NIC STONE

Nic Stone is a best selling author, and a force in the work to promote book access. Her debut book Dear Martin explores race, violence, and social justice, and her newest middle grade book Clean Getaway tells of a boy and his grandmother as they travel in an RV through the Jim Crow south. Jason Reynolds calls her work 'raw and gripping'. A 2020 article from Elle magazine calls Nic 'a voice of change'. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I'm thrilled today to be joined by Nic Stone who is joining us after a long week of traveling, I assume to promote your recent book, which is coming out Clean Getaway. I've had the pleasure of reading it and I won't ruin it for the listeners out there who haven't read it, but, um, I will say that the ending totally surprised me. I did not see that coming. Um, so thank you for joining us. Um, it's always fun to have authors on the end book deserts podcast because, without the work that you guys do, we wouldn't have these great pieces of young adult and middle-grade and children's book literature to get into the hands of readers. So, thank you for joining us today. I know that you have written and…

 

Nic Stone

Thanks for having me. 

 

Molly Ness

Well, I know that you had written and speak pretty passionately about the need for getting the right book into the hands of the right reader at the right time. So, can you explain that thought a little bit more? Why is it so important that readers have the right book for them?

Nic Stone

Well, I mean, I think it's like pretty well known in the statistics- of course, there's statistics everywhere that support the idea that a person who can read and write is going to have better life outcomes than somebody who can't. Um, reading and writing are so fundamentally kind of entrenched in the way we as America do the idea of society that if you cannot do those two pretty basic tasks, you're going to struggle significantly. The issue is a lot of kids in book deserts, so these high poverty areas where you know, you have a lot of trauma, you have, um, a lot of the time book desert and food desert kind of coincide. You have a lot of kids who are barely getting enough to eat so, let alone, you know, they, they don't even have it in their systems to be able to focus on a thing. So, having the right piece of literature that will hook a child and help them to see that reading can be fun. I think having that happen at the right point in a kid's life, no matter what their situation is really vital to starting kids off reading. 

 

Molly Ness

And when I hear you talk about literacy and society and kids who are struggling with trauma, and um living in book desert to me, you're talking so much about issues of equity, how does the concept of equity inform the- the writing that you do?

Nic Stone

Honestly, I feel like my writing is more informed and more driven by the presence of inequity. Um, and, and wanting to, because while I don't have answers for how to make the world more equitable, I do think I have some ideas for making it less inequitable. And I think that that is a thing that begins with noticing where the inequities lie and then figuring out what we can do to adjust. Um, so for instance, I, when it comes to school visits, I do my best to privilege, um, title one schools, schools that don't actually have funds to pay for author visits or to pay for books. And it's important to me to make book donations because I think the inequity, it's kind of a cyclical thing, right? Like you have these kids who are in these situations where they don't have access to the same resources as the kids, two towns over who are living in a higher tax bracket. Um, because of that lack of resources they wind up not doing as well, which then puts them right back where they started, and they can't get out of that place to get into a place where there are better resources. So, trying to break the cycle at some point is super important to me and it definitely will vary from school to school or even kid to kid, but letting a kid know that they are valuable even through present that reflects you and your experience with a happy ending. Like I think that we underestimated the power of something like that. 

 

Molly Ness

Well, you're starting to talk a little bit about the work that you do both in your writing and your authorly life or your readerly life, um, to end book deserts. Um, in a previous podcast I spoke with Jason Reynolds. I know Jason, um, Reynolds' influenced you, um, for those readers who have not yet gotten their hands on Clean Getaway, there's a nice shout out to Jason in the acknowledgments. I'm a, I'm the reader that I, the first thing I read is the acknowledgments page, whether it's in the front or back of the book. And I know you gave a shout out to him, um, for influencing you on writing your first middle-grade book. Um, in a previous podcast he challenged his fellow authors to become greater advocates, advocates for book access. Can you speak to how you’re doing that and how you encourage other authors to do similar work? 

