Ci8 Education: Representation in Science Fiction and Fantasy Young Adult and Middle Grade Books

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On Wednesday, July 15, the American Booksellers Association’s Virtual Children’s Institute (Ci8) featured a panel on the representation of Black girls in middle grade and young adult science fiction and fantasy stories, as well as the Black female authors who create these characters and works. Guest speakers were authors Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Dhonielle Clayton, and Tracy Deonn. Logged-in booksellers can view a video of the session here

Thomas kicked off the conversation by asking Clayton and Deonn how they build their worlds.

Clayton said that she uses a question method that Deonn mentioned to build her worlds. “Each one of my books tackles a question that I have that I’m bothered by. For The Belles, it’s what are you willing to do to be beautiful? I wanted to build a world around that,” she said. “For another’s what happens to Black Americans magically? What does it mean to have magic that is rooted in or affected by oppression?” 

She also creates a world before finding her main character. “My whole life, I wanted to create worlds that kids would be looking for a door into, because I was that nerdy little reader, but I never got to see kids that looked like us in the forefront,” she said. “I wanted to create a world where Black girls were affirmed and glorified, and if they are ostracized, we talk about that.” 

Deonn said she explores Black girl magic as a type of resilience. Her Legendborn series could not have been set anywhere but the American South, she noted. “It is a site drenched with oppression of people who look like the main character,” she said. “Her magic has to take that into account and not ignore it.”  

Clayton said that the magic that speaks to her most is the kind that “takes into account the filter.” 

“Magic for us, and us as magic wielders, looks very different because of the bodies that we inhabit and the communities that we come from,” she said. “Books that really go to the bone with that, and think through what magic does in our community, what does it look like in its historical, social, political, economic case — I don’t think a lot of creators are thinking at that level, and I wish that we would.”

Thomas noted that there’s a frustrating conversation in children’s and young adult literature that cuts out Black North American creators. 

In her nonfiction work The Dark Fantastic, Thomas points out that in Western fantasy, the subjugated Black body is indexed in some way within the genre. “Either a book is about that oppression, or we set it aside and it’s about something else,” she said. “We have a conversation about trying to get beyond slavery and civil rights, or we run to the future where it’s behind us.” 

Deonn noted that when she started writing Legendborn, she loved the conceit of King Arthur that power will flow in the right direction and go to the person who it should go to. “It’s a hope and a dream that I hold onto,” she said, “and I knew I wanted to modernize it.” 

Deonn created a world in which the legends of King Arthur were real, and a main character who would enter into that world — a Black girl. “She was going to have to face microaggressions. She was going to have to deal with someone trying to touch her hair,” she said. “You cannot move into a secret society space in the South and have me as a storyteller tell you that King Arthur’s descendants are alive and kicking and have it not be an issue of race.”

Her main character, she said, has a goal — to find out the truth of what happened to her mother — but along the way, the environmental antagonist is racism, because that’s what happens to Black people every day. 

Clayton noted that the world of The Belles is not the one we live in currently, but if readers are looking for the breadcrumbs, they can find them. “We create these echoes to our world and our lived experience as Black Americans,” she said. “It’s important for us as storytellers to honor that, to honor both. We carry that legacy with us into our work. Our relationship to storytelling would not be what it is without all of the things, without Civil Rights, without slavery, without the people that came before us.”

Thomas recalled a conversation she had with Clayton at a Nerds of Color event at San Diego Comic Con in 2016. “We were all celebrating being at San Diego Comic-Con International and being fans of mainly content created by white men,” she said, naming Star Trek, Marvel movies, and more. “Dhonielle challenged me four years ago. She said, what would it take for audiences and fans to have that same kind of enthusiasm for fantasy and science fiction and comic worlds created by BIPOC creators?” 

Deonn said that, because of conversations happening in publishing, she’s been thinking about who is given permission to “think in that scope.” There’s a runway that certain creators are given, she said, that allows for a “big” story with a fandom. 

Big worlds invite readers in to create fandoms, she added, but in order to create a world that big, creators need to feel supported, both financially and creatively. 

“We exist in a creative scramble constantly,” Clayton said. “I’ve felt that way since I entered this business, where I’m always trying to duct tape something to the car. It’s like, oh, now you want some more, but you didn’t invest in me from the start. So, now I have to bend myself into shape and make myself sick in order to meet the new expectation because you didn’t value me from the start.” 

Some people get a golden car when they sell a book and get to lead the way into publishing, she added, and others have flat tires and have to struggle all the way to publication. Said Clayton, “The Black American imagination is not as valued as others.”

“You have to be excellent to even break through as a Black creator,” Thomas said. “For everybody else, there’s a midlist...there is no Black midlist. I was told that in the early 2000s.”

Deonn added that one of the things she’s really loved recently is the change in covers. “Covers are the single most powerful marketing tool, and we’ve had some good ones this year that give me hope,” she said. “My publisher chose a Black woman artist to illustrate my Black girl character, and it’s just her on the cover. That is something I see as not just a vote of confidence about the book, but a commitment to the content in the book and the person who wrote it.”

Clayton noted that when Tiny Pretty Things came out, a bookseller told her they were glad a Black girl or Asian girl wasn’t on the cover, because white customers wouldn’t want to buy it. When Disney proposed a photo shoot featuring a Black girl for the cover of The Belles, she panicked. “It was really frustrating to me, because I do think that there is a [belief] that ‘This isn’t for me,’” she said.

Thomas noted that she wanted to tell Clayton and Deonn that it’s not their responsibility to always think about how audiences will respond to their work. “But how do we move the stakeholders in the chain to do better?” she asked. 

Clayton said that, as content creators, they should create the worlds they want to create, but also control the narrative and tell their team how to talk about their books in a way that focuses on story and is not stripped “down to its diverse parts.” Clayton also challenged Black creators to make big worlds. 

Deonn echoed Clayton’s points, saying that she didn’t know if Legendborn would get to be the series she wanted it to be, but she wrote it as if it could be. “As creators, we can say don’t play small when we talk to each other about what we’re writing,” she said. “Write big.”

Clayton also said that booksellers are the ones who make books travel, noting that “Our books deserve to travel, too.”

“Help us create the doors into the world for young people. Give them our portals. Give them our doors and tell them that it is okay. Because we’re all facing our own biases and our own racism and bigotry. I think that good stories are a place for a lot of exploration,” said Clayton. “I want to have the opportunity to make a door, and you hold the keys to my door. When you choose not to celebrate or not let Black books be face out, you don’t allow our doors to be entered. You have a huge responsibility, and I hope that you give us a shot.”