The Power of Story: Empowering Young Voices

Black kids deserve to see themselves as the stars of the story, and it’s just as important for other readers to see Black kids as the stars of the story as well.

 

 

 

This year at ALA Virtual, Scholastic hosted a panel where author and illustrators shared the inspiration and story behind their upcoming books. The following is an excerpt from that program, featuring Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright, author and illustrator of the upcoming graphic novel Twins. Watch a video of the full panel here.

Varian Johnson: I’ve written a number of books, including The Parker Inheritance and The Great Greene Heist, but I don’t think I’ve ever written anything quite as autobiographical as Twins. Just like Maureen and Francine, I’m a twin—five minutes younger than my identical twin brother. And like the girls in the book, my brother and I shared all the same classes and activities until middle school.

But Twins was also inspired by my daughters. My kiddos, especially my oldest, love graphic novels. She devours them—or more like inhales them. It actually irks me just a little bit how quickly she reads them. Do you know how long it took them to make that book? How about slow down!

But in all seriousness, graphic novels are what transformed my daughter from a reluctant reader into a voracious reader. However, as much as she loved graphic novels, we struggled to find comics that featured Black girls like her. We struggled to find graphic novels where she could see herself on the page. And this is how Twins morphed from being a book for me into being a book for all readers. Black kids deserve to see themselves as the stars of the story, and it’s just as important for other readers to see Black kids as the stars of the story as well. To paraphrase Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, books can be mirrors, windows, or sliding glass doors, and hopefully Twins will be able to serve readers in all of these ways.

My editors and I felt it was not only important to create a book with Black characters, but to have a co-creator who is Black as well. If we are really committed to diversity and inclusion, we need to—we must—make sure all aspects of our work are diverse; not just the characters on the page, but also the people behind the book. Plus, I wanted—needed—a partner who got what it meant to be a Black girl. Someone who understood that Black kids come in all shades and shapes and sizes; someone who understood all the wonderful ways in which we can style our hair; someone who understood Black families and Black love.

Shannon Wright: It was important that the diversity not only came to form on page, but also behind the scenes too. So when it came time to design Maureen and Francine, it felt so natural, because in them I saw myself. I saw my cousins, I saw my nieces, I saw my nephews. I was looking in that mirror and actually saw my younger self for the first time in years. Specifically in Francine I saw myself. I saw myself in both physical appearance and personality. She’s outgoing, super involved, but very self-conscious of herself and her abilities.

Varian and I worked really closely together to create a world for all of these characters to exist in. That included their family and friends, their community. They’re all equally important to the story and reflect so many children and individuals who get left out of the narrative. So many kids and students who don’t get to be the stars or the protagonists of stories. Mirrors, windows, sliding doors. That’s what we hope Twins will be for someone. Whether they’re a kid or an adult.

Twins is a love letter to Black families, much like my own, and to the communities that raise, shape, and change us. But for me, Twins is ultimately a love letter to a little girl who hasn’t been able to put down her drawing pencil since the age of four. A little girl who devoured books but could see that she wasn’t the star in any of them. And in creating Twins, I thought about a little girl who had a tool and wanted to change all that.


Varian Johnson is the author of several novels for children and young adults, including The Parker Inheritance, for which he won a Coretta Scott King Honor award; The Great Greene Heist, which was an ALA Notable Children's Book, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2014, and a Texas Library Association Lone Star List selection; and To Catch a Cheat, another Jackson Greene adventure and a Kids' Indie Next List pick. He lives with his family near Austin, Texas. You can find him online at varianjohnson.com.

Shannon Wright is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Virginia. She illustrated My Mommy Medicine by Edwidge Danticat, and some of her clients include the GuardianTIME, the New York Times, NPR, and Google. Visit her online at shannon-wright.com.

This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights books for all ages that tell the stories of historically underrepresented groups specifically related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental abilities, religion, and culture. Hear from other speakers on this topic and download the Power of Story catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Bill Konigsberg, Kelly Yang, Aida Salazar, and more.

 

 

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