My race began…
the year I learned to read. That may sound like an exaggeration, but I can trace my desire to write stories back to the years I spent creeping around libraries and curled up in bed with piles of books.
My mother picked out most of the books I read at first. Classics like Corduroy, The Snowy Day, and Tar Beach lined my shelves. I learned to read quickly and outgrew what I owned in a few months once I began reading them ravenously. And when I discovered the library, all bets were off.
The first books I fell in love with were from the Nancy Drew series. They were creepy and interesting and they all starred a girl (with really cute clothes) being the hero of her own stories. That series was followed closely by things like Wayside School is Falling Down, Roald Dahl's novels, and the Ramona Quimby series.
I don't think I realized it at the time, but there weren't many books that starred girls who looked like me, though the lives of the girls I read about were very similar to mine. Two parents, pets, siblings, and funny friends were what I looked for and often found, but little black girls having adventures and making their way in the world were absent on the pages of all my favorite books.
Still, I read and loved those books, but when I wrote my very first story, it starred a little girl with bushy hair and brown skin. I think I was six when I wrote it, and the main character found a magic ring one day on her way to school. The ring gave her the power to do mundane things like make friends with whomever she wanted and to be first in line to go out for recess. But I loved writing the story and drawing the illustrations to go along with it. I think on some gut level I must have wanted to read a book about a girl who looked like me even if I didn't realize it. And I think the books my mother had bought for me early on (Corduroy, Snowy Day, Tar Beach) that had little brown kids in them made me know that this was an okay thing to want. So I wrote a story like the earliest ones I’d been given since I hadn’t been able to find more like them on my own.
As I got older, I fell into a pattern of reading books where I was similar to the main characters in every way except in the way those characters looked. I read Sarah Dessen's novels about teen girls having summer jobs and best friends and falling in love. I read John Green. I devoured David Levithan. And when girls I went to school with recommended novels to me that did star black characters, I often found I couldn't relate to those books at all.
Too often those novels told stories of poor or broken black families, or young girls who had experienced horrible traumas. And that's not to say that those stories shouldn't be told or that those experiences aren't valid. They just weren't mine. More and more I wanted to read books about happy African-American families going on vacations. Brave brown-skin girls going on adventures. Pretty black girls going on dates, and maybe even being kissed.
So in high school, I started my first novel. It was about a black girl who fell in love with her best friend. There was a treehouse, and a first kiss on a ferris wheel, and a first date that took place at a school dance. There were a few really great things about it, but mostly it was cliche, and terribly paced, and much too long. I loved it because I'd wanted to write a book for so long, but I knew there were things about it that were irreparably broken.
So I wrote more, but I stuck to short stories for a while, so I could figure out how plot worked. I read widely so I could learn how to make readers care about characters. And I wrote about brown girls who were lost and found their way or who made decisions that changed their whole lives. Girls who were like me and who looked like me. And it was fun, but it was really hard too.
After college was when I decided this writing thing was what I really wanted to do. So I buckled down and decided to attempt another novel. This one was much stronger than the first, but still had it's problems. I revised and got great reads, and I kept it a little too close to my chest. When I felt it was as good as I could make it, I wrote a query letter and started sending it to agents. And I started with agents of some of my favorite authors: Sarah Dessen and John Green and David Levithan.
I was cocky. I was brave.
I got a few requests from agents like these, and a handful of others who wanted to read more than just the sample pages I'd originally provided them. But ultimately, nothing came of that novel. I queried and revised for months, but none of the agents offered to represent me. Still, I kept writing.
I started a new story at the end of the second year I'd been querying. As soon as I wrote the first page of this new thing, I could feel that it was something special. And because I'd been a bit protective with my last project, I decided that I'd do everything differently this time around. I let anyone who wanted to read my story read it. I listened to all the criticism I got early on and incorporated everything I agreed with. I wrote half the story and sent it out to a large group of friends and critique partners with the promise that the second half was on its way. I made goals. I set deadlines. I got serious.
This time when I made the list of agents I wanted to reach out to, I was more strategic. I thought about what was most important to me and I realized it was finding an agent who was as invested in making brown girls the heroes of their own stories as I was. So my list of agents ended up being primarily women of color. I wrote and rewrote my query letter. And this time, I was offered representation.
The rest was a whirlwind: I edited my novel a few times with my agent and then went out on submission to editors. And after a month of hearing nothing, several editors reached out. My novel went to auction with 5 interested houses. It sold and I was immeasurably happy and this time next year, I'll have a book out in the world that is the kind of story I wish I had to read when I was younger: A story with people of color at its center--with a girl who looks like me being loved by her friends and family, and being kissed by the boy of her dreams.