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The Shelf Care Interview: Kim Johnson and Alex Aster

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Random House Children’s Books and Sourcebooks.

We have a special installment today in honor of our yearlong Women in Focus celebration. In addition to this podcast, be sure to check out our website for book recommendations, virtual author panels, webinars, and more content that celebrates the voices of all women and girls everywhere! 

For this episode, Julia Smith will speak with two debut authors: Kim Johnson, author of This Is My America, which was published by Random House Children’s Books this past July; and Alex Aster, whose Curse of the Night Witch was published in June by Sourcebooks.  

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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PART I

We will begin by talking to Kim Johnson. Kim held leadership positions in social justice organizations as a teen. She’s now a college administrator who maintains civic engagement throughout the community while also mentoring Black student activists and leaders. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland, College Park. Kim lives her best life in Oregon with her husband and two kids. Find her at kcjohnsonwrites.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kcjohnsonwrites.

JULIA SMITH: Thank you for joining me, Kim.

KIM JOHNSON: Yeah, I’m so excited to be here!

Can you start off by telling us a bit about your novel?

This Is My America is about a 17-year-old girl named Tracy Beaumont whose father has been wrongfully incarcerated and sentenced to the death sentence. And she has basically spent the last seven years writing weekly letters to Innocence X, hoping that they’ll take her father’s case. They’re an organization that I created in honor of the Innocence Project and the Equal Justice Initiative, and she’s been working to find someone to support her father’s case. And then, the unthinkable happens when her older brother is accused of killing a white girl and he goes on the run; and the story basically takes off from there, where she has agency and she’s determined. She is that teen detective person that we haven’t necessarily had a chance to have, by putting a Black heroine at the front of her story. It’s a story about love. It’s a story about seeking justice and race in our society.

What inspires your writing, then?

A lot of it, in terms of my work, is around issues of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s what sparked my interest in telling the story. I felt like the media at the time—back in 2014 and 2015, when I was thinking about the kind of young adult stories that I wanted to tell on these issues—was very focused on police brutality, and I knew that the issues were deeper and more systemic in our society. And so, I wanted to try to tell a story that really touched on that generational thread.

And young people inspire my story! So, Tracy, a teenager, is a main character. I think of all the young activists and student leaders from my time, myself, to all the young people that I see every year at the university that I work at, or the various universities that I’ve worked at, who have just—they’re fearless, and they feel like they can change the world, and I wanted to write a story that had that. I feel like that’s at the core of a lot of stories that I write, they’re about young people going on a journey, which I guess is all young adult literature. The characters are always going on a journey, but I feel like my journeys are often a little bit more dangerous, and that often is what inspires me.

Yeah. And the timing on its release, I know you couldn’t have predicted where we would be now when you were writing it, but there are certainly common threads that were always there and less discussed. But it just seems like an extra—not good time—but a time when people are more actively seeking out stories like this and the inspiration to make a difference.

You know, I think that that’s something I’ve been continuously thinking through and processing my feelings of, that I felt was going to be a really important story that’s added to the canon of white literature and that I would get a chance to meet with readers and talk people through it and then the pandemic hit and that didn’t happen. And then George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor all within a very short time period, the country all of a sudden was paying attention to these issues in a way that they hadn’t before. And, you know, when I wrote my novel, I wanted to write a timeless novel because I felt like at any moment, these issues would still be timely.

And, you know, as to the timing coming out, I think I sort of am taking that ownership and that level of responsibility, in that I did write this book for a purpose. There were stories and issues that I really wanted to have people pay attention to. And I look to James Baldwin, actually, as someone who inspires me in thinking about bearing witness to the times. And I think my story, even though I obviously could never have predicted that we are in a movement—which I believe that this is, not a moment—I actually believe that we are in a movement in our country on these issues of not only Black Lives Matter but looking at race and the responsibility that every person who is in America, in the world, has to take hold. I see myself as a literary activist who writes touching, timely stories about the human condition.

