Written By: Stephane Dunn
I learned early that there is a real monster and not the imaginary one we fear as children might be lurking in our bedroom closets or under the bed. It was manifest in the black eyes and bruises on the faces and arms of several aunts and my own origin story. Mama left a husband of only two weeks after he gave her a black eye when she was pregnant with me. Bigger and often older bullies at school terrorized children who were smaller, shyer, and more alone. They used their fists and hateful words with gleeful abandonment, shoring up their fear and egos on others’ fear.
These are the beginning seeds of Snitchers, my recently published young adult novel about three best friends whose lives are marred by violence.” The murder of a little boy in their neighborhood devastates the three who are already bound together by experiences with violence, loss, and trauma.
It’s no surprise that my first novel would be in young adult fiction – a category way more diverse and sophisticated than the label suggests. From a very young age, I started checking out stacks of books at a time from the library, devouring then and returning for more. In the early years of my adolescence, roughly twelve through sixteen, I read everything from Judy Blume’s coming of age teen fiction like Deenie and Are You There God It’s Me Margaret where stuff like periods and first crushes were common story points to Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in which history, racism, sexual assault, and trauma took center stage.
John Steinback’s Of Mice and Men, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Toni Morrison’s devastating The Bluest Eye developed my ability to critically think about social inequity, gender, race, and humanity not to mention their reflection of both familiar and unfamiliar worldviews. It was great storytelling that honored my curiosity and capacity to learn. In school, assigned books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Flowers for Algernon, as well as others facilitated some of the best class discussions, and I don’t want to think about the preparation for college and pleasure in reading I would have missed out on if my favorite high school English teacher Mrs. Poe wouldn’t have been able to send me to the school library or to her stash of books in the classroom to borrow transformative fiction like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Reading such diverse books helped me to critically process important, very disturbing events to come from the 1991 police beating Rodney King and the national social turmoil that followed to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, both which took me back to my childhood realization. Safety was not a given but rather a luxury, a privilege, while violence seemed like the given. The school shootings at Columbine in 1999 followed by Sandy Hook in 2012 were more seeds that stirred me to write Snitchers. The main character Nia and her friends interrogate the irrationality of random violence and the havoc on regular life that it causes. Grief and comfort are two of the responses explored in the aftermath.
Like the main character’s mother in Snitchers, I rocked my sister through the night when her twenty-two-year-old bestie and college roomie was shot fatally in the back. When the closest friend of my college sweetheart was shot to death in some drug deal gone bad, we sat clinging to one another in the dark wordless for hours after the funeral. A girl I’d known forever grew up and became a teacher, a mom, and finally, a victim. She was shot to death by a stranger trying to steal her car while she waited to pick up her child. Asking why feels terribly limiting. Violence resonates like a dominant soundtrack in my young characters’ lives as it does around the world.
The main character Nia and her pen pal friend Alima, a Palestinian girl, bond over this terrifying norm, but Nia and her two neighborhood best friends dare to seek justice. They are empowered to envision life with dramatically less violence in their community and in the world if not its eradication. They resist the monster – pervasive violence as inevitable, choosing daring will and action rather than drowning despair and inaction.
This is the gift of literature and in particular young adult and children’s fiction. It is the best reservoir of reading to expand imaginations yet engage and expose human frailties and contradictions. Here, the diversity of contemporary and historical social and cultural realities is highlighted. So much smart, entertaining, fearless, and potentially critically transformative storytelling in literature happens in young adult fiction. So much of this richness has long landed on banned books lists and more books, such as Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson) and Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, continue to be added.
As Snitchers headed to publication, my then seventh-grade son and I were having interesting discussions as he read the teacher assigned graphic book, Persepolis, but the book was abruptly pulled without an opportunity for any supportive parents to even weigh in. The thoughtful, perhaps difficult but useful dialogue parents with differing concerns could have had prior to yanking the book entirely was banned as well.
Stephane Dunn, Phd, MFA, is a writer, filmmaker, and professor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Vogue.com, Ms. magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN.com, The Root, and Best African American Essays 2009, among others. She is the author ofthe novel Snitchers (2022), the 2008 book Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films, and the Tirota/Finish Line Social Impact Script award-winning screenplay, Chicago ‘66 (2020). She is a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Find her on Twitter at @DrStephaneDunn.