo queen Marie Laveau through her father’s side. This birthright ensures her membership to “The Guild”, a voodoo society that her parents are members of. One day when a woman orders a restricted item from the family shop—panther plasma, used to kill people—she alerts her parents. Her parents immediately whisk her off to her first Guild meeting with the other families.

Claire reports what happens, and learns that two more restricted orders were placed in the shop. Also, Claire has been dating Xander in secret. He is the son of the most prominent Guild family. The two of them start investigating the mystery, and break into the house of the woman who ordered the black plasma. Inside they find a photograph of the Guild members marked with Xs on some of the faces. The Xs connect with Guild families who have suffered from recent break-ins in their houses. Rooms had been ransacked for personal objects. Xander’s house is also broken into.

Claire notices the identical photograph at her house, but a man has been cut out of the photograph. Xander and Claire get together with Sasha and Allegra, who are two other prominent first-born Guild members. They decide to locate the exiled Crazy Eddie. They venture out to the seedy outskirts to find the old man. Crazy Eddie has been anticipating their arrival via his visions. Xander has also been having dreams and visions of Claire being sacrificed, and he’s been unable to help her. Crazy Eddie divulges past Guild secrets. He tells them all about Maximilian, the absent man from the photograph, and the details about his expulsion from the Guild. Claire’s great-great-grandma was anti-black magic, and rejected Maximilian from using the Cold Blood spell to save his dying child. In true villain fashion, Maximilian did it anyway and swore revenge against the Guild if his little girl died. She did die.

FX AHS ImageGallery 0000 24 The Whitening of Voodoo in YA Literature

Copyright FX Networks

To counteract Max’s desire to use black magic, Claire’s great-great grandma spoke to the gods. She also assured that the spell would not work, as well as made an addition to the spell that required a special ingredient that Maximilian would be unable to get. She also did a counter spell. The teens put together all of these details because one of the grandmother’s journals was stolen. They point to Maximilian as the one responsible for the break-ins, and somehow found the addendum to the spell. They believe that he is plotting revenge on the Guild’s first-born children. Claire uses voodoo magic, and is able to watch her great-great-grandma in a dream as she writes the Cold Blood spell and the counter spell. Claire tells the crew and they band together to perform the spell and block Maximilian. Before they can complete their task, Claire is taken by Maximilian and Eugenia, the woman from the very beginning who wanted to buy the black panther plasma. They prepare for a voodoo sacrifice and start to bleed Claire. This harkens back to everyone’s visions — and her blood ends up being the essential spell ingredient. Xander, the rest of the teens, and Crazy Eddie rescue Claire just in time and enact the counter spell. Like magic, Claire is able to chant the right spell and call on the gods. The spell washes away her fear. In the end, she wakes up in the hospital and finds out that the others alerted their parents and the Guild. The police came, but Maximilian — of course to probably set up for a sequel — escaped. Claire feels better about voodoo and the belief system, and is more enthralled with her boyfriend Xander.


FULL DISCLOSURE: I am being selfish in what I wanted from this book.

First and foremost, I am a writer and would never want to be told what to write. I fully support creative expression and freedom. Write what you want, and if you’re not writing what you know — research. Furthermore, if you’re writing about the cultural traditions of a group of people outside of your own, make smart choices and think of the people who belong to those groups. Honor them! Be responsible and sensitive. I won’t assume that Michelle Zink isn’t Creole or doesn’t have African ancestry or ties to voodoo.

Whether she is connected to the community or not, why not make her main character reflect the heart of the voodoo tradition? In a YA publishing world that produces a massive number of books that feature white girls as lead characters, why not change it up and make this character reflect the heart of voodoo — black? Why neglect this opportunity?

Did she think it would alienate her readers or her base? Was she insecure about writing a black character? She wrote the black male love lead Xander.

t voodoo The Whitening of Voodoo in YA Literature

New Orleans Voodoo Tarot Deck

Instead, Claire’s dad was African-American and a descendant of Marie Laveau (this famous voodoo queen was of mixed heritage and believed to be the daughter of a black woman and a white planter, as well as her daughter Marie Laveau II). Claire’s mother is a white woman, so it isn’t unlikely that she would/could be a blonde girl without many traces of the markings of African ancestry. New Orleans is a wonderful stew of cultures, which creates a fantastic mix of people, food, and traditions. The history of the city is complicated by these racial implications and cultural mixing. Voodoo is influenced by it as well. I wish the book pushed boundaries, and took the rich traditions of the city and its various cultures to explore, alongside her elaborate plot. Instead people are barely described. Their races and cultural iconography are missing. The flavor of their language and world-views are absent. Claire Kincaid reads like a white girl (I realize this statement is multi-faceted, inflammatory, and deserves it’s own post). Her black father and his link to Marie Laveau felt convenient, and like an accessory to the novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy her connection to this heritage. I didn’t feel it inside Claire or her thoughts, feelings, reactions, etc.

