Writing the Book I Wanted to Read

SJF final cover Nov 2013 SMALLI’m sure it’s something of a cliché to quote Toni Morrison when discussing why I wrote my book, The Adventures of Darius Logan, Book One: Super Justice Forcee, but cliché or not, it is totally appropriate within this context. You see, Morrison once famously said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” which is a philosophy I’ve subscribed to with an almost militant fervor. Of course, I should mention that I hadn’t even read Morrison’s quote until after I had written my book, had it rejected by every major publisher in North America, and finally decided to publish it myself. To that end, Morrison was more of a validator (or perhaps enabler), who let me know that I had made the correct decisions.

The decision to write my first novel—a Young Adult action adventure story—started innocently enough. I was looking for a present for the child of a friend, and had a very specific book in mind. This book had to have a lead character who was both male and African American, and it could not have anything to do with sports, Civil Rights, slavery, or urban dysfunction. For lack of a better description, I wanted Harry Potter, only Harry had to be black.

As a black kid who loved to read, I was always troubled by the fact that there were so few books with characters I could relate to. Sure, there were books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, but those weren’t the books I wanted to read. I wanted action and adventure, supernatural forces threatening to destroy the human race, and heroes that inspired me. And while I read books with heroes who fought supernatural forces, none of them ever had black lead characters. Instead, I got books like A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich or Call Me Charley, which kept me trapped inside the reality I was trying to escape. It never seemed fair that the Three Investigators got to go on exciting adventures, while black kids had to become junkies or deal with the sort of racism that was a day-to-day part of my life. A book can serve many purposes, and sometimes the greatest role a book can play is an escape from the everyday world, where outside forces threaten to either bore us to death or break our spirit.

More than thirty years have passed since I became an avid reader, and the literary landscape has changed significantly. When I was a kid, YA didn’t exist as it does today. The Harry Potter books changed everything, as have the many popular series that have come in its wake. But one thing has changed very little—there are still very few books with black lead characters that are not caught in the same conventions as those when I was a kid. And that was why I decided to write Super Justice Force. This is the book I wanted to read when I was 13 years-old. Darius is the hero that I couldn’t find in the Chronicles of Narnia or any of the other books I scoured through, hoping to find someone who spoke directly to me.

When I sat down to start writing I had one rule for Darius and all the other characters—no matter what race or ethnicity they were, they had to be compelling people. Diversity for the sake of diversity often leads to tired stereotypes and one-dimensional characters who fail to resonate with readers. To put it in more simple terms, I didn’t want Darius Logan to be a black kid who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. I wanted him to merely be a kid who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances (and just happens to be black). To borrow from Martin Luther King, the ultimate success or failure of Darius as a hero is not tied to the color of his skin, but the content of his character.

Someone recently asked me how much of Darius was me. I explained that all of him was me, because I created him, but at the same time none of him was me, because I had created him to be his own person. I see in Darius some of my best and worst traits, and I hope that other readers do so as well, because if they do, then it means he is a character that speaks to the universal humanity we all share. And all I ever wanted as a child was to read a book set in the world of the fantastic and the supernatural, where black people were presented as fully realized humans, capable of the same heroism as any white character. I never found that book, so I decided to write if myself.

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