Dhonielle Clayton is an author, COO of We Need Diverse Books, and president of Cake Creative, a creative development company whipping up diverse books for a wide array of readers. Her new book, The Mirror: Shattered Midnight, is the second novel in the four-book fairy tale series written with Julie C. Dao, J.C. Cervantes, and L.L. McKinney. It follows one family over several generations and the curse that plagues it. We spoke with Clayton about fairy tales for modern audiences, cultural relevancy in fantasy and science fiction, and the importance of realistic and positive representation for BIPOC children in literature.
How did you come to be a part of The Mirror series?
I’m a Disney author and they approached me and said, “Hey! We want to do this really cool, innovative series where authors come together in a shared universe and write a fairy tale with a curse that has plagued several generations of a family. We want you to write one generation of the family.” I was like, “Sure! I would love to!” They laid out their vision and, of course, when I saw 1920s New Orleans I said, “That is for me.”
So you always knew you’d be writing the second book? What inspired you to pick that generation and plot?
Yeah. They sent me a loose overview of who people are in the first book and how it connects to the second. Then I got in there and I fixed it with my expertise—knowing the historical beats and the patterns of migration and movement for Black Americans during the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s. I was able to apply that logic to the magic and make sense of the big overview beats that Disney wanted included. Harlem and Chicago are the iconographies that loop in our imaginations when we think of the 1920s. At least, that’s the case for me when I think about what Black people were doing at that time. Trying to find out about what it was like for people living in New Orleans is a very different thing. I was really inspired by the city itself, and the streets, and the Black history, and the fact that it is known as the birthplace of jazz. I wanted to make sure that music was the foundation of the novel itself. I said, “Look, we can’t write about the 1920s, we can’t write about the birth of American jazz—which is a Black musical tradition—without this being the cornerstone and the heart of the book.” So really, music was the inspiration.
You’ve collaborated with authors on short story collections and books before. What has it been like collaborating on a saga? What’s your individual writing process like?
Collaborating is my favorite thing in the world because I learn so much about myself and others. Collaborating with Julie C. Dao, Jennifer Cervantes, and L.L McKinney was great. These are three other women of color. We all have different visions of story. Each one of them has a superpower in terms of how they write. It was fun to get in the trenches with them. We’d have story conversations, we’d have Zooms, we would deep dive, have our own chat, and just break story and solve story problems. Each one of us had our plot overview. We wrote each book, one-on-one, with our wonderful editor, Brittany Rubiano, and talked about how changes would affect everyone else’s books. But we also let the other women read each other’s work so that we could make sure everything aligned.[My own]
writing process is a mess. I don’t have one. I don’t write every day. I write in strong bursts, probably once a week, once every other week, but I get a lot done. I go on writing retreats, but it’s just chaos. Whenever anyone asks that question you want it to be cute—you get up every day and have your coffee, sit down and write for four hours. I wish!
What do you think makes fairy tales important in children’s literature and what are some of your favorites?
I’m actually a children’s scholar. I have a master’s in children’s literature, I read the entire canon, and I know the history and origin of children’s books and fairy tales are a big part of that. Fairy tales have such an interesting history of being these tools of indoctrination and tools for transmitting culture, warning, and things to keep children safe. But they’re also great instruments for story, and there’s something primal that makes us attracted to the fairy tale. That’s why they have such staying power in the marketplace.
I like fairy tales that we don’t get to see a lot. like the Anansi tales and fairy tales that are a little bit more obscure, Norwegian and dark—super dark. So, I guess I would pick “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” as one of my favorites. I really like that there’s always peaks and valleys, high-highs and low-lows in fairy tales. This saga has that. It has some fairy tale tropes that we’ve turned on their heads and ones that were remixed. When you engage with American history and with people of color and queer people, the way the fairy tale manifests must look different. Cinderella is not Cinderella when she lives in a brown or Black body.
Some of my favorite tropes—and ones that I tried to evoke in the book—are the Cinderella aspects, but there’s no poverty. There are shoes and you see these shoes in every single [Mirror] book, but they change. You’re like, “Oh, a glass slipper!” But it’s not quite a glass slipper. It’s shoes that have been passed down and then change depending on the feet of the wearer and the time period they’re in, but they’re still family heirlooms. There is a mirror and that mirror has a specific power and purpose. There’s my main character, Zora, who has two cousins who sort of function like the stepsisters, but they’re not evil. They’re products of their time and have their own desires and traumas that they’re working through. I took some familiar things, but I translated them through the lens of Black American culture in their historical context. I really wanted them to feel remixed and culturally resonant for the community, so that it doesn’t feel like the Grimm fairy tale or all of the fairy tales that have a white European context overlaid on top of Black characters—where it doesn’t feel like it’s really them.
Zora is very independent and strong-willed. Would you consider her a heroine?
Yes; she’s just a complicated heroine. Sometimes in fiction—especially fiction for young adults and historical fiction—we forget the sort of boxes that people who live in certain bodies are placed in. The look of the heroine has to change. It has to adapt. She might not be able to slay the dragon, but she’s able to figure out the source of her magic and how it works as much as she can. [She has to] try to find love and try to find something that she’s invested in and go for her dreams even though she is boxed in by the evils of racism in 1920s America. That, to me, makes her a heroine.