 

Nic Stone

I, in, providing books. Yeah. So, I think one of the main ways that we can help with book access, just to actually like provide books to kids who can't afford them. And I know that that is asking if it can be asking a lot, are a lot of authors using it and trying to get your books into the hands of a kid who can't afford to pay for them. Not only is it like good for the kid, it's also a really great marketing tool because you build a reader out of one book, you get a kid into one book and the next thing you know they want to read your next book and your next and your next book. And I think that there's also something to be said for the power of making reading cool, making it something that kids desire to do. Because even in a lot of these book deserts you have people in, I mean in all places you have people who want to look like they are a part of society who wants to fit in, especially kids. You have kids who want to wear the latest sneakers, they want to have the latest video games. And sometimes it's more, it even has to do with like an allocation of the resources that are there. So even getting a kid to read something by like, here, let me give you this book that I wrote instead of expecting you who have no money, instead of expecting you to buy it, let me give it to you. I think that there's also something to be said for, um, doing free school visits. I mean, you know, don't run yourself into the ground like I did in 2018. Um, but going into places where kids are not used to seeing authors where they don't really read books, but once they see you, they want to read a book. Um, oftentimes publishers are willing to make donations. Like there are a lot of ways that I think we don't tap into. Um, and a lot of the time it has to do with just not noticing, like not recognizing that there's a problem. Umm, I have heard often will, you know, publishing is a business. And I'm like, well, yes, it's a business, but it's a business that's built on a life skill. And so, helping to develop the life skill can do nothing but help the business. Um, so just paying attention I think would be helpful. And that- my challenge to my fellow authors is to like, pay more attention, open your eyes, look around you and you know, don't just seek to get your books in the hands of the kids who can buy them. There are also going to be kids who maybe can't buy them but still need to read them. 

 

Molly Ness: And I'm glad to hear you bring up the notion of, of a school visits. I just read a 2019 research article out of an, uh, uh, an organization from the United Kingdom. So, I can only assume that it's similar in the United States. Um, how impactful author visits are on kids. Um, and the idea that only one in four students have, um, author visits and that number is much, much smaller for kids living in poorer areas. What, um, do you see the impact of school visits? How is it powerful for you as an author and how do you think it is powerful for the communities that you're involved with?

Nic Stone

It keeps my feet on the ground. I can tell you that much. Um, from an author perspective, going into a place, especially when we're, I'm not being paid, it keeps me focused on the thing that actually matters and like why, why I am doing the writing books because I grew up without books that had kids who, who like me, I had plenty of books in my house when I was growing up but none of them had characters look like, like I did. Um, especially the children's books I was reading and it's largely because of [inaudible] one hurt a whole lot of them. So, the ones that did it as how necked I was. And then once I got into writing him, I realized that now the next side of the, I guess you'd say the next level of the challenge is getting the kids that you're writing for to actually read the books. Because when you grow up without books that have kids that look like you, even without books that you find interesting. Trying to start a kid reading it like 13 or 14 or 15 can be a bit of a challenge. Um, so I go into these schools and even when it's a school where the they have not read a single one of your books, they come in, they have no idea who you are. Uh, there's something about a person, a grownup who writes books taking the time to come and talk to you that I find that these kids, they just eat it up especially the ones who aren't used to being visited. Um, and who are [inaudible] used to having somebody show that kind of like concern for their wellbeing. 

 

Molly Ness

I'm, I'm, I'm so sorry. I, the internet isn't great. So, I turned off my video. Do you mind turning off your video as well just to see if that makes a difference? 

 

Nic Stone

Here. Let's see. 

 

Molly Ness

Better. Yeah, let's try that. Um, and I, I think I'll be able to piece together enough of what you've just said. Um, well, I know…

 

Nic Stone

Sorry.

 

Molly Ness

No, no worries. I'm not sure if it's on your end or my end or what? Well in a previous podcast, um, I spoke with an organization out of Baltimore, which is near and dear to my heart as I'm a Baltimore native. I spoke with the Enoch Pratt and One Book Baltimore. And I know that you are their first author that was featured the book Dear Martin, was chosen and distributed to all seventh and eighth-graders. What was that? 

 

Nic Stone

Yeah, I love them!

Molly Ness

And then of course you were followed by Jason Reynolds and Long Way Down, which is a 2019, um, their selection, when I spoke to the organizers of One Book Baltimore, we sort of chuckled over, man, what are you going to choose for 2020? You've really, you've really set the stakes pretty high, and um, who's gonna follow in 2020, but I'm sure there'll be some great, some great work to an author too to get involved. What was One Book Baltimore like for you? 