Mara Brock Akil, an American TV writer and producer said something that struck me: “My work is driven by my belief that the human spirit needs validation. It starts from the moment we’re born, and yet we’re born into a country whose greatest exports are images… Everywhere we turn — museums, TV, movies, magazines, and books — we’ll see beauty reflected. Unless you’re black, and a girl.” Her words stuck with me and made me think of this book because I selfishly wished the author validated those missing girls from YA fiction who are the darker faces of voodoo. The faces that brought this complex tradition over on slave ships.

I realize this is a lot to ask of someone. I realize that it is selfish. I realize that I have no right to tell someone what to write. I realize that in a nutshell, I am calling Michelle Zink a cultural appropriator or accusing her of making poor decisions in terms of her use of voodoo. Yet still, I wished that she (and her publisher Dial) made better decisions when tapping into a vast and rich cultural tradition attached to a marginalized group that has had a long history with cultural appropriation for profit. If it weren’t for this history, I think this issue wouldn’t be so loaded. And let me be clear for the Goodreads trolls or Internet bullies coming my way, I do not think that white people can’t or don’t practice voodoo. It’s like the same as a white person owning a taco stand. It happens. It’s fine. Those tacos are probably freaking delicious. This is a great benefit of living in a multicultural society. I just wish when authors use voodoo that they honor it by having practitioners reflect the tradition’s African roots. If kids of color only get a fixed number of books written from their cultural traditions a year/their POVs, wouldn’t it be nice if some of them featured characters who looked like them?

Another book that is coming out through a packager The Story Foundation is Kiki Sullivan’s The Dolls. In Publisher’s Marketplace the book is pitched as:

Kiki Sullivan’s THE DOLLS, pitched as Pretty Little Liars meets True Blood, in which a girl returns to her tiny Louisiana bayou hometown only to discover that she is the powerful missing link in a trio of voodoo queens who rule the town – and the gifts she’s inherited may be tied to her mother’s death years before, to Sara Sargent at Balzer & Bray, in a two-book deal, by Holly Root at Waxman Leavell Literary Agency on behalf of The Story Foundation. (NA).

This much I can guess about the novel if the current trend of whitewashing voodoo continues:

(1) The protagonist is another white girl

(2) The voodoo queens are each from a different racial group — one black girl and another white girl (most likely — might have some Spanish or Native American ancestry to reflect old racial groups from colonial New Orleans)

(3) There’s an attractive black male love interest who looks mixed (fair skin, maybe light eyes)

Voodoo is fun and interesting. I get it. People want to incorporate it into their worlds. Go for it. But think about it’s roots and history. Think about the people who came from those traditions. Don’t leave them out or relegate them to side-kick characters when really it’s their story to tell. Give those characters an opportunity as well.




Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown Librarian

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On February - 19 - 2013

 Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown LibrarianDear John Green*,

After watching your fireside chat with President Obama, I got inspired to write you a letter. I am a middle school librarian at Harlem Village Academies in East Harlem, New York, and an up and coming MG/YA writer represented by the lovely Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider/ICM. My library has several copies of all of your books, and they stay in constant circulation with my students. I was first introduced to you as an author in David Levithan’s Teen Lit course in my MFA in Writing for Children program at The New School. We read Looking for Alaska, and your prose, your characters, and the heart of the novel blew the class away.

There’s no denying it. You’re great!

I don’t need to tell you that you’re an awesome storyteller and that the stories you tell connect with millions and millions of readers. You’re a New York Times bestselling author, and what you write turns to gold!

I just have a question for you: Why is there a lack of racial diversity in your work?

Granted, I know that it’s probably unfair of me to ask you this question. I am a writer and don’t want to ever be told what to write or to be questioned about what I choose to write, but after watching you with President Obama, I couldn’t help but think, Can Sasha or Malia find themselves in John Green’s books? Is there someone who looks like them in his universe? Would someone who looks like them ever be the main protagonist in one of his awesome novels?

A child or teen (or a person, really) can connect to anything if there’s a thread of universality present or an emotional core that transcends race or class or ethnicity or religion. I get that. I’ve experienced that. You’ve done that in your works.

But what’s sad is that I get questions like this from my students when they visit the library weekly:

“Why is the library filled with books about white teens?”

“Why is everyone in books white?”

“Why have I read every single book about kids like me?”

“Do any books with brown kids – besides Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – hit the New York Times best seller list?”

You might say that there’s no way my students are asking these types of questions. That I made them up to suit my open letter.

