The award-winning authors Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, and Jacqueline Woodson will join podcaster and activist DeRay Mckesson to discuss social justice and positive representation in young adult literature. We asked them to explain the writer's role in promoting social justice.
Kwame Alexander Rebound
I try to write books where young people see themselves and feel more connected to their peers and each other. The idea of writing books that promote social justice for me means taking responsibility for writing books that help young people to imagine a better world and then making those books available for not just brown and black kids but for all kids.
The books don't segregate themselves, people segregate the books. Sometimes teachers and librarians have a book with black characters so they make sure that black readers read it. Well, that is cool, but I need to make sure that all readers read it. Teachers don't just give Moby-Dick to their white students—we all had to read it. In order for us to understand and respect each other and to treat each other as if we are connected, which we are, we have got to know each other. How do we know the people who don't act, dance, think, pray like us, if they are not in our community? I posit that the best way to do that is by discovering lives that are outside of ours between the pages of a book.
Jason Reynolds Sunny
When we say social justice, we seem to be talking about an outcome, without talking about the process to achieve said outcome. So, what writers can do is spark, further, and/or create context and framework around the process attached to social justice. Writers can say the tough stuff, and sometimes, for whatever reason, pages become pillows for the issues to lie on. These pillows don't necessarily soften the blow, but they can build intimacy around tricky conversations to sometimes make them feel safer.
Books don't yell. If anything, they whisper. And when one is whispered to, the feeling tends to linger. It lives within for a while. But when one is yelled at, it's only the initial blow that stings, then comes the natural reaction to defend oneself, and nothing changes. The fight for equity has to sit in your stomach. It has to swim in you and tether itself to your being in order to matter. It has to operate like a whispered secret. The job of my work is to foster discourse, validate experiences and identities, challenge norms and biases, and trigger empathy. All of these intrinsic things are necessary in order to make the feet move toward a tangible outcome.
If you expect me to connect to life in Europe when I've only known Brooklyn, you should also expect resistance. But if you show me myself first, I'd be more willing to learn about you. Validate my own life—or help me do it through story—then I'd be more than open to listening and learning about yours. Comparing and contrasting is necessary when it comes to human growth and wholeness, but we need options in order to do so.
Angie Thomas The Hate U Give
I am an author who uses my art as my activism. I have no problem being called a social justice warrior, but I am a storyteller first and foremost. Story is one of the greatest ways to build empathy with people. After 320 pages of walking in the shoes of my characters, I'd like to think that you'd have some empathy for them. If my role as a social justice warrior is to build empathy with the stories I tell, I guess I am a social justice warrior.
Jacqueline Woodson Brown Girl Dreaming
I think that through the characters I create, people see parts of themselves—or the selves they hope to be one day. Talking about realworld situations and creating characters that have what could be realworld experiences gives readers a context for the present, past, and future. Social justice begins with an understanding of all of this.