 

Nic Stone

Amazing. Like in a word. It was amazing. Um, first of all, knowing that something I created was going to be read by every seventh and eighth-grader in a single city was mind-blowing. Um, I agree- you know what we all, most of us in like my and Jason's age rage, we grew up being shoved the same books like it go, okay, everybody's got to read Fahrenheit 451 and we all have to read Animal Farm and we all have to read To Kill a Mockingbird. And we all had to read these books, um, that we were not in he or if we were in it. It wasn't in a very pleasant. Like it wasn't anything I wanted to imitate. Right. Like seeing what happened to Tom Robinson, like that wasn't a thing that I wanted to happen to me. Um, so to have a book that I've written where there is a black character at the center, who is the hero of the story be chosen for a program where it's like every seventh and eighth-graders having to read the book, it was like nothing I'd ever expected. Um, and the coolest part actually was going to Baltimore and interacting with the students who had read the book and honestly just hearing the questions that they had, because we do not give kids enough credit, especially the ones who are in book deserts. If you give them the information to process, they process it and they think about it and they will want to talk about it which is why I think it's so important that we work to end the book deserts and you know, we're giving money to donors too. They're looking around at these different outlets where you can like donate and try to get the teachers who were begging for the resources. How do we get the resources into their hands? Like there's all of these, there are so many, there really are a lot of ways um, to help with this problem. 

 

Molly Ness

Yeah. And as we present, um, as we focus on ways to prevent the problem, when ways to address the problem, um, when I think about book deserts, I think it's so much about access, but it's also more than just dropping a bunch of books in a community and running. It's really what are we going to do to promote reading culture? And you talked a little bit about making reading cool. So, let's pick up on that a little bit. How can we address the second part of book deserts, which, which again isn't just, um, access, but it's sustaining? It's creating a culture and a community where it's, it's cool to be a reader and you're constantly seeing other readers and having conversations about your readerly lives. How can we, do you have any ideas about promoting book and reading culture in that capacity? 

 

Nic Stone

I honestly think that one of the best ways to promote reading culture is to slow down. Um, especially at like the middle school level. So many like- kids get like shoved book after book after book and you need to read this book and you need to prove that you comprehend it by taking this test. But even just having the ability to like maybe slow it down a little bit, do some reading aloud in class, and like having discussion in class about what's in the book, not just theme and like what is a symbol, et cetera, et cetera. But what's actually happening in these books. If it is something that kids find that they can engage with because they can apply it to their daily life, they will want to read this. They- they'll want to readout. I've seen it with my own eyes. Giving a kid something that they can like lock onto that's both entertaining and thought-provoking. Like that is the way to get kids reading and get them to continue to want to read. I have yet to meet a single kid who has finished Long Way Down and has not wanted to read something else. Um, same thing with Dear Martin oddly enough. Like, I'll have kids texting me all day on Instagram, sending me direct messages on Instagram, asking me when the next book comes out, when's the sequel coming out? Because all it takes is getting them engage in a thing that stimulates their brain and entertains their mind. So it's like putting those two things together, especially in a classroom setting and then giving kids the space to actually say what they're feeling, I think is one of the best ways that we can start kind of flipping the deserts upside down. 

 

Molly Ness

And we've sort of come full circle to the- a question that I first asked you, which was, um, about the importance of the right book at the right time. And so much of writing and putting out there is, um, connecting to the youth, their realities, their, um, their lives, um, who they are and making, reading, engaging and relevant to them. So, when we talk about access, we talk not only about getting books into the hands of kids but also making all sorts of books. How does, despite how controversial they may be available. And I know you, your work has certainly been, um, at the folk at the center point of some censorship. Um, Dear Martin has been banned in certain areas. Um, I think you and I would both agree that there are more violent and offensive issues and um, language and such on TV than on books. So, I'm hoping you can comment a little bit about the censorship issue and how it may relate to book accessibility. 

 