Come visit and see! Harlem Village Academies are full of the brightest young minds, kids who are challenged to read 50 books a year as a requirement to go from grade to grade. They devour everything I give them, and they ask a lot of insightful questions about life and the world. When you can’t find yourself in the books you’re told to read, it brings up a lot of thoughts and questions about the world of books.

You don’t have to care about these questions. You don’t have to think about them as you write, even.

But I wish that you would consider them. There’s a pervasive whiteness to the stories you write. I don’t mean to be inflammatory or rude in this observation, and I could call out a hundred other YA authors who do the same thing. I’d like to ask you about it though. Maybe whiteness is all you know. Maybe that’s what your life journey and upbringing has afforded you. Since we’re supposed to write what we know, maybe that’s what you’re doing. I can’t fault you for that. Your stories reflect an earned authenticity.

As a minority in this country, I have a different experience as you probably already know from countless other minorities shouting from rooftops or PC culture, etc. But the fact remains that I am surrounded by white people. My identity has formed in contrast or in conjunction with whiteness. I am/was/will always be the smudge. The stories I write will always be multicultural because that is my experience. I don’t have the luxury to write about an all-anything world because that isn’t reflective of where I come from. So white people and children will always be written into my stories. You don’t have to have this experience. But it has given me a sense of creative responsibility to write invisible teens and people into the YA book world.

Do you feel a sense of creative responsibility?

I don’t have a lick of fame, yet I feel this overwhelming sense that I need to do something meaningful and inclusive with my creative work. Maybe this is all a function of my identity as a minority and my upbringing as a person from an oppressed group. I don’t have an explanation for this. It’s a feeling that runs parallel to my aspirations.

I often argue with my adult writer friends about the topic of creative responsibility. We’re a semi-diverse, motley crew made up of the ladies who blog on TeenWritersBloc.com. At our biweekly critique meetings, we sometimes discuss TV shows. At one dinner a few weeks ago, we had a fruitful discussion about whether writer/producer Lena Dunham should have meaningful diversity on her HBO show Girls. I always bring up the fact that I think she should have minorities present on her show. It’s the same argument I’ve had about other shows in the past – Sex in the City, Friends, etc. Some of my writer friends, whom I love no matter what they believe, assert that it isn’t Lena Dunham’s responsibility, and bring up a great point about why white men aren’t pushed to include minorities, yet white women tend to be pushed to do so. I always posit the following question at the end of this never-ending conversation: Even given all of that, why not include them?

So I’ll posit the same question to you – Why not include racial minorities in your work? What’s the harm?

I know the publishing industry is very different from the TV/film industry, and one of the ugly rumors floating about is that books with minority teens don’t sell. Their faces on books alienate white readers and their white parents, who buy the books their kids read.

I just don’t know. It makes me sick to think about it being true. And it really isn’t your problem. It’s mine. It’s something that I will have to face as a writer who includes teens/children of color as main protagonists.

But your career makes me wonder if someone with your fame and clout could change the game. You’ve done it in so many different ways already. If you wrote a book about a non-white teen, would it explode like The Fault in Our Stars? Or would it be the one book you wrote that flopped and didn’t make all of those best teen books lists? Would your white fan base say the book isn’t for “them”? Would angry minorities come after you for writing a book from a non-white protagonist and earning money from it?

I don’t know.

I’d just like to challenge you to write a book with some color in it, or at least consider it. I know if anyone can do it, it’s you. Even if nothing comes of this letter, I’d love to start the conversation about the lack of diversity in teen books.

Happy Writing!

Dhonielle Clayton, a little brown librarian (and writer!)

*NERDfighters do not attack, put the lasers down, this open letter comes from a warm and fuzzy place, and I am a small, humble librarian who wants no trouble. I speak my words in peace. Thanks!

 A RANT: The End of the Year Best Teen/Kids Books Round Up Lists Lack One HUGE Thing    DIVERSITY!DISCLAIMER: This post is full of YA and MG blasphemy. Read at your own peril.

I hate it when the end of the year book lists or the best books of the year come out.


Publishers and agents love these lists if their authors are on them. It’s great press. And I’d be lying to say that I wouldn’t want to be on one of these lists one day. But these lists reveal something sad and ugly about the children’s and YA book market — it’s still lily white. The lack of racial diversity reflected on these lists is heartbreaking, disappointing, and above all, annoying. And I know many will say: “There’s more books written by minorities nowadays,” “There are more books featuring people of color,” or “Maybe the books written about minorities or for minorities aren’t that good,” and “Get off my soapbox!”

Here goes that black girl again, same complaint. That’s fine. I hear you. But I am still going to shout about it until it changes.

There aren’t enough books that make those lists that reflect diversity (and I am specifically looking at racial diversity versus other types). These lists show YA and MG’s dirty little secret — mainly white teenagers are written about.