How important was it to you that Zora be Black and Philip white as opposed to the other way around? Would the story have been drastically different?
The story would have been drastically different. My book was to bring two branches of a family together. The family you meet in Broken Wish were Julie’s characters. There’s Mathilda [Zora’s grandmother] and then there’s Philip’s ancestor. Those two had a broken agreement between them that set off a fairy tale curse. Then, in my book, you see the [descendants] of those families coming together to face that broken promise. Zora and Philip being together can either heal the broken promise between the two families, or can make it worse.
Having to have them wrestle with the color line and falling in love across the color line was a very contentious and very hard thing to do. I had to look up a lot of different laws and search for stories. [Love across the color line] was very traumatic; a lot of family drama went down because of it. Children were even taken from homes by police. It would have been the better choice for [Zora] to be with a Black man, but I had to bring those two families together to exacerbate the curse and make it work for Jennifer’s book.
Zora quite literally has Black Girl Magic. How important is it for Black girls to see themselves represented in fantasy fiction?
It is of the utmost importance. I grew up reading and loving fantasy and science fiction and never getting to see Black women do anything. In those works we were always in historical settings as the mammy, or the slave, or the sidekick to the main event and I was tired of that narrative. I wanted to think about Black people in a historical context, but with the dignity and the grace that we see in their stories, and also give them magic.
For me, Zora’s magic was always going to be music. When we first started, they wanted her to be a dancer and I said, “No. She’s a musician.” We are dancers, we love to dance in our community, but she is a musician. That is her musical center. [In her time] the birth of jazz is coalescing into one of the most important Black musical traditions (aside from gospel and hip hop) and we have to honor that. Zora represents that and her mother represents food. These pillars of Blackness are where I was drawing inspiration from so that my reader never forgets Zora is a young Black woman. [She has] a white grandmother, but she is a Black woman. That is the story of the Black American experience: there are these white ancestors, but these are Black people first and foremost. It was important to me to make sure that was clear.
When I had to [look back in time] for this book I was really looking for our joy, and music is our joy. Food is our joy. We had our own clubs, our own societies, our own tailors—we had such industry. I wanted to showcase that. Yes, the racism lingers [throughout the book]. You see it, it touches them, but I really wanted to also showcase friendship, family, and the fact that we had our own stuff going on. It was important to me that Zora have literal Black Girl Magic. I wanted her to have something so powerful that it could change the world both musically and physically, that she could protect herself and others. I’m writing to the 16-year-old kid that I was, who was desperate to see magic in the books that I loved and the time periods that I was interested in. To have been able to read something like Shattered Midnight would have been so great to me as a young reader.
What do you hope readers gain from your book and the saga as a whole?[I want to show readers]
that you can save yourself, people you love, and the world, and also be deeply flawed. You may not be perfect, but you still have value. Zora is grappling with so many different things—she had to leave home, she has a big secret and that secret influences how she feels about her magic. She wants to be a formidable artist, but sexism [dictates] that jazz musicians are men and she’s supposed to be a pretty songbird. But she doesn’t want to just be a pretty songbird; she wants to play every instrument and be taken seriously. She’s trying to grapple with if she deserves to have love and [whether or not] that will compete with her ambition. She has a person who wants to be with her, but is from across the color line. It isn’t all roses and fairy tales when it comes to how America treats Black people and people of color. I wanted to put that all into a mixer and have a conversation about it and have a story that could both speak to Julie’s first family in the saga, and also pave the way for Jennifer Cervantes’s addition.
You are COO of We Need Diverse Books and active with other groups dedicated to diversifying YA. What has that journey been like?
There are ups and downs—when you ask a power structure to change, you get a lot of hate mail, death threats, and rape threats. That is something that I have lived with since 2014 while working with Ellen Oh, the president of We Need Diverse Books. But it’s worth it to see queer, BIPOC kids get the representation that they’ve always deserved and to know that they are the heroes of stories; that they can save their neighborhoods and the world; that they deserve to have the relationship that white children have had with literature forever. They deserve to see themselves reaffirmed. I really feel like it’s my life’s work.
You have lots of books coming out. How do you manage it all? What’s next?
I only got messed up for 2022 because of coronavirus! Shattered Midnight was supposed to be out in October 2021. I was only supposed to have that and Blackout last year. Now I have quite a few books coming out [in 2022]. I have The Rumor Game, which is like Gossip Girl set in D.C., where I grew up: these three girls are grappling with the fallout of a really bad rumor that goes viral. Then I have my middle grade debut, The Marvellers, which is my answer to magic schools. What happens when all of the children of the world can go to a magic school? What does that look like when you have a global magical community and you’re wrestling with anti-Blackness? I am also working on my first adult book, but have not sent it out to publishers. For people who want a taste of it, I have a short story that’s set in the world that I’m working on. It’s in a collection called Vampires Never Get Old, which is edited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker.
The Mirror: Shattered Midnight by Dhonielle Clayton. Disney-Hyperion, $18.99 Jan. 18 ISBN 978-1-368-04642-8