Edi Campbell – Author Interview: Kim Johnson
Kim Johnson is a debut young adult author. Her book, This Is My America (Random House Books for Young Readers) releases in July. I could talk with her for hours! I’ll definitely add her book to both my personal and college libraries. I’m really glad she was able to find time for this interview.
Synopsis from the publisher:
Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time–her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?
EC: Have you been in touch with your students after campuses and the country went into COVID-19 lockdown? If so, what are they saying to you? If not, and perhaps even if you have, how are you preparing for their return in the fall?
KJ: In my role as Assistant Vice Provost for Advising I am heavily involved in my campuses remote transition plans. Fall will be a hybrid experience balancing adjustments of class sizes and how to provide engaging experiences, while many services remain remote. During spring term, we maintained support to students via online appointments and outreach calling campaigns. Students have a multitude of concerns but the most common were concerns around finances and the jarring transition to learn remotely. The advising units I oversee have distinct and broad populations so the needs also varied across our nontraditional, underrepresented, first generation, Pell grant, international, and rural and Indigenous populations. Basically, we are trying to support the success of our students when all of the typical resources are no longer accessible in person. My first-generation college students were especially saddened to not be able to celebrate the momentous occasion of the traditional graduation, but alternatives were put in place and two of my mentees who are first-generation students spoke as student speakers in smaller ceremonies.
In my mentor and advisor role I regularly texted my students and ensured we still held online meetings to check in. Many were fearful of COVID-19. When we had that horrific week of back-to-back news of racial terror with Ahmed Aubrey, Amy/Christian Cooper, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, they broke isolation and have continued to protest and organize. Because I work in two divisions that span equity and inclusion and student success, I will be working closely on how the campus supports anti-racist actions and education.
EC: How does your work on campus inform your writing? Or, is it writing complete escape from work?
KJ: Overall my writing is a complete escape from work. Although as we get closer to my publication date those worlds are certainly beginning to merge. When I was writing THIS IS MY AMERICA I did have the spirit of my activist students in mind, along with my experience leading and working in community and social justice organizations. A lot of those activist traits for Tracy, the main protagonists, were purposefully written to have dogged determination, fearlessness, and relentlessly fighting for justice.
EC: What did it take to convince you that you could and should write This Is My America?
KJ: I am well read on African American research and issues from a historical, political, and sociological perspective. After reading JUST MERCY I was inspired to use my young adult writing to tackle more systemic issues in society that matched my social justice background. I realized that there could be a space for me to do this after reading Kekla Magoon and when deals were announced for Angie Thomas, and Jason Reynolds. It kept me writing when I was beginning to doubt publishing would support my novel.
EC: What important lesson(s) did you learn en route to getting this book published?
KJ: Being new to publishing I am constantly learning. The most important lesson has been the value in building resilience and working through revisions. When I first began querying I was frustrated with publishing and with finding an agent. I am so glad I didn’t give up because the time made me a better writer as I not only wrote more novels, but practiced writing queries, pitches, loglines, and the dreaded synopsis. Lastly, I believed in my story and focused on my own writing. I didn’t try to fit the mold of YA, but set my own path to write what I was passionate about. I learned that I could hold true to that and still be published.
EC: Tracy Beaumont is trying to prove her father’s innocence before he’s executed. Before she can do that, her older brother, Jamal, is accused of murdering a White girl. And, the book is called This Is My America. Why that title?
KJ: I like to have a title that embodies the essence of my novel, so I’m very thoughtful in title selections. While writing my novel the activism of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem shed light to ideas for titles. His activism caused a negative response by many white Americans to question his “patriotism.” This resembled many other conversations around assimilation and lack of recognizing the Black American experience and continued fight for equality. So I penned the title, THIS IS MY AMERICA. Tracy’s father and brother represent the generational cycle that occurs in America. When Childish Gambino’s song This Is America came out I told my agent that it was a sign I needed to go on submission because the world in many forms was needing to see Black America. I think my agent thought I was just tired of revisions (I was), but it was also a larger movement around the country around the ills in our society still not addressed and maybe publishing would support my novel.
EC: Alice Walker once wrote that “Resistance is the secret of joy!” What are some things that are bringing you joy?
KJ: Young people are bringing me joy. They are also giving me hope in the future because they are shaping the conversation to explore things we almost thought were unimaginable to resolve. I am also finding a lot of joy in supporting Black debut authors. The books coming out in 2020 are a broad span of stories in genres I typically wouldn’t find myself interested, but now I’m enthusiastically exploring new stories because I can see myself in them because of the representation being included by Black authors. This brings me so much joy. Lastly, when readers share how much my book meant to them, it sends me soaring.
Kim Johnson held leadership positions in social justice organizations as a teen and in college. She’s now an Assistant Vice Provost who maintains civic engagement throughout the community while also mentoring Black student activists and leaders. She is also the graduate advisor and member of an historically Black sorority. This Is My America is her debut novel and explores racial injustice against innocent Black men who are criminally sentenced and the families left behind to pick up the pieces. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland, College Park.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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