Everyone is talking about this book. And they should be.
This time last year, Twitter was abuzz about Nic Stone’s upcoming debut novel, Dear Martin. At the time, a colleague was gathering the necessary documents to propose us co-teaching Jason Reynolds’ All-American Boys as a fiction pair to To Kill a Mockingbird. Our goal was to also include excerpts from other titles as well—American Born Chinese and Dear Martin (primarily because it wouldn’t have been released yet, so I’d be doing read-alouds from an ARC, if I could get my hand on one). Time passed, life happened, and we ended up not being able to incorporate AAB, etc. into the mix. But I never forgot about Dear Martin. February came and I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I devoured it, wept over it, and held it words dear to me; it was the first time I’d heard my voice in literature. Ever. It made me long for Dear Martin even more. By summer’s end—or whenever Stone revealed what would be the final cover—I gave up all hope of securing an ARC. And then TASL (Tennessee Association of School Librarians) Conference happened. Oh the joy!, when a colleague and fellow advocate of diverse, relevant, high-quality literature for young adults gifted me with an ARC as part of his presentation at the conference.
So what did I do when I returned home? Devour it too. I’m still savoring it, to be honest. So much so, that it’s been difficult to blog about and feel like I could do it justice (no pun intended). As I prepared to post this one, I thought about how important it was for me to allow someone else’s thoughts to resonate. As a black woman who constantly preaches diverse and relevant literature, I think for Dear Martin, it’d also be important to hear perspectives from someone who doesn’t look like me. After all, the weaving of multiple perspectives in Dear Martin is one of the most profound things Stone does in the novel. With that said, I’m branching out a bit and introducing a guest to my blog. Welcome my friend and one of the people I talk books with most, Jennifer Sharp. I’m grateful to have her join.
You have 30 seconds to book talk Dear Martin. What do you say?
Late one night, Justyce McAllister is helping a drunk ex-girlfriend get home—and that’s when it all starts. A white policeman misinterprets what he sees, and gets rough with Justyce. It’s a terrifying experience, and one that starts to shift Justyce’s entire worldview as he sees more and more instances of systemic racism. He decides to write to Martin Luther King, Jr. and try to model King’s mentality and peaceful approach in his own life – but he struggles with that as he becomes more and more “woke” to all the race issues in our country.
We both love SJ because she’s direct, confrontational when it matters most, and has a heart for what’s right. But, you mentioned you wished Melo had more depth. What would you have liked to seen from her?
Well, it didn’t seem like Melo really had any redeeming qualities—at least not that we saw in the novel. Based on my experience working with teenagers, I feel like she probably has a back story. This novel wasn’t the place for her story to be told—but I did find myself very curious about her, and I wondered what led her to behave the way that she does.
Ok, I’m about to hit you with some real ish. So Justyce’s mom doesn’t like SJ because she’s white. As a white person, what was your initial reaction to this? Did you have questions?
I love talking about the real ish! Haha. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve definitely heard about people having that mentality before. As much as I want to say, “Oh, she should be totally cool with SJ and Justyce dating,” I also know that she’s probably had some life experiences that have led her to feel the way she does. I don’t think that necessarily validates her attitude about it, but it’s easier to empathize with her feelings knowing that it’s likely coming from a place of hurt and trauma.
It IS kind of a vicious cycle though—we expect black people to continue to be cool with white people, especially if they’re “allies” so to speak (like SJ), but we don’t acknowledge why that might be difficult for someone who has had lots of negative experiences with white people. As a white person, I can hardly say, “Why can’t you see that some of us are good people/committed to equality?” when we are inundated with news and experiences that show how many white people AREN’T. It’s an uphill battle.
The reality is that Justyce’s mom is used to having to combat racism from the system and from individuals, and it has worn her down and made her constantly “on defense.” She sees SJ as a threat because of her race—and while that’s hurtful to Justyce and SJ, I think we can all see how easy it might be to fall into her mindset as you read Justyce’s story. It didn’t bother me, necessarily, because I understand I’m reading her story from a place of privilege. But I do wish she had relented a little sooner! It was frustrating how hard she pushed Justyce on that topic at the funeral. But I see where she’s coming from and I hope she ultimately finds a way to accept SJ as a part of her family, because SJ loves Justyce. And maybe knowing SJ will broaden her perspective and vice versa.
