Yesterday I went to work for the first time since winter break began. I had lunch with several colleagues and, as usual, we shared stories about our students—the best and the worst. One student I’ll always remember told me at the end of the semester that he had never finished reading a book until he took my class on Black Women in the Americas. He had to be close to 25 years old and he was very bright (despite admitting he only took the class to meet women). He later decided to write a novel himself, which was the ultimate reward for me. As an educator, it’s heartbreaking to stand at the front of a classroom and see no hands raised when I ask, “How many people finished a novel in the past week? The past month?” The vast majority of my students (who are mostly Black and Latino, working class) don’t read recreationally. Reading isn’t fun and they don’t understand that reading truly is fundamental. Many of my students don’t know what Standard English looks like because they don’t hear it in their homes or communities and they
‘ve never seen don’t regularly see it printed on a page; as a result, they write based on oral/aural knowledge—“would of been” instead of “would have been.” I taught a writing intensive class for the first time last fall and it was incredibly demoralizing. At one point I actually told my students that I felt like I’d missed the bus—trying to develop a love of literature in 20-year-olds is extremely challenging. If you don’t hook kids when they’re young, it’s hard to develop new habits later on. I took the advice of my senior colleagues and removed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from my syllabus. They still had to read Richard Wright’s Native Son and out of 20 students, only 3 made it to the end. But at the end of the semester, many said the novel was their favorite assigned reading. So there’s hope—IF you can hook them on a narrative that’s exciting, fast-paced, and not too long.
One reason I didn’t send The Deep out to bloggers for review is because I’m trying to reach reluctant readers. And if you’re blogging about books or following a book blog, you’re probably already an avid reader and less likely to be satisfied with a short page-turner. If I gave The Deep to my community college students, I doubt anyone would complain that it’s too short. I go into dozens of Brooklyn middle schools every year, and students most often say, “When is the next book coming out?” In one special education class, a boy proudly raised his hand and said, “I read your book—twice!” And for me, that’s a sign that I’m building stamina in kids who have seen all the Harry Potter films but would never even try to read the novels. When I send a manuscript to an editor and she starts talking about Divergent, I know we’re not on the same page. I’m not trying to write hi-lo fiction (books for teens reading far below grade level), but I’m glad there are people out there making sure those teens DO have something to read. I think it was my librarian friend Vanessa Irvin Morris who introduced me to this quote: “For every reader, a book.” It’s one of the 5 Laws of Library Science developed by S. Ranganathan. I don’t mean to suggest that all Black teens are reluctant readers—I certainly wasn’t, and the two or three college students who tell me they love to read have been in love with books since they were children. And just because I write for reluctant readers doesn’t mean my books are flawless—the goal isn’t “any ol’ book for every reader” but really good books for readers of all kinds. So I appreciate The Book Smugglers‘ review of The Deep—no one knows more about YA fantasy fiction and they were impressed by Ship of Souls:
For such a short novel, The Deep, an Urban Fantasy with contemporary YA trappings packs a lot: from the introduction to a whole new, hidden underground world and a secret group that keeps evil at bay to the idea that what said group might be doing is not entirely that black and white; from expanding on the previous book by continuing Dmitri’s story but also focusing on Nyla’s own including her past, her present, her parent’s own struggles, her love life, her developing magical powers, etc. Although it is true that a person’s life is a complex mixture of different threads and the book speaks to this, I am not sure that everything combines seamlessly here.
The book greatest strengths are Zetta Elliott’s (always) beautiful writing and the careful, powerful characterisation of Nyla and of those who surround her. Zetta Elliott is at her best when writing about characters’ emotional make-up and Nyla’s relationship with her family, her stepmother, her boyfriend (and his family) are beautifully portrayed.
I’m sorry it fell short for them in the end, but self-published books often don’t get reviewed at all so I truly appreciate that these expert bloggers gave my book a serious critique. I’m gearing up for the next round of school visits here in Brooklyn and look forward to hearing what teens think about The Deep. As an educator, I’m supposed to teach students how to analyze the texts they consume but as an author, I have to say I’m happy just to get swarmed by eager young readers at the end of my presentation. Seeing kids of color clamoring for books makes my heart soar…