If aliens were to use our libraries and bookstores as indicators of our society, and take a look at what the human offsprings are encouraged to read or what materials are celebrated, what would be reflected? What would they glean about our realities? Whose culture would they learn about? Who would be forgotten? What kind of children get to see their lives reflected on the page? Who is left out?

Earlier in the year NPR published the 100 best or favorite Teen Books. I was eager to see what they picked since I read exclusively children’s and teen books and I’m a teen book librarian.

I was appalled.

I was irritated.

I was disappointed.

There are only THREE titles on the list that feature people of color – Nancy Farmer’s The House of Scorpion (love this sci-fi book that takes place in a futuristic America near the border of Mexico, featuring a Mexican kid), Sandra Ciscernos’ The House on Mango Street, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 

Here’s my take:

Adult Classics (that happen to have a child or teen protagonist) Shouldn’t Be Included

I don’t think classics like To Kill A MockingbirdThe Hobbit or The Lord of the RingsFahrenheit 451, Dune, etc, should be included. These pop up on other lists — do they have to show up again? Put them somewhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I love these texts and think every teen should read them, but do they need to occupy a space on this particular list?

I don’t think so. These books aren’t even shelved in the teen section of any library or bookstore, so for them to make this list is kind of annoying.

And some may argue with me and say that To Kill A Mockinbird  has diversity. Yes, it has black people in it, and shows the evils of the Jim Crow south, but I don’t consider it a diverse book. It’s a book about a certain time period told from the viewpoint of a white child who is figuring out racism. I’m still debating whether it’s a book black children need to read. It may be a book for white kids to figure stuff out. I don’t know. That’s another blog entirely.

The John Green Problem

Why does John Green need to occupy 5 slots on the list? Is this really necessary? John Green fans please do not send me death threats or nasty email messages or comments. I get it. I respect his writing and story-telling abilities. But I don’t think he deserves FIVE slots on the list. Can he get one slot and a mention of all his titles? Geez. All FIVE of his titles? I still can’t get over it. People might label me a John Green hater, but he doesn’t NEED FIVE slots. No author does. One slot should be enough to give other authors opportunities. I feel like the YA/MG real estate is getting gobbled up.

Multiple Titles by the Same Author

Like above, I wish that an author can be recognized once on the list. So that means Laurie Halse Anderson, Cassandra Clare, Sarah Dessen, and others who pop up once or twice, you should have one slot only for the canon of your work.

What is the criterion for these lists?

I think the list-makers should let readers in on how they selected these books. Maybe this will shed some insight into how a list like this is complied and maybe seek to answer the diversity question. Is it sales? Is it a poll that they send out?

I plan on analyzing other lists, like The Atlantic Wire’s Y.A./Middle-Grade Book Awards, 2012 edition, for PART II of this rant.


The Broken Lands Launch Party, and a Discussion of Kate Milford’s Villans

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 18 - 2012

 The Broken Lands Launch Party, and a Discussion of Kate Milfords VillansOn Thursday night I attended the wonderful launch party of a dear friend of mine, Kate Milford, at McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho. The basement area was full of Kate’s family, friends, and admirers, drinking wine, salivating over her cool card set, and art from kid artists she hired to illustrate for her companion novel. With the release of The Broken Lands, she also released her novella The Kairos Mechanism.

Here’s the skinny on these two novels (thanks to Barnes and Noble and McNally Jackson):

The Broken Lands: A crossroads can be a place of great power. So begins this deliciously spine-tingling prequel to Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker, set in the colorful world of nineteenth-century Coney Island and New York City. Few crossroads compare to the one being formed by the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River, and as the bridge’s construction progresses, forces of unimaginable evil seek to bend that power to their advantage. Only two orphans with unusual skills stand in their way. Can the teenagers Sam, a card sharp, and Jin, a fireworks expert, stop them before it’s too late? Here is a richly textured, slow-burning thriller about friendship, courage, and the age-old fight between good and evil.

The Kairos Mechanism: When two boys walk into town bearing the corpse of a man who disappeared half a century ago, it doesn’t take Natalie Minks long to find herself entangled in the mission that has brought them to Arcane with their grisly burden–a task which somehow involves the mysterious Simon Coffrett. Meanwhile, a vicious peddler named Trigemine waits with terrible and deadly penalties at the ready, should Natalie and her new friends fail.

I caught up with her in a previous post to discuss how these books fit together. Here’s a refresher on what she said and the question I asked her:

DC: Without spoiling the wonderful plot of The Kairos Mechanism, can tell us how this book is a bridge between The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands? Or how do you intend it to function?