Do you have any resources or authors or books that you like to recommend to younger people especially, who are often so filled with passion and drive but might not know how to get involved?

Because I work in higher ed, my opinion of young people is that there’s actually nothing out of reach for them. And I show that with my writing, you know? I think that they can strive for things. So, the resources that I listed in the back of my book actually acted as my reference list, which I wrote years ago, and are the books that are now on the anti-racist lists. I think The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, is a heavy read; probably not every young person is going to pick that up. But I do think that in complement with watching the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th, it’s completely approachable for a young person. I absolutely think Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, was my inspiration [editor’s note: a review of the young adult edition can be found here]. When I read that book in 2015, I had already started to form, in my head, the way I could provide the human experience of a family in my young adult book, based on how beautifully Bryan Stevenson did it when talking about his own personal life. And I think that’s a perfect description of a book.

The young adult version of The Other Wes Moore, so the book Discovering Wes Moore, I think was actually a really good one because it tells a story of what I think I wanted to have a lot of models of in my book, in that Moore’s book is about him and another person with the same name from the same community who had very different lives. And I think that that’s really what I was trying to tell in my story: that in an instant, your life can change and that you really are no different than the person next to you. It’s just a matter of circumstance and situation. I think that’s a really approachable way for young people to pay attention to those kinds of things.

And so, I think there’s a lot of great literature that’s coming out that is exploratory and just thinking about these thing. But I love getting nonfiction in the hands of young readers, because I do think that there are ways in which they can see themselves in different ways.

But I do list organizations in the back of my book from the Innocence Project, Equal Justice Initiative, The Marshall Project, Prison Policy Initiative. They’ve got great data and information and actionable pieces about ways in which teens can do stuff. There are lots of different organizations too, that I can probably list off too, but . . .

No, that’s great. That’s a great starting point. And I also love that aside from the very big and serious issues that your main character is facing in the book, one of the personal fights that she takes up is just with her school newspaper and whether she can be an editor and a person of color, and, you know, needing to change the conversation and the coverage that the students see. That is such a great example for young people who might be intimidated to jump into a bigger movement. You see things like protests, but it’s just a nice reminder of how you can ground these beliefs and implement them in your daily life.

I really wanted a lot of different examples in my novel about how young people can actually have agency. Oftentimes protests are sort of the big thing that people think about, but if you’re an activist and an organizer, that’s a culmination of a particular situation that leads into a protest. Usually you’re organizing or you’re meeting regularly on these different issues. And because the media was such a huge reason that I started to write this book, it was so important to me that I actually create a character who wanted to do things differently, who wanted to have a voice in the events she was witnessing and experiencing—to be there and also be educational, in a way. So, she has “Tracy’s Corner”—that’s the editorial column that she writes for the school paper. She wants to cover more topics than the typical thing that everyone else was covering in school. And she does that through her Know Your Rights workshops.

I wanted another example of the way in which you can create workshops: you can do that on your own as a young person. You don’t have to rely on anyone else. And even her writing letters was a key action to me. She writes letters throughout her book. I think that that’s such an important way to use your voice, that you can write letters to advocate for things that are important to you, or write letters to legislatures or representatives and organizations that you want to change.

I just wanted lots of different models of the ways that you can affect change that I think often aren’t covered. People don’t necessarily talk about, how do you engage in activism beyond protesting?, which I think also has a high value too, but how do you have activism be an ongoing thing that’s actually a part of your daily life?

We’re going to shift gears here a little bit. And for my next question, it is just a more general look at libraries and how they have played a role in your reading or writing life.