Nic Stone

You know, it's fascinating how I have found it fascinating how quickly people will jump to ban things that make them uncomfortable. So, you wind up what you have these adults in positions of power in the educational system or parents. Sometimes it's a parent who like has a fit about something in a book that they don't want their child to read. And because they don't want their child to read it, they feel that no children should be allowed to read it. So that's one way that things get banned. The other way is that you have like a superintendent or a school board member who will read something in the book, finds it offensive, and decide that it needs to be pulled from shelves. Um, that was the case with Dear Martin. It was pulled with two other books- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and then there's another one that I can never remember what the third one is, but the superintendent who pulled these books, she cited different reasons for each book, but all of it. It was all kind of like trying to hold a handful of sand. Um, so I think at the end of the day, there was a comment made about the topics and Dear Martin being politically divisive, um, which says more to me about your adult discomfort than it does your concern about the wellbeing of children. Because political divisiveness is something that like, it's more of like a grownup thing. And I don't say that to like minimize what children are dealing with, but children learn political divisiveness from their parents. So, if you give a kid a topic that they can discuss, it doesn't have to become divisive, especially in an in a classroom like classrooms or spaces where you exchange ideas. Um, so you're right, there is something interesting about which books are banned in which books aren't. Like Jurassic Park for example, wasn’t pulled. And you have like Tyrannosaurus is eating people's heads off and it was fine, but then you have books that address common issues and it's like, well we can't talk about that in school. But I do think it goes back to that discomfort. Um, what I will say about, so and then are there are a lot of people that are like, Oh, you were banned. It's such an honor, et cetera, et cetera. Like, yes, but also no, because that ban also prevents a kid who would have benefited from reading the book, from getting it because now they can't get it at school. Um, so it's a really tricky kind of complex. They, the cool thing about Columbia County, Georgia where Dear Martin was banned is that, um, local bookstore down there did a book drive for Dear Martin. So people from all over the country were buying copies of Dear Martin, that kids from the schools could then just come to the bookstore and pick up. Uh, so the ones that could get to it, were still able to get it, which is a good thing. But that's not always the case. And I think it's something that we got to take into consideration, especially when speaking out against censorship. Like what are you saying to a child who is in a situation like this character in a book that you just banned, you know, like, Oh, okay, so this person's life isn't acceptable for the shelves of our school. What does that say about my life as a person who is in the school? 

 

Molly Ness

I love what that bookstore did. Um, and my guess is that kids were the kids who were able to get to that bookstore- they were the ones really clamoring to read it. You probably know as a parent anytime you ban something, that's the first thing your kid wants to do. So, by banning a book and then another place, another outlet, making it available. Um, that probably that book was probably passed along from hand to hand of kids who were just dying to read it now that it had been seen as inappropriate or off- off-limits or what have you. 

 

Nic Stone

Yup. I think you're exactly right. 

 

Molly Ness

So, um, as we wrap up, I wanted to ask you the question that I ask of every guest. Um, and I do this in the spirit of building reading culture. I think, um, as we, uh, tackle the idea of book deserts, um, one of the things we have to do is promote reading culture and promote ourselves and our readerly lives. So, I'm hoping that you can tell us one book from your past or present that has really had a profound impact on you. I think we're often asked each other what's your favorite book? And sometimes your favorite book is different than a book that really resonates with you or led your life in a different direction or has really just changed you. I know as a lifelong reader, it's impossible to narrow it down to one. And if I were to ask you this question tomorrow, it would probably be a different answer, but in this moment, what's that one book that really has had a profound lifelong impact on you? 

 

Nic Stone

The one that is coming to mind for me right now is um, Alice Walker's The Color Purple. And I think partially because of the way it was written, that's the first book I ever read.  Uh, that was written in an epistolary format. So like it was my first time encountering pros that was like a story that was written in diary entries and I was like, what in the world? Like it was like the strangest thing or like, like a letter type thing is the first book I ever encountered that was written that way. Um, it was also written in vernacular, which is something that I completely was turned off by. I was turned off of vernacular reading Huck Finn, but then reading it in The Color Purple totally flipped how I felt about books that are written kind of in the dialect of the speaker. And it was also the first book where I saw a relationship between two women on the page and seeing all three of those things in one single little short book completely flipped my world upside down. Um, because I just didn't know that all of those things could exist individually, let alone in the same package. And it really helped me to see what was possible in a book if that makes sense- especially a book by and about a black woman. 

 

Molly Ness

Well, I love asking this question because as people give their answers, whether it was a picture book that they read with their child last week or a book that they were required to read in seventh grade English, you get people's explanations and you get these little tiny glimpses of them as a, as a human being in their individuality and what their life experiences were. So, I think it's just a really interesting question that is really revealing, um, not just about who we are as readers, but who we are as, as human beings and what has, um, had shaped our path and our present. Well, I'm so glad to have be able to had some time to chat with you today. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for the work that you do as a writer, making sure that kids are seeing their lives and their realities reflected on the page. And thank you for the work that you do to end book deserts. We are so excited to see your future writing. I'm sure Clean Getaway is going to be just as successful as the previous ones. What is the final, the formal release date of Clean Getaway? 

 

Nic Stone

It is tomorrow, January 7th, 2020. 

 

Molly Ness

Well, I'm sure readers will be heading to their local independent bookstore. I always like to promote independent bookstores.

 

Nic Stone

I agree.

 

Molly Ness

…to get it and I know you're doing a lot of tours and I assume school visits around this. So, um, I will look forward to following that. Thank you for your time today and for your work to end book deserts. 

 

Nic Stone

Thank you, Molly.

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