KM: The Boneshaker takes place in Arcane, Missouri, in 1913, and it’s about a girl named Natalie Minks. The Broken Lands takes place in New York City in 1877, and although two characters from The Boneshaker turn up, the cast is otherwise entirely different. It’s a bit of a prequel, in that the events that take place in The Broken Landsrelate to The Boneshaker, but it’s basically a stand-alone story. SoThe Kairos Mechanism is meant to do two things. Firstly, it’s a Natalie story, to tide me (and any Natalie-fans who are out there) over until I get to come back to her and to Arcane. Secondly, it provides some extra clues as to how the two books are related, some clues to what’s coming for Natalie, and some history for readers who, like me, want to know more about the world and the characters. And it’s a self-contained story in its own right.

Like I mentioned, I really love when, as a reader, I get to explore a world in more depth and really get to know it. But I want to be able to explore it while I’m reading the story it relates to, and I particularly love when I find extra content that isn’t just extra content, but something that actually changes the way I read the story. Obviously this is a fine line—if it’s not in the book, it almost can’t be critical to the story (unless that’s the point, I guess). And the extra content can’t be spoilery—for instance, I don’t know in what order people are going to read The Kairos Mechanism and The Broken Lands, and there are probably going to be people who read one of those two before they even read The Boneshaker. So I’m having to be very careful about what’s fair game to include, or refer to, or reveal. It’s very tricky.

If you’re a consistent reader at Teen Writers Bloc, then you know I’ve written about her book The Boneshaker before, and these two novels exist in the same world of mythos. If you know me, then you know Kate Milford and I are thick as thieves. I’ve know her for awhile now and she is part of my critique group. Though I won’t admit that my reviews of her books are biased, I am a true fan of her work. Historical fantasy is my favorite genre, blending my love of old worlds and other times with magic and the uncanny.

During the launch, she read a passage from an early section of The Broken Lands, where she introduced my favorite character of hers — Walker. And she dedicated that reading to me! Yay! While being a beta-reader for The Boneshaker, I thought I’d never love another villan with the same intensity that I love Dr. Jake Limberleg, who is the antagonist to Natalie Minks in The Boneshaker. Jake Limberleg is the head hauncho of Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Show, who has a tragic past.

But in comes a man name Walker  wearing a white suit with nails filed to points and two sets of bottom teeth in The Broken Lands. He’s a gambler and a gentleman, and has an interesting past.

Sigh! Swoon!

I am a sucker for a good bad guy. Oftentimes, I love the bad guy more than I love the good guy. Kate Milford’s bad guys do not disappoint. Whereas many villans in children’s and young adult fiction are purely evil, her villans have shades of grey (not 50!). You always want the children and the good guys to win, but sometimes in Kate’s books, there’s a little part of me that wants the bad guys to win, just for a second. The bad guys are just that good!

Go check them out!

Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward Is “That” Book For Dhonielle

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 17 - 2012

Ninth Ward 000 Jewell Parker Rhodes Ninth Ward Is That Book For DhonielleSometimes you come across a book at the precise moment in time that it changes you for awhile — makes you disregard anything and everything else, makes you wish the world within the pages was the world around you, makes you think about the characters long after you’re finished, makes you — if you’re a writer — wish you could create something like it. When I was in elementary school that book was Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, when I was in middle school it was Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and in high school it was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

As an adult who reads exclusively children’s and young adult books (aside from the non-fiction books I must read for research), I hadn’t had that “AH” moment in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read books that I loved and could not put down (like Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Burn for Burn), and especially ones written by my friends — Corey Ann Haydu’s OCD Love Story, Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and The Kairos Mechanism, Jess Verdi’s My Life After Now, Amy Ewing’s The Jewel, Christine Johnson’s The Gathering Dark, Caela Carter’s Me, Him, Them, and It, Heidi Ayarbe’s newest novel, Mary G. Thompson’s Wuftoom and Lisa Amowitz’s Breaking Glass, and awesome works-in-progress from Alyson Gerber, Riddhi Parekh, Cynthia Kennedy Henzel, Pippa Bayliss, Trish Eklund, and many more. These are stories that only they could write, from their individual creativity and awesome imaginations.

But to stumble across the book that ‘I wish I had written’ is a huge feat. But then one day Corey Ann Haydu texted me and said that I had to read Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward. She had read it and promised that it would not disappoint. I looked it up and instantly fell in love with the hardcover image — a little girl floating above the water in a boat (see above). I didn’t buy it immediately, but wandered into Books of Wonder a few days later and spotted it. I read the first page and then the second. I sat on the floor of the store, blocking children from perusing the shelves, and read the whole first chapter. I was swept into it. The book is not a page turner as people like to use in the book publishing world when a book is full of action and adventure and suspense — instead this book sweeps you away, tugging at your heart. You have to know what happens next because you care about the people in this world.