When I was growing up, my mom would take us to our public library every single weekend and it was the most joyous thing that I would ever experience as a young person—and this is during elementary and middle school, because I could explore, you know? So for me, the library always had been a space where I didn’t have limits. I could pick up whatever I wanted and go for it. I’m just so excited that my book, and so many books now, offer more representation from underrepresented authors—and specifically thinking about Black authors—to fill the library, because that’s where I was getting my books as a young person. I never bought a book. It was always the library. The library always provided me those books, and, when we talk about the windows and sliding doors that are there, I think that expanding the literature and the access to it makes all the difference in the world for all readers. I was going to specifically actually say young people, but I think for all readers.

Well, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I have a combination of—I love nonfiction.I just picked up Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, which is a follow up to The Warmth of Other Suns. I love reading a lot of nonfiction because I just geek out on understanding history and politics and law. But then I also balance the other 50% of my hat—I’m so into thrillers and mysteries, and I read from young adult, too. And that’s why my story has such a mystery element in it, because I love quick page-turners. As a really busy person, it’s so difficult sometimes to jump into a story because I think, “Oh, I better do something else.” But if I’m caught in a page-turner, then I will just keep reading and reading that. So yeah, those are my favorite go-to things.

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PART II

For the second half of this episode, we welcome Alex Aster to discuss the launch of her Emblem Island series for middle-grade readers. Alex recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. The Emblem Island series is inspired by the Latin American myths her Colombian grandmother told her as a child before bedtime. Explore the world of Emblem Island at www.asterverse.com.

JULIA SMITH: Thank you for joining me, Alex.

ALEX ASTER: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited!

Let’s just start with you telling us a bit about your book.

Great! Curse of the Night Witch is set on Emblem Island, a world where everyone is born with markings on their skin that represent their fate and their talents. So, Tor Luna, the main character, has a leadership emblem, just like his mother, who is the chieftess of their village, but the only problem is that Tor doesn’t want to lead anyone. He hates his marking and he actually wants a new emblem. On the annual Eve celebration, when anyone can make a wish in the hopes of it being granted in the new year, Tor wishes for new emblem. Instead, the next morning he wakes up and he has been cursed. So, he and his two friends must cross Emblem Island for the first time in search of the only person who can break his curse, the mysterious Night Witch, and they have to do so using an ancient book of legends; and they will face monsters from that same book of legends on their path to the Night Witch.

I would like to hear a little bit more, this ties into the next question, I guess, which is, what inspires your writing? So, you can either talk to that now or—I’m very curious about the mythology aspect of this book and where it came from. If these are all stories of your invention or if it is based on some other cultural myths that you’re aware of?

Cool. So, in Curse of the Night Witch, the world of Emblem Island is inspired by my Latinx heritage. I’m Colombian and I grew up hearing my grandmother tell me these Colombian stories from her childhood. One of these stories in particular, called “La niña con la estrella en la frente,” which means “The Girl With the Star on Her Forehead,” inspired the world of Emblems, where you’re born with the marking that can determine your fate and you can be gifted markings or talents based on good or bad behavior.

That kind of forms the basis of the world of Emblem Island, and I really wanted to inject some of these Latinx myths that maybe people haven’t heard of, like “La Llorona,” “La Ciguapa,” “La Patasola.” And so, some of the monsters in the story are definitely based on these traditional Latinx monsters and creatures and stories, but I wrote some in the book that are just completely my own—but all of them are in the tradition of these Latinx myths that are honestly kind of scary. They are cautionary tales, just like the Grimms’ Tales, but they haven’t really been watered down by Disney.

So, when you’re a child, you hear these stories and they’re kind of dark. They’re definitely trying to teach you a lesson. I thought it was really interesting because I feel like a lot of people in Florida [where Alex grew up] and even just in America haven’t heard of these stories. When I was growing up, I would talk about them and no one had any idea what I was talking about. So for my debut, I definitely wanted to incorporate the Latinx mythology that meant so much to me as a child.

Oh my gosh. That’s great. Yeah, some of those original folk tales in whichever culture you’re a part of can be really terrifying.

