Dhonielle Clayton is at the center of the push for increased racial diversity in children’s and YA fantasy books.
What happens when “Black Swan” meets “Pretty Little Liars”? You get “Tiny Pretty Things,” a series debut that was trending as Netflix’s third most-watched show in the United States. The drama-filled show is based on the book Dhonielle Clayton co-authored with Sona Charaipotra. Set in an elite Chicago ballet academy where it’s hard to tell friend from foe, students manipulate, betray and learn to master movement and murder as they dance their way to their dreams.
Ms. writer J.D. Myall recently sat down with Dhonielle Clayton to talk about her involvement with nonprofit We Need Diverse Books; her novels, The Belles and Tiny Pretty Things; her book packaging company, CAKE Literary; and her latest edited anthology, A Universe of Wishes.
J.D. Myall: Where did your desire to address the diversity issues in the publishing industry come from?
Dhonielle Clayton: As a child, a lot of the books I loved reading had no one who looked like me as a lead in those stories. I wanted to change that.
As a librarian in Harlem, I was struck by how few books we had that reflected our students. I was a teacher and lover of books; I wanted kids of color to have the chance to go to magic schools and save the world. I wanted to create books that affirmed these kids’ identities and allowed them to see themselves. A lot of books about marginalized kids focus on racism and the trauma kids of color sometimes face. Those stories are important, but they aren’t the only stories kids should have.
Kids of all shades deserve to walk into a bookstore and find books that mirror their experiences or read about someone that looks like them going on an adventure and saving the world.
Myall: As the COO of We Need Diverse Books, you have constructed a career based on your vision of getting diverse children’s and young adult books in the hands of readers so that all kids can see themselves reflected in stories. For that reason, I am extremely excited to hear about your latest project.
Can you tell me the story behind the story?
Clayton: We Need Diverse Books is in a wonderful partnership with Random House. We launched several programs to address the need for diversity from many angles. One of them was building a reading culture for teachers and librarians. One of the things we did was create anthologies with the best of the best in diverse writing. A Universe of Wishes is our fourth anthology. It’s an anthology of YA stories with magic.
The power of children’s books is the visceral way they teach you about life at a time when you don’t know what life is. In the fantasy canon, kids of color, queer kids, and marginalized kids are often missing from that genre. They deserve to command spaceships and live in the future and do everything cisgender characters have done for ages. The face of magic has always been white, and we wanted to change that. In this anthology, we have different types of magic and Sci-Fi fantasy. Having that kind of freedom in the pages allowed us to let authors flex.
As a librarian, my students were predominately brown, and they didn’t like fantasy because they hadn’t been able to see themselves as the commander of a spaceship. I want to build the next generation of Octavia E. Butlers. We do that by helping readers become writers and by letting kids see themselves on the page so they can fall in love with fantasy and expand their universe with books.
Myall: What is your best advice for diverse authors and aspiring authors?
Clayton: I always say, “Be stubborn in your resolve. You have to want it deeper than you think.” It must be bone deep. There are so many people who will tell you “no.” You need to have the will to keep going when doors slam in your face. Do your homework. Come ready. Have something to say. The fire that fueled me started when I was a librarian. I had to fill seventy-five library shelves, but there was only one shelf filled with books that represented the children in my building. That was devastating. It sparked my desire to create diverse fiction and get it into the hands of the readers it represents.
Myall: Do you have any advice for authors who want to write sci-fi and fantasy novels?
Clayton: I love fantasy as a genre, but sometimes we put the same things in a soup pot and try to make a new gumbo out of it. Read widely to bring in techniques from other genres. We like tropes. I think we should entertain new questions and introduce more people. It’s time to expand, to create an intoxicating new world that makes readers want to try on its skin.
I world-build in my novel by asking a central organizing question—for The Belles, it was, “What in the world would you do to be beautiful and what would others do for beauty?” Tabloid culture, technological advances, and things that allow you to monitor people are often useful in world-building. Fantasy is an incitement of our world. Know what you’re trying to say with the world you’re building so that it has an internal logic and isn’t just a hodgepodge mess.
Myall: Do you believe that sci-fi and fantasy novels have the power to shape minds and influence the future?
Clayton: Absolutely. What is unique about the genre is that it stretches the imagination and introduces what ifs in a way that is exciting. Magic allows for wrinkles in the imagination and stretches the brain. Sci-Fi and fantasy are genres that will never end. They are also ripe for change.
Myall: Tell me about CAKE Literary.
Clayton: It is an IP development company that believes that making a book is like making a cake. If you had to eat one cake for the rest of your life, it would be boring. I wanted to introduce plotting and help new authors master plotting, and no one was doing diversity in the way I wanted diversity to be done. They focused diversity at the center of the narrative, whereas I wanted to focus on the story. I wanted stories for my Dominican students who were upset about not having brujas and brown girls who were witches and magical too.
Kids of color always have to be the teachable lessons in books: I was tired of that. Why do kids of color always have to show bruises and be the teachable lessons for children? I wanted my books to be all fun. If all kids of color read about themselves were books about trauma or race, they would start thinking that their existence was just about those things. We are more than our bruises, more than the racism we face. We are magic—we should see ourselves saving the world. White boys see that all the time.
At CAKE Literary, we create packaged books that offer diversity in meaningful ways, but they are also full of mystery, romance and emotion. We help diverse writers create high-concept, page-turning reads. We do the outlines and synopsis, and we edit and coach writers through the process: It’s a traditional write-for-hire model.
Myall: Looking back, what do you think you did right that helped you break into the industry and become the literary powerhouse that you are now?
Clayton: I stayed focused on who I am doing this for. In my mind, each thing I do is about filling the shelves in the library in the tiny East Harlem Charter School where I used to work. That keeps the ego out of it. I do everything so the kids can have the variety of stories that they deserve. From helping people enter the industry with CAKE Literary to working with We Need Diverse Books and to creating projects myself, all my work stems from wanting those pint-sized kids to see themselves in the books they read. Hearing they are up until 2 a.m. reading is everything to me. That’s how I know I’ve done my job. I want all kids to see themselves in books and stay up reading forever.
Myall: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Clayton: No. My ups and downs made me the writer I am today. Would I like to have moved faster or had a big hit that just sits on the best seller list? Maybe. But the ups and downs give me perspective. I like the journey. You can get in the mud and get up and fix things. I don’t want to be a perfect public figure. I am a human one. I wrote eight novels before I got published. That taught me that the pits are as important as the peaks. None of it was time wasted. It helped me grow as a writer—keep reading, keep observing the story, and keep writing.
Myall: You often refer to Holly Black as an influence. What makes her writing so impactful to you?
Clayton: What I love about her work is that it feels like the best part of what reading was to me as a kid. She eases you into a dark wood and builds a forest around you so you can’t get out. You have to finish her books. She makes my heart race with her dark wood of imagination: She’s fabulous. Magnificent. She taught me that a book can be an experience. I hope to one day be as skilled as she is and have the same depth of imagination. I like to make my books an experience like hers are. Only with mine, I want readers to feel like they stepped into a decadent cake, but they can’t see the maggots hiding under the icing.
Myall: Any final advice for aspiring writers?
Clayton: Writers write and read. You must write; there’s no way around it but through it. You have to want it enough that you continue when it gets tough.
Myall: What is next for you?
Clayton: Blackout. It’s a love story for Black kids; they deserve a love story. It’s about bruises of the heart. I’m writing part of the “Mirror” series. I am writing Shattered Midnight for Disney. My answer to Harry Potter, The Marvellers, is coming up soon. It’s about magic going global.
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