Ninth Ward speaks to my inner child and it is weaved with a southern mysticism that makes me feel like I’m at home and around my grandparents who have passed on. The rhythm of the language brings back childhood memories and little details lost to me from time. If you haven’t heard of this book, check it out — here’s how our friends at Amazon describe it:

“Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

Ninth Ward is a deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family–as only love can define it.”


Author Interview: Nnedi Okorafor and Akata Witch

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 10 - 2012

akatawitch Author Interview: Nnedi Okorafor and Akata Witch

Teen Writers Bloc member Mary Thompson sent me an email back in the spring and said I had to read this book called Akata Witch, and that I’d love it. She’d heard me droning on in workshop about the dearth of fantasy and fiction featuring kids of color and fantasy worlds not rooted in a European mythos. And she’d found a book that does it — and well!

Nnedi Okorafor took me on a whirlwind and I had to track her down for an interview so I could figure out how she’d done it all. We caught up with Nnedi this summer to discuss African magic, writing discipline, and her life as a writer.

Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer? 

What did I do before “officially becoming a writer”? I was a writer and a Ph.D student who’d once been pre-med. I’m a professor, so I don’t need to write to eat. However, I write and produce as much as many who do write to eat. I consider myself a full-time writer. But it’s more a part of me than something I need to do to survive financially. It’s not a job. I didn’t “want” to become a writer; it’s just something I became. It was in me all along but it took certain events in my life to happen in order for this part of me to come forth.

How did you come up with the concept for the book? Can you talk a bit about your process, from conception to publication?

Honestly, I don’t know. I just started writing. I recall thinking it would be cool to write a story where black children of the African Diaspora experienced magic and adventure rooted in real African culture/history/location/beliefs. Also, the summer before I wrote the novel, I’d spent a week with the daughter of one of my mother’s friends. They were visiting from Nigeria. This daughter was nine-years-old and she didn’t want to hang out with her mother. So she hung with my daughter and me for those days. She was an Igbo girl with a strong feisty personality and she also happened to be albino. She was a lot of fun. I knew I wanted to write about her by the time she left. The main character of Akata Witch is based on her.

Once I started writing, it came together organically. Many of those things I researched because they interested me wound up in the novel, as did many of my experiences in Nigeria and with Nigerian culture. Lastly, the theme of cultural complexity was something I’d wanted to write about for a long time. I was born in the United States to two Nigerian Igbo parents. At the same time, my parents started taking me to Nigerian from a young age. So I grew up bi-cultural, identifying with two district cultures — American and Nigerians. I don’t identify as African-American; I indentify as Naijameican. (“Naija” is slang for “Nigerian.”) It’s an interesting position to occupy. It’s one that makes me very aware of the African Diaspora. I wanted to reflect this complexity and need for more dialogue with the Diaspora in this novel.

What’s your writing process?

I write every day. I’m disciplined. However, no day is the same. I have a nine-year-old daughter and I’m a professor; I have to be malleable. But before the day is done, I will have gotten at least two good hours of writing in, many times more than that. I can write at any time. I used to write in the early morning. These days, I find stories beg to be written late at night. I’ll write in the afternoon if I must. My inspiration comes from Africa , and the world as a whole. It also comes from places of energy, amusement, trouble, and action.

Can you talk a bit about world building, especially this African magic? Did you start with Sunny, the magic, or Nigeria? Or a mix of all three?

The magic in Akata Witch is mined from mysticism and beliefs that are part of my culture. These are things I grew up hearing and that are all around me, a part of my life. In the book, I may tweak things here and there or blow some life into things but that’s about it.

As far as world-building, that phrase feels unnatural to me because I don’t purposely “build worlds”. I just write the story and within the story the worlds exist. I can’t say what I started with Sunny because it’s all mixed together. I can say that the first thing I saw in my mind with Akata Witch was the character of Sunny, but once she started moving through her life, it all came with everything- the magic, her Nigerian-American-ness, the setting, etc.

What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

My path to publication was rough, but embedded with luck where it counted. A lot of the more negative aspects I encountered on that path were predictable and expected, though knowing did not make dealing with them any less distasteful. Really, I didn’t have expectations and I’m aware of the isms at work in this country, so I wasn’t surprised very often.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Author Steve Barnes once said that you have to write a million words before you are any good. There’s no exact word count, of course, but the sentiment is 100 percent correct. You have to write and write and write, far more than you can image to hone your craft. For me, I think I DID have to write over a million words before I was any good. My first published novel was the fourth or fifth novel that I wrote. The ones I wrote before that were practice.

I pass this same advice on to aspiring authors. Write and write a LOT. Hone your craft. Don’t atrophy because you are obscessed with getting published until you are truly ready.

