SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Nic Stone says "Dear Justyce," her new novel for young readers, began in a series of text messages she received from a pair of boys she met because of her previous bestseller, "Dear Martin."
Nic Stone joins us now from Atlanta. Thanks very much for being with us.
NIC STONE: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Can you tell us about those messages, please?
STONE: Yeah, so there are two young men. One of them graduated and has gone on to college. The other was unable to graduate because he is currently incarcerated. I met them both as sophomores. They had just read "Dear Martin," and they were very moved by finally seeing a version of themselves in a book.
However, I got a set of text messages in, I think, like, 2018 - November 2018, where they were saying to me that as much as they do love "Dear Martin" and as much as they love the main character in that book, they really wanted to see a book that reflected their lives a little bit more closely. So they asked me to write a book about a boy who is not headed to Yale, who is not the top of his class, who is, you know, basically just dealing with everyday life in a place that he cannot escape. And that's where "Dear Justyce" came from.
SIMON: Let me ask you to read a section, if I can. Quan, your main character, has run out of the house after making certain that his little brother and sister are locked safely in a closet. And he's running out because his mother's boyfriend is on a rampage, which happens a lot. So Quan runs into a park that has a rocket ship - a play rocket ship in it. If I could get you to read a section for us.
STONE: Yeah, of course.
(Reading) It sits off in a corner, separate from everything else, tip pointed at the sky like it could blast off at any moment. When he gets inside, he's so relieved. He collapses against the rounded wall and lets his body slide to the floor like chocolate ice cream down the side of a cone on a hot summer day. His head drops back and he shuts his eyes and lets the tears flow freely. But then there's a sound above him - a cough. The moonlight through the deck window makes the face of the boy staring down at Quan look kind of ghostly. In fact, the longer dude stares without speaking, the more Quan wonders if maybe he is a ghost. Hello? Dude doesn't reply. Now Quan is starting to get creeped out, which makes him mad. This was supposed to be the one place in the world he can relax, where he can close his eyes and count down from 10 and imagine shooting into space far, far away from everything and everyone.
SIMON: Boy. And without explaining too much, we will explain that's when Quan meets Justyce. And they're from the same neighborhood but, in other ways, different worlds too, aren't they?
STONE: Yeah, yeah. So Quan's family is structured a little differently than Justyce's. And the point, honestly, of the book is to display how that makes a difference in a kid's life, how a home life makes such an impact on a kid's trajectory.
SIMON: We get to catch up with Justyce in this book, who is, as we speak, one of the best-known characters for young readers. He's at Yale. He's got a girlfriend. Justyce and his friends form a kind of partnership, almost like a detective agency, if you please, or, you know, a detective agency/law firm to try and come to the assistance of Quan. Quan - how do I say this? He gets caught up by events, and a kind of code of honor prevents him from making his own best case, doesn't it?
STONE: Correct. Correct. And it's interesting. I think people will be surprised at who winds up in this, like, miniature law office, if you will. There's a character that in "Dear Martin" nobody really likes. And you see in "Dear Justyce" that he has - he's changed. And I think it's an important thing to recognize that people are capable of change. Like, nobody is fixed. And even with Quan having to come to the realization that some of his decisions were not in his best interest, but also figuring out ways to not violate his code of honor while figuring out what is in his best interest - like, I think it's - this is a book that was really hard to write, so I just hope that, like, everything that I intended or that I hope people take from it is actually received.
SIMON: Well, do you mind talking about why it was so hard to write?
STONE: Well, I mean, part of it is the subject matter. You know, like, I spent a significant amount of time in juvenile detention centers, interacting with the kids there because I wanted this book to be authentic. You know, it's about a kid who is locked up on very, very serious charges. And so I went and I hung out with kids who are locked up on very, very serious charges.
The one thing about these kids that is the same across the board is every single one of them just wanted somebody to listen to them, you know? They wanted to be heard. They wanted to be seen. They wanted to be treated like a human being.
And interacting with these young people, who because they were dehumanized at such young ages and because they'd been through so many horrible, traumatic things, they're now in a position where their lives are being, you know, kind of taken - like their lives have been taken from them. And it was heartbreaking in many ways.
The stories that you read of other kids that Quan encounters inside the detention center - all of them are true. And the most heartbreaking thing and the hardest thing about this book was knowing during the writing process that the most unrealistic thing I was writing was the support system that Quan receives.
SIMON: And do you mind me asking, have the boys who sent you those text messages who said, you are our voice, have they read the book?
STONE: One of them has. The one who is incarcerated right now has read the book. And I keep trying to get him to tell me how he felt about it. And he's very, like, mum about it, which I think is actually a good sign. I have a hunch that it hit him in a way that he's not ready to talk about yet but in a way that was good and that made him feel seen and heard. And honestly, I can't - that's, like, the best that I can ask for, you know?
SIMON: Nic Stone - her novel for young readers "Dear Justyce" - thank you so much for being with us.
STONE: Thank you for having me.
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