In his final letter, Jus quotes Martin saying, “We (as in Black people) want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens.” Taking into consideration today’s political climate and prevalent social issues, how do we get there for all persons of color?
Whew, Erika – that’s a doozy!! It’s hard to imagine anything that would repair all the wrongs and get us there in the short term. As an educator, I think the biggest impact long-term will come from our children. I have known so many educators that are committed to empowering students to speak out and be heard. They’re choosing literature that is relevant and high-interest to share with their students, and they’re having discussion around those books that encourages students to develop and share their own voice. I think it helps, too, that so much of our curriculum now is focused on literacy—not just reading, but writing and speaking. So I hope learning these skills—and having educators who are committed to reaching ALL their students—will further this generation’s ability to make an impact on their world.
I think we all know kids aren’t BORN racist. That comes from society, and from kids being exposed to those viewpoints out in the world. But if we keep working—as parents, as teachers, as community members—to show kids how to have difficult conversations and love each other, I think we’ll be moving in the right direction.
To that end, I also think conversation is key. Our society too often fails at having tough conversations about things like race and privilege. We need to equip kids—and adults—to have thoughtful, intentional conversations about these topics. We need to open our hearts and our minds daily to the experiences of others—through listening to the people around us, through travel, through reading, etc. and we need to push others to do the same. These are the things that will help us make huge strides in that direction. Ultimately, I think the biggest thing is to keep moving forward and keep fighting for the future. We can’t give up or get disheartened. On election night last year, I stayed up late and cried my eyes out, and came to school and cried the whole next day when I looked at my students. But we have to KEEP showing up and speaking out, even in times of great sorrow, and we have to keep fighting the good fight. I think people with privilege need to fight even harder, honestly, because we can.
There are many things that stood out for me in Dear Martin. The most profound one was Doc saying to Justyce “They need to believe you’re a bad guy in order for their world to keep spinning the way it always has” as he helps him understand why Garrett’s actions were minimized by the media, who focused more on Manny’s background. It was a strong reminder of how the media often digs up what they can about victims to deflect from the accused actions. What was most memorable to you about this book?
Oh yeah, that line blew me away, too. To me, the thing that’s most memorable about this book isn’t a particular line or scene—it’s just the fact that Nic Stone really gave a voice to so many different perspectives in one novel. The conversations that the kids had, the gray areas, the characters who seemed like decent people but were also racist—it challenged me to think deeper about issues at every turn. With this book, when you finish, you’re not really finished. You close the book, but you’re going to feel the impact of those words and those perspectives as you move forward.
How did you feel about the way Nic ended the story? What do you think her goal was?
When you walk away from this book, you feel a little bit anxious, still. Everything isn’t wrapped up neatly with a bow—and that’s a good thing, for me, because that’s not real life. There’s hope and progress, yes, but there’s also still a lot of sadness, and that feels very real to me, and makes the impact of the book even stronger. I think Stone’s goal was probably to emulate real life and to leave you a little hopeful, a little sad, and a LOT more aware; she achieves that, 100%.
As an educator, why do you feel it’s important to put this book into your students’ hands?
For so many reasons, most of which we’ve covered in some way or another. Most importantly: it’s critical for students to be able to see life from other perspectives, and this book examines several different perspectives so masterfully. Secondly, I think this book could open the floor to so many important (and difficult) conversations. And finally, it’s just an amazing story, penned by an incredibly talented author. It’s fiction, but this is also Real Life. And I believe that books like this one can shape our society and accelerate our journey to the future we talked about above. This is a book that examines what Real Life looks like and helps us to identify the things we could all do better.
If you’re a believer in the power literature has to shape and change lives, read Dear Martin if you haven’t already. If you have, continue to share Stone’s work with others around you. Begin the tough dialogue. Encourage others to be okay with the discomfort that comes with it. We cannot change or progress without open minds, difficult conversations, and vocality. Now more than ever, we are charged with the task to examine our social issues and the perspectives tied to them. Dear Martin is a terrific place to begin the journey. As usual, check out Dear Martin at your public/school library or support your local indie bookseller.
Meeting Nic Stone AKA Twin. Southern Festival of Books (2017). 📷: Jarred Amato