 Author Interview: Nnedi Okorafor and Akata WitchWhat was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

As a kid I loved Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson and The Witches by Raold Dahl. As a teen, I’d have to say it was a tie between Stephan King’s The Talisman and Robert MacCammon Swan Song. Right now I’m reading and absolutely loving Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

Right now I’m finishing up two adult novels. But soon I’m going to start writing Akata Witch 2. I’m also working on another young adult novel and several other writing projects that I can’t talk about just yet. I’ve also written a chapter book in the Disney Fairies line. It’s called Iridessa and the Secret of the Never Mine. I’m not sure of the release date yet but it should be later this year.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

I currently don’t belong to any critique groups, though I am a product of university writing workshops. There’s no formula. Whatever works.

Photos courtesy VIKING

Kid Lit Critiques — A New Venture From Two Teen Writers Bloc Members!

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 7 - 2012

kid lit critiques final banner JPEG 600x138 Kid Lit Critiques    A New Venture From Two Teen Writers Bloc Members!Announcement! Announcement! Jess Verdi and I have pooled our skills together to launch Kid Lit Critiques, a manuscript critiquing business. Check out a little more about us:

Dhonielle Clayton and Jessica Verdi are two girls in New York City, living the writerly life: attending kidlit events, reading the latest books and ARCs, meeting editors and literary agents… and, of course, writing! We received our MFAs in Writing for Children from The New School (Class of 2012) and we are both agented authors actively writing for children and teens. While at The New School, we studied under such esteemed instructors as David Levithan (author of over a dozen YA novels and founder of Scholastic’s PUSH imprint), Susan Van Metre (VP and publisher for Abrams Books), Hettie Jones (author of How I Became Hettie Jones and a Beat generation poet), Tor Seidler (author of several acclaimed children’s books, including National Book Award finalist Mean Margaret), Sarah Weeks (author of many picture books, chapter books, and YA novels), and Sarah Ketchersid (Executive Editor at Candlewick Press).

We have a fresh perspective on MG and YA literature while also keeping our fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the industry today. We are both members of SCBWI and while we both read and love all kinds of literature, our specific areas of expertise are different: Dhonielle is the Middle Grade expert, Jess lives and breathes all things YA. Dhonielle is also more fantasy-based, while Jess is down with the contemporary. It’s these differences that make us the perfect team for your critiquing needs – between the two of us, we’re able to cater to all different types of writing styles and genres!

We are both extremely experienced critiquers (those here at Teen Writers Bloc can attest) and we have started this joint venture because we know how valuable quality feedback is. Time and time again, we have received feedback on our own works-in-progress that opened our whole stories up for us. Oprah calls those “a-ha!” moments, and we know how crucial they are for a writer to take his or her work to the next level.

We wanted to start this business to give someone a workshop feel that might not be in an MFA program, who is in desperate need for unbiased feedback, but doesn’t have $600 -$1,000 to spend with a book doctor.

Our website was designed by the wonderful designer of the Teen Writers Bloc website, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, and it was an awesome experience. He built a customized site for us and arranged (and re-arranged!) the layout to meet our aesthetic tastes. Check out his writer-focused design company Pataka Design. He hand sketched every page so that we could see it before he built it which allowed us to see a rough idea of what it would look like before he started. He’s great!

Let us read your work. Come check us out!


Burn for Burn e1345948151544 448x600 Summer Reading Success: Dhonielle Couldnt Put Down New School Alums Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivians Burn for BurnBack in June at the awesome FOLIO BEA party, I got the pleasure of catching up with fellow New School Writing for Children alums Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian. It was wonderful discussing their experiences during the New School program with the two of them and comparing/contrasting our experiences. It was also awesome to see ARCs of their collaborative project Burn For Burn.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a HUGE fan of collaborative writing and projects. Combining the talents of several writers into one book sounds like a recipe for success. And Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian have taken everything I love about their individual writing styles and put them into a book!

So a day after I left the party, I emailed my wonderful agent Emily van Beek (who represents both Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian — SQUEE!), and begged for an ARC. And I received that awesome ARC the next day because she’s awesome like that. And the book did not disappoint.

Our friends at Amazon describe the book as follows:

Postcard-perfect Jar Island is home to charming tourist shops, pristine beaches, amazing oceanfront homes—and three girls secretly plotting revenge.

     KAT is sick and tired of being bullied by her former best friend.

     LILLIA has always looked out for her little sister, so when she discovers that one of her guy friends has been secretly hooking up with her, she’s going to put a stop to it.

     MARY is perpetually haunted by a traumatic event from years past, and the boy who’s responsible has yet to get what’s coming to him.

