by Victoria A. Brownworth
Young adult fiction has become the hottest trend in publishing in the past 10 years, spawned in part by the megalithic Harry Potter series by British writer J.K.Rowling. Chestnut Hill hosts a Harry Potter Festival every October). Adults and kids alike have immersed themselves in YA, as it’s known, from the Potter books to Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” series to John Green’s best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars.”
What all those books have in common other than being international best-sellers that became film franchises is their overwhelming whiteness. Where are the books for kids of color and their parents?
Walter Dean Myers, renowned African-American author of more than 100 books, wrote an article for the New York Times last March titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” He began with this shocking statistic: “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people.”
Lisa R. Nelson has been aware of the dearth of books for kids of color since she herself was a child growing up in Philadelphia. The African-American author of the award-winning YA novel “Drifting,” spent her entire childhood reading books for white girls written by white authors. She wanted something different for black girls, now. So she decided to write for them — and for the girl she once was, reading the iconic Judy Blume and imagining Margaret was black instead of white.
Nelson, 47, and a graduate of Overbrook High and Temple University, has been writing for years, but her focus had been on non-fiction for most of that time, working in public relations. A decade ago, she took some post-graduate courses and shifted her attention to fiction. And black characters.
Nelson, who lives in an apartment on the border between Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, says she was always writing, always mesmerized by language and its possibilities. A slender, petite woman who is quick to laugh, Nelson has been working in social services for years and writing at night, a member of several local writing groups.
She explained, “In high school I liked tests with essay questions. I now think it was because I had opportunities to be creative — even if I was taking a test. After high school, I would journal and write short stories. I took a short story writing class with Mt. Airy Learning Tree and sometimes shared my works with family and friends.”
A decade ago Lisa began taking graduate seminar writing courses at the University of the Arts, joined a new writers’ group and began publishing her short stories. Initially, Nelson wrote for adults, but then it was suggested she try writing from the vantage point of young adults and, she said, “I found my voice.”
Her stories in the collection “From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth” were singled out in review after review as “exceptional” and “resonant” and “culling original material out of familiar scenes.”
As Nelson noted, “My focus is to write stories about how young characters feel about their worlds, to delve into what they think and how they see us, the adults. When teens read my work, I am rewarded if they think the story is believable, on point, and that I was able to capture their own realities. When adults read my work, I hope I am helping them realize, as I myself continue to understand, that teens are watching us and listening to us. We influence them in more ways than we may realize.”
Writing the voices of black kids was essential to Nelson, who remains both stunned and angered by the lack of books for kids of color. She recalled, “Before I was a teen, my parents subscribed to Ebony Jr. It was a magazine by the publishers of Ebony Magazine for black children and tweens. I was always excited when the next issue arrived.” She wanted to write stories and books that “black teens and tweens could feel that same excitement. Also, I wanted all readers to see that black youth have similar experiences as their [white] peers, although our cultures may be different.”
Nelson’s YA novel, “Drifting” is currently a nominee for the IPPY Award, an annual independent press award. “Drifting” was also a finalist for the prestigious NAACP Image Award and in October won the Moonbeam Award, silver medal, for general young adult fiction. Of the novel, told from the vantage point of the 14-year-old narrator, Jasmine, Nelson says, “She’s smart, has fears and matures, like any other teen in her situation would. As a girl, I read books by Judy Blume. I enjoyed them, but the main characters didn’t look like me. Later in high school and as an adult, I read classic books like ‘Black Boy’ by Richard Wright. With ‘Drifting,’ I wanted readers, especially teens, to feel connected to a story with characters they could find in their friends, family members or even in themselves.”
Nelson said that if we read more about the lives of African-Americans and other people of color, we will know them better — their lives, their concerns, who they are. “When you make us part of what you read, you make us part of your world.”
“From Where We Sit” and “Drifting” are both available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local bookstores like Big Blue Marble in Mt. Airy.