Nic Stone’s new sequel “Dear, Justyce” takes on juvenile justice system

Nic Stone's new YA novel, "Dear Justyce" is a sequel to her New York Times bestseller, "Dear, Martin." Stone, who grew up for a time in Norcorss is a graduate of Spelman College.

Credit: Nigel Livingstone

Credit: Nigel Livingstone

In her new book, the Atlanta author paints picture of common teenage experiences in Black America.

In her 2017 bestseller, “Dear Martin,” Atlanta author Nic Stone drove home the point that regardless of their families’ wealth or class status, Black children are more likely to be stereotyped as criminals, even when they are hanging out with friends.

That’s what happens to the main character, Justyce, and one of his friends as they sit in a car one evening arguing about the limits of economic privilege. Two teenage Black boys, their music loud, their gestures animated, all happening in view of a police officer. The fallout from the exchange lands Justyce in jail, where he writes a series of journal entries to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s Justyce’s way of trying to understand what has happened to him, a good kid with a once bright future.

Those journal entries take on new life in “Dear Justyce,” Stone’s sequel to her YA hit, “Dear Martin.” In the new book, which has already received a starred review from Kirkus, the protagonist, Quan, an old friend of Justyce’s, finds himself locked up in juvenile detention on serious charges. But where Justyce’s future was potentially bright because of his academic gifts, Quan’s is dubious. He is as smart as Justyce, but at every turn, he has not had the parental, academic or community support needed to help him succeed. The questions Stone asks are: How can a child succeed if they have no one pulling for them, and who does that child become in the absence of that foundation?

Here, Stone talks with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about those issues. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You have said you didn’t intend to do a sequel to ‘Dear Martin,’ but then people kept asking you, ‘What happened to Justyce?’ the main character in that book. So, what made you decide, ‘I guess I’m gonna do this sequel?’

A: Justyce is high-achieving. He is doing his very best. He excelled in school. He’s good at the stuff white people tell us we should be good at, but a lot of kids are not. So, two of my mentees, both boys, about 16 at the time, sent me this set of text messages that were like, ‘We loved “Dear Martin," but like, how about writing something about us? Like, tell our story. We want to hear more about, you know, a kid who has a life like ours.’ It was that, and my editor basically being like, ‘I would love to know more about Quan.’ And that’s where ‘Dear Justyce,’ came from. This was definitely not planned.

Nic Stone's YA novels have been best sellers, as they tackle issues of racism, sexuality, gender identity and juvenile justice. Courtesy of Nic Stone

Credit: Nic Stone

Credit: Nic Stone

Q: You’ve written about police killings of unarmed black kids, yet in the afterword of ‘Dear Justyce,’ you said this was the most difficult book you’ve written. Why so?

A: So many of these circumstances surrounding these kids who wind up locked up are just intensely unfair, and it makes me so angry. And so all those stories in ‘Dear Justyce’ are pulled from kids that I’ve met in detention centers. I didn’t make any of them up. The number of kids I have met who are locked up because they missed too many days of school. And you’re like, ‘Oh, why were you missing school?’ ‘My mom was sick, and I had to take care of my little brother.’ You can’t go into a school and say, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t come to school. Sorry, I wasn’t here the past two weeks, because my mom has to work, and we don’t have a babysitter for my brother, and she can’t put him in daycare.’ You can’t say that to a teacher, because then they call DFCS [the Division of Family & Children Services], and you get pulled out of your home.

I met a kid in a Bay Area detention center, and he’s in because he was committing robberies. But then after I talked to him, I find out that when he was 5 and 6 years old, his parents were both locked up. When he was 5 years old, his parents were boosting him through the window so he could open a house so they could come in and rob it. ... I just, I really want I want people to feel what I was feeling. It like tears at your heart, I hope. Because that’s certainly what it did to mine.

Q: How did you get to interview these kids? What kind of access did you get?

A: I’m writing books about African American children dealing with some ugly things; sometimes I get invited into these spaces. And you know, when I get invited, I say, ‘Yes.’ Last week, I did a virtual visit with four different centers, and each center had a classroom with a group of kids in it. Two had cameras off, but with the others, I was able to see one was boys; the other was all girls. And they were so excited. They had so many questions, right? And it’s like, people are so quick to write these kids off, just because they’re not doing what you think they should be doing.

"Dear Justyce," is a sequel to author Nic Stone's New York Times bestselling YA novel, "Dear Martin.'

Credit: Nigel Livingstone

Credit: Nigel Livingstone

Q: While he’s incarcerated, Quan starts reading the journals of his childhood friend, Justyce. The journals are a series of contemporary letters Justyce wrote to the memory of the late Martin Luther King Jr. while Justyce himself was incarcerated. But soon, Quan is reading “Native Son” and “Invisible Man." Talk about that segue into classic Black literature.

A: Part of this is me trying to subliminally put the message out into the world that representation matters. Because the things that I was exposed to at Spelman are wildly different than the things that I was exposed to at my high school in Norcross. I was in all the gifted and honors classes, and there were no Black kids in my classes. And we were reading, and the Black people I saw were like Tom Robinson from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Jim from ‘Huck Finn.’ That was 17 years ago. Then I went to Spelman and started reading Toni Morrison … and Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston … Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and all of these Black literary giants and seeing what they were able to do with words was revolutionary for me. And so I think it’s important to see yourself reflected not only as a character in a text, but also as the person writing the text.

Q: Quan goes from having almost no one who seems to care for him to finding people, one by one, who take the time to see his circumstances and the good in him. When you interview kids, have they told you about someone who did make that difference for them?

A: The kids that were locked up? No. But I had a young lady that I met at Vanderbilt University; she was working on her master’s degree in ethics. ... And, she told me that her life has been more like Quan’s. Her parents were locked up. She was being raised by a grandfather. And she’s loosely who Liberty [a character in the book who helps Quan] was based on.

But she was talking about a mentor that stepped in when she was really messing up. And that mentor made literally all the difference. This is one of those people who was like, ‘This is a person who was not going to let me fail. I wasn’t allowed to fail.’ So even having somebody [who says], you can do this. I’m not going to accept less than your absolute best... We all need to know that people see good in us. I don’t think it’s possible to function as a human being without knowing that there is somebody who sees good in you.

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