     None of the girls can act on their revenge fantasies alone without being suspected. But together…anything is possible.

     With an unlikely alliance in place, there will be no more “I wish I’d said…” or “If I could go back and do things differently…” These girls will show Jar Island that revenge is a dish best enjoyed together.

I started this book on my flight to Hawaii and finished it by the time I landed. I started it over twice because I just did not want it to end. Here’s what I loved about the book in no particular order.
  • Each girl had a distinct and interesting voice and I loved being in each girl’s chapters.
  • The backstories were thick and complicated — Mary’s story especially. I remember gasping out loud when I found out what happened to her. READ TO FIND OUT!
  • The teenage drama is palpable — best friend drama between KAT and her ex BFF REENIE; boy drama with LILLIA and ALEX; and an old wound for Mary between her and REEVE. They combined so many elements of high school drama seamlessly into one novel, and this first book sets up so many other things to be explored in the next two books in the series.
  • The pacing is extraordinary — the chapters hit that sweet spot of seven pages or so with the perfect balance of character information, snappy dialogue, and plot.
  • Last, but not least, its MULTICULTURAL! LILLIA is Asian, not a stereotype, and is refreshingly complex. Her ethnicity is not forgotten throughout the text, nor is it belabored. Her ethnic identity is drawn with the perfect strokes.

Pre-order this book, experience the wonders of collaborative work!

Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster

 Whos Author Couple Love Child Are You? Neil Gaiman and Virginia Hamilton, Of Course!This month at Teen Writers Bloc we’re each taking some time to think about who our literary parents are, whose writing traditions and styles best mirror our own, or which authors we admire enough to want to be compared to them.

When I think of the books I write and want to write, I would love to be the love child of Virginia Hamilton and Neil Gaiman, and for my books to to shelved in the middle grade/independent readers section of the bookstore. Why is Virginia Hamilton my “author” mother? Well, I’ve written about my love for her before. In fact, here is what I said during Women’t History Month:

“This prolific woman gave me stories as a child that featured people who look like me and had the same cultural sensibilities. As a child reader, I read everything and anything. When I got a book by Virginia Hamilton, I can remember savoring every detail of it, and re-reading the book over and over again until I went with my dad to the bookstore the next week. Sometimes when I re-read her now as an adult, I can feel a little of the same childhood magic. Particularly, when I read The People Could Fly: American Black FolktalesI feel entranced by the stories as if I’m still the little pig-tailed girl stretched out underneath my grandmother’s dining-room table with the book.

I wish she were still alive and could eventually read my stories. I wish that she could see the influence she’s had on my writing. Alas, we lost a great one!”

Right now, I am writing alternate histories (full of magic), writing brown kids into history in a different way.

Why is Neil Gaiman my author father? Well, when I was talking to my “NYC” mother Lisa Amowitz at our monthly dinner hangout, she told me she felt like my imagination was similar to Neil Gaiman’s imagination — the right touch of psychological creepiness. I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan (especially of his children’s fiction — Coraline and The Graveyard Book), and I enjoy the things that he weaves together in his tales. I was super flattered by her comparison and hope that I can channel a little Hamilton and Gaiman in my work.

Now What? For Dhonielle, School’s Out for — Well, Forever!

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On June - 18 - 2012

closedforsummer color Now What? For Dhonielle, Schools Out for    Well, Forever!So school is out, and I’ve decided that I will not go back (except to culinary school when I’m 35). Now what?

Well, lots of things…

I’m moving to another New York City apartment — yay!

I’m going to Hawaii.

I’m teaching summer school in Harlem again.

I’m going to South Africa to visit Amy Ewing with Jess Verdi.

I’m going to catch up on reading!

But first off, it’s business as usual. Writing! Writing! Writing!

And critiquing… I’m looking forward to continuing to read my classmates’ work, as well as that of my other writer friends. I like deadlines and I like the feedback I receive from my classmates. We’ve been off for a couple weeks since graduation, so I’ve been able to recharge my battery, and getting ready to get back in the saddle again.

It’s time to work now. Usually, I HATE the summer. The heat makes me a slug. But I’ve decided to use these three months to do a lot of work, so when September 1st rolls around I feel good about what I’ve accomplished.

My plan is to turn in another revised manuscript to my agent in August and to start something brand new. I work well with self-imposed deadlines and stress. Somehow in my head I make up this story that my lovely (and patient) agent Emily has called me frantic and upset, wanting the manuscript on a certain date. Then I work like a dog to meet this made up deadline. It has worked well so far, and I’ll be keeping with that tradition.

I hope to head into the fall with an arsenal of fun things to share and celebrate.

Photo Credit: Momland.wordpress.com

pixel Now What? For Dhonielle, Schools Out for    Well, Forever!

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