Author Nic Stone faced a challenge.
Her debut, young adult novel, “Dear Martin,” became a 2017 New York Times bestseller and earned her praise for its of-the-moment take on the effects of racial profiling on young black men and teens, regardless of their economic status and level of academic achievement. Her portrayal was direct and searing.
But even as her next two YA novels, “Odd One Out,” and “Jackpot: All Bet$ Are Off,” were well received, Stone still got comments from elementary school teachers and parents who’d read “Dear Martin,” but wondered if she planned to deal with hard questions of race and identity in a novel appropriate for 3rd through 6th graders. The Atlanta author and Spelman graduate understood. She and her husband have sons: 7 years old and 3 years old.
“I wanted to be able to address racism without calling it that,” Stone said recently.
Her new and fourth novel, “Clean Getaway,” does that in an inspired way. The protagonist is an 11-year-old middle school student, William “Scoob” Lamar, an African American boy who is gifted at writing computer code. But in the book, some are doubtful that a black kid can be good at something other than music and sports. More tumult ensues, and Scoob finds himself suspended from school. That’s where the adventure begins.
Initiated by his grandmother, who is white, the two embark on a trip through the South in her Winnebago following stops listed in the real-life, and perhaps life-saving, “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” The volumes were published from 1936 to 1966 to help African American travelers find safe lodging during the dangerous era of segregation.
But as the trip progresses, Scoob realizes there’s something off about his grandmother. Why is she behaving so oddly? And why is she fixated on fine jewelry? The questions build from city to city, RV park to RV park. This is a kid’s novel as much about secrets and presumptions as it is about race.
“We all have things our children don’t know about us,” Stone said. “There are some things my grandmother shared with me about my granddaddy once, that I was like, ‘Whoa! I’m not sure I really wanted to know that, but now I do.’ Once you run up against it, you have to address it.”
Stone — who made it a point to say the Green Book experience she constructed has nothing to do with the contentious 2018 film, “The Green Book,” — pulled other elements from her own life as inspiration. Just as Scoob’s grandmother is white, so is Stone’s mother-in-law, the grandmother to her two sons. Stone’s husband has a Nigerian father and a Russian mother.
“She married a Nigerian man in Russia in the 1970s,” Stone said. “Being in an interracial marriage during the civil rights movement was something I wanted to explore.”
The author also wanted to introduce young readers to the idea that their grandparents were young once too. They lived full lives and did things they were proud of as well as things they wished they’d done differently.
“We completely erase a person’s history,” Stone said. “You just don’t wake up 70 years old. It’s our own shame as adults that keeps us from being honest with the children in our lives. Just tell your grandkids the truth of your life.”
As Scoob learns about the evils of segregation and the courage it took to battle it, he also learns lessons that may help him confront more subtle forms of racism still alive and well. Just as important, he learns that presumptions, whether about race or age, can be restricting. Acknowledging them and dealing with them takes maturity and courage.
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