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YA authors Angie Thomas and Tomi Adeyemi on speaking their truth and writing for young people

Tomi Adeyemi and Angie Thomas. (Photos by Djeneba Aduayom and Imani Khayyam)
Tomi Adeyemi and Angie Thomas. (Photos by Djeneba Aduayom and Imani Khayyam)

Before finding her voice in young adult fiction, author Angie Thomas wanted to rap as a teenager.

But she wasn’t good at it, so she decided to study creative writing when she got to college. As the only Black student in the creative writing program at her predominantly white college, writing became her outlet. Thomas shared her work with her Black friends who related to her experiences.

When she finished school, she decided to pursue writing books and noticed there weren’t a lot of people who look like her in the world of young adult literature.

“I think at the time it was just, I’m just going to have the audacity to write these books about young people who look like me and neighborhoods like mine,” she says. “And if I just have to sell them out the back of my truck, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Thomas first achieved huge success in 2017 with her debut novel, “The Hate U Give,” about a young Black woman who becomes a witness to a police shooting. That book stayed on the bestseller lists for well over two years. She followed that with a couple more novels, as well as a nonfiction book about writing.

For fellow best-selling YA author Tomi Adeyemi, writing served as an outlet during a period of anger over police brutality and the state of the world during her early 20s. She wrote a blog post following the Charleston church shooting in 2015 but says pain underlays her rage and gusto.

Adeyemi says Thomas’ work helped her realize she could also make a difference. The two authors caught up with host Tonya Mosley at a recent WBUR Cityspace event.

Watch on YouTube.

Adeyemi also rode the bestseller lists with her 2018 debut novel “Children of Blood and Bone,” and the follow-up “Children of Virtue and Vengeance.” Though the books are about bringing magic to the mythical kingdom of Orisha, she incorporates many modern-day issues like brutality against Black people into her work.

A recent experience with her health prevented Adeyemi from writing and showed what the craft means to her.

“It was painfully clear what writing is for me and what it’s always been for me, which is just my lifeboat,” she says. “It’s this outlet for me and this sort of companion through this really insane process of being alive.”

The late young adult writer Walter Dean Myers wrote a New York Times op-ed shortly before his death about the lack of representation within the YA genre. He wrote: “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Thomas thinks about the article often. The piece sparked the We Need Diverse Books movement, which gave Thomas a grant that helped her buy the laptop she used to write “The Hate U Give.”

Literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop once wrote that books serve as “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors” — an important idea that Thomas says her books embody.

“It’s important for white kids to read about Black kids and read about the different kinds of Black kids,” she says. “But on the other hand, we have this whole idea that anything done by a Black author or a marginalized author has to be excellent when we should be able to do a range of kinds of books. We shouldn’t have to hit a certain level to be able to get a seat at the table.”

Thomas and Adeyemi write for both kids and adults, but young adult fiction gets a lot of criticism. As a life-long lover of YA, 28-year-old Adeyemi says she’s only now starting to appreciate adult fiction more.

“I think why YA speaks to all of us is not just because it’s so emotionally intense and usually more plot driven because it has to be,” she says. “We’re not separated from who we were growing up.”

Adeyemi once asked a teacher if she’ll reach a certain age where the “lever switches” and she feels like the “adult version” of herself, she recalls. The teacher said no, “you just act like it and pay your taxes.”

Young adult fiction gives writers the opportunity to engage with a passionate audience of young readers, she says, but also speak to adults.

Some parents may feel concerned about exposing their children to big ideas through literature. Thomas believes kids can handle more than people often think.

Young people know what’s going on in the world, she says. One 10-year-old reader reached out to Thomas and said that “The Hate U Give” sparked discussions with his mother. Parents should make themselves available for these conversations — even if it’s uncomfortable — because that’s what helps kids cultivate empathy, she says.

“I once had a white parent come up to me at an event and she was like, ‘I don’t know if my 14 year old is ready to read ‘The Hate U Give.’ ” Thomas says. “And I said ‘Well, could you tell that to the Black parent who was having a conversation with their 9 year old about what to do if they’re stopped by a cop?’ ”

Adeyemi says she often hears from parents who use her books as a way to engage with their kids.

“I think it’s hard, especially as your kids grow up, to find the things you can really do in tandem,” she says. “I do see it more as an opportunity as opposed to a grenade.”

For aspiring young writers looking for a place to start, Adeyemi says to focus on cultivating your “inner world” of creativity before worrying about what the world thinks of your work. Dive into yourself and put what’s on your mind on the page, she says.

“If you solidify that inner world that you dive into for that creativity and for that process and for what it does for you — something that you have 24/7 access to right now, that you don’t need an agent or a publisher to give you — that’s all you need,” Adeyemi says. “The other stuff can come.”

Thomas wants young writers to embrace imperfection. New writers often feel like their work can’t compare to the books they read — but Thomas points out that novels go through rounds of edits. Her advice is simple.

“Editing can come later,” Thomas says. “Just write.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.