Yeah. Especially because I feel like a lot of people don’t know about the original Grimms’ Tales that all of the Disney movies are based on, and those are really dark and every culture has these stories, but the ones in Latinx culture just have not been made kid friendly. So, you hear the bad version and you’re terrified to go to bed.

I kind of love it though. Let’s see, we’re going to jump to libraries for a second. How have they played a role in your reading or writing life?

I’ve always loved libraries. First of all, because my grandma, the same person who told me these Latinx myths that inspired Emblem Island, she has been trying to learn English for the last 20 years. She always goes to libraries and she takes English classes there. We would go with her and we would kind of explore while she was taking her English classes, so, they have a very special place in my heart. But also, more recently, I graduated from UPenn and they have the most beautiful libraries—these libraries that were built in the 1700s or 1800s, and they were the place where I wrote my first books before Emblem Island. And it was just so inspiring to be among these ancient manuscripts. They have a rare book department, so it’s really cool to just be there. But libraries have always been an oasis for me to write and, not only write, but to get inspiration for the worlds that I’m trying to create.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I love to read fantasy and I write middle grade, obviously (Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch is a middle-grade book), but I’m also working on young adult. So, whatever I’m writing, I try to match that to my reading so that I can get inspired and really immerse myself in the middle-grade voice or the young-adult voice.

Right now I’m reading Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch, by Julie Abe. It’s really good! I really love it so far. And then before that, I loved Zoraida Córdova’s book, The Way to Rio Luna. It’s really good. I loved Ghost Squad, by Claribel Ortega. And those are all middle-grade books that are just so fantastic. They inspire me to write better. I actually just had my deadline for the edits to the second book of the Emblem Island series yesterday. Whenever I’m working on edits, I love to read middle grade and just remind myself what I’m trying to do and why I love writing.

As you mentioned, this is a series. Do you know how many will be in this series?

Right now, it’s a—it was a two-book deal two years ago when the book sold, but we’re leaving room for new books. I think I’ll probably know pretty soon if there are going to be more books in this series, since I’m editing the second book right now, but I would love for there to be more books. I think we’ve left the door open for a wider narrative to take place throughout the series, but I’m really excited. And especially, the second book is really different from the first. The first is all about crossing Emblem Island and the monsters that live there and the myths that kind of dictate the culture of Emblem Island. And the second book is all about the sea surrounding Emblem Island. So, it’s a different territory. Yeah.

Oh, that’s fun! One thing that I loved in Curse of the Night Witch is the details of the lifelines on characters palms and the markings, the emblems, that appear when they’re born. But it also raises the idea of destiny or fate versus choice, which I think is a very powerful thing. Can you speak a little bit to how that influences your characters?

Of course. That’s probably one of the biggest themes—how all of these characters are born with their marking that isn’t just a talent, like you’re a good singer or you’re a really good cook, it’s your role in society. So, if you’re born with a cooking emblem, that’s what you’re going to do. And in Tor’s case, he doesn’t like his emblem, and that kind of goes against the entire culture of his society. So, that influences his entire journey. He’s willing to risk his life, willing to risk his friends’ lives for this. And he questions, “Am I selfish for wanting something different for my life? Or is the entire system wrong for telling me what I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to live my life?”

That affects all of the characters. It’s interesting because Tor is the only one of the three main characters who doesn’t like his emblem; the other two love their emblems. They were born with the perfect emblem for them. So, I think it’s a commentary on just growing up and life in general, that sometimes your parents want you to do something and you really match up with that vision because that’s exactly what you want to do, too. But sometimes you want to pursue a totally different path, or maybe you weren’t born in the right place and you have to find your way in the world. That’s definitely Tor’s story. He’s willing to go to great lengths to get the fate that he thinks he deserves.

Thanks again to Kim Johnson and Alex Aster for joining us today and another big thanks to our sponsors, Random House Children’s Books and Sourcebooks.

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About the Author:

Julia Smith is a senior editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also an aspiring aerialist. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

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