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YALLFest author Nic Stone asks the hard questions in her YA novel, Dear Martin

Beyond Black and White

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"Here people look at him and see a black guy."

Nic Stone wants people to check their perception. The author, who's appearing at YALLFest with a new novel that's garnered praise from the likes of Jodi Picoult and Jason Reynolds, was talking about her own husband — but her point is for everyone.

"The issue of race relations is not so complex that we can't sit down and discuss it," she says. "It's more fear that stops us ... We don't like problems we can't solve or questions we can't answer. We have the language to talk about it, but coming up with the answers isn't so simple."

Dear Martin, Stone's premiere novel, "is a book about asking questions and being uncomfortable," she says.

In Dear Martin, a black teenage boy named Justyce wrestles, somewhat unexpectedly, with racism. Justyce is on track to attend Yale when he's shaken by a run-in with the police that makes him check his own self-perception. He never thought he was like "those" black guys. Journaling to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes Justyce's therapy, his outlet, and — it would seem to readers — his solution. Until another run-in with the cops, another altercation, and this time one with fatal results.

The novel began forming in Stone's mind after she gave birth to her first child, right after the shooting of Jordan Davis. Davis, a black 17-year-old, was shot while visiting Jacksonville for a wedding by Michael Dunn, a white 47-year-old, who objected to the style and volume of music coming from Davis' car. Living in Israel at the time, Stone and her Israeli-Russian-Nigerian husband were planning their move back to the United States when the news of Davis' death hit. Stone and her husband, though fearful that someday their five-month-old son would find himself in a similar situation, moved back to her native Atlanta anyway.

Then Michael Brown hit the news, and Tamir Rice, The Charleston Nine, Philando Castile — the list goes on.

Stone decided to funnel her fears, anger, and questions into writing. Drawing on everything from the short-sighted reception of her mixed family in America to her own experience growing up as the token black kid in her classes, Stone created Dear Martin as a thought experiment and a lifeline.

"My goal is to reach reluctant African-American readers," Stone says. "I know that's, like, super specific for a target audience. Part of the issue is that a lot of black teenagers don't have anything they can connect to in a lot of those other books."

As Justyce journals to Dr. King, Stone's writing jumps between his letters, conversations at school that touch on affirmative action, self-esteem and schoolwork, and inner dialogue inside Justyce's own head. This writing is not meant to be difficult. YA-level diction and quick format changes keep it light and easy to read, tricks of the trade Stone learned in a high school journalism course. The book is meant to be accessible for the kids who need to hear it, read it, question it, and someday, Stone hopes, change race relations in America.

If all this seems terribly heavy material for a YA conference titled YALLFest, it is. But Stone's purpose in taking the bloody headlines about violent race relations in America and turning them into a YA novel is to facilitate easy conversation about that heavy material.

"I can scream until I'm blue in the face but if members of the majority don't listen ... this book is about that, asking questions and having conversations," says Stone. "Because the complaint I hear most from teens is, 'Nobody is listening to us.'"

If anyone is easy to talk to, it's Nic Stone.

Stone, a mother of two who lived in Israel for three years and leads discussions on race relations, also runs an Instagram account where she posts makeup looks inspired by her favorite book covers. She tweets about donning green lipstick for school appearances, metallic gold for a Boston Public Library talk, and the tragedy of why there's no mermaid emoji (that was before the most recent iPhone update). She once paired white converse and a NASA t-shirt with a sparkly white skirt from Amazon and posted a selfie on @getnicced.

"I feel like a newborn," Stone says of how Dear Martin rocketed onto The New York Times bestseller list and caught the attention of The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas.

People might look at Stone and see a young woman obsessed with mermaids and Urban Decay lipstick. They might look at her Russian-Nigerian husband and see "a black guy." They might look at Dear Martin and see a YA novel.

It's all about perception.

"This is exactly what books are designed to do: change our worldview. They pull us out of what we know and drop us into something we're not used to," says the author. "If I have one solitary kid who wants to go change the world...#missionaccomplished!"

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