Photo: Krista Schlueter for Vulture
This winter, the comment section of an article in the School Library Journal took a surreal turn. The piece was about how children’s publishing was reckoning with its own #MeToo moment, and readers had been using the forum to air complaints of sexual harassment. Amid the charges of lewd remarks and predatory behavior, one user seized the opportunity to rehash an old complaint that felt bizarrely out of place. “I name the center figure of all toxicity in YA who is the source of all of this cancer: Justina Ireland,” Stegosaur wrote. “How many people know this and dare not speak it aloud?”
Ireland — the author of a middle-grade series, Devil’s Pass, and three young-adult novels including Dread Nation, out this week — knows what people say about her, and why they say it. Over the last several years, Ireland and others in the YA world have been using Twitter to call out what they see as an enduring tradition of racist nonsense in publishing. Ireland, who is black, is one of the most influential of these commentators — and perhaps the most cutting. Her critiques, which take the form of Twitter threads and blog posts, are exasperated, ironic, and funny. She has taken swipes at the white YA superstar John Green (“Can we get a Kickstarter to get John Green some black friends?”), diversity panels at publishing conferences (“‘separate but equal’ conference ghettos”), and even her own shortcomings as an advocate (“I am not always a good ally. I’m terribly ableist and overlook neurodiverse discussions and religious discussions. I’m working on it.”)
As Ireland has repeatedly taken pains to point out, the world of children’s and young-adult literature is overwhelmingly, disproportionately white. Of some 3,700 books for children or teens that were published last year, just 340 were about children or teens who were black, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. Of those, just 100 were written by black authors. Ireland argues that the industry should publish more books by nonwhite authors, and that white authors should think more carefully about how they represent black and brown people in their books. Some of her peers from marginalized backgrounds have urged “white, straight, able-bodied writers to stay away from writing marginalized voices,” as she noted in one Twitter thread. “Not me,” she added. “I think you can write whatever you want. But that means you’ve got to make sure you don’t fuck it up. If you do, Imma tell you.”
Ireland says she often feels like she’s “tweeting to herself,” but in recent years, publishers have been paying attention. Most editors I reached out to worried that their corporate bosses would reprimand them for saying anything about Ireland’s brand of Twitter activism on the record, or even anonymously, but there were exceptions. One senior editor at a “big five” publishing house told me that Ireland’s bluntness was the key to her influence. “When these discussions first started, I have to admit I was a little shocked by the way people were criticizing each other on Twitter, but then I paused and I realized we wouldn’t even be having these conversations if people weren’t being harsh,” she told me. She explained that the kid-lit world, unlike its grown-up counterpart, has a long tradition of politeness and congeniality, which she found could sometimes stifle productive criticism. “You need to have people shouting in order to be heard,” she said. “If everyone was just sitting around being nice and sugar-coating their criticism, no one would hear them. Justina makes people pay attention, and there’s value in that.”
Ireland reckons people really started listening a few days before the election of Donald Trump, when she tweeted out a chapter-by-chapter analysis of an upcoming YA debut, The Continent, calling it “a racist garbage fire.” Her tweets about the book went viral, and a week later, The Continent’s publisher pulled the book for revisions. Alvina Ling, the editor-in-chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, told me that this incident, along with the handful of other books that have been pulled after receiving heavy criticism on Twitter, has helped spawn a “culture of fear” among publishers. Ling, who is Taiwanese-American, doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. “I think it will result in better books being published,” she said.
Hardly anyone in mainstream publishing today would openly disagree with Ireland’s view that the industry needs to step up its commitment to diversity. Still, not everyone appreciates Ireland’s tone or methods, or the broader Twitter culture of which she is a part. Last summer, Vulture published a piece focused on the “toxic” culture of YA Twitter; in our conversation, Ireland told me she felt the movement has been mischaracterized. In other genres, she said, people are having the same “passionate discussions” over representation. “But only in YA is it like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening here! Think of the children!’” she said. In a widely read essay in the New York Review of Books, the acclaimed author Francine Prose likened activists like Ireland both to high-school mean girls and Soviet dictators: “The culture of young adult fiction is partly dedicated to helping young people avoid and resist bullying, yet it is being shaped by online posts whose aggressive, even ferocious, tone could itself be described as online bullying. One is reminded of how, under authoritarian regimes, writers have been censored (and persecuted) for referring, in their work, to the sufferings that their rulers would rather not acknowledge.”
To Ireland and her allies, the fact that Prose sees them as the bullies is in itself a demonstration of the racial bias that pervades the young-adult literary scene. After Ireland criticized The Continent, death threats and rape threats piled up in her inbox, and a series of one-star reviews began dragging down her Amazon and Goodreads rankings. Someone sent an anonymous email to her editor urging him to drop her. Eventually, she deleted her tweets, as she almost always does.
While Ireland is probably better known for her tweets than her novels, that may change with the arrival of Dread Nation, which has garnered a handful of positive reviews. Set in the late 1800s, the book conjures an alternate reality in which the Civil War dead have clawed their way out of the mass graves of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, prompting the government to force black and Native children into a never-ending war against the zombie menace. Kirkus lauded it as an “exciting must-read”; School Library Journal called it “a perfect blend of horrors real and imagined.” Ireland’s mother, however, is not among its fans. “She hated it so much,” Ireland told me, “but my mom is a white lady who doesn’t like to talk about racism.”
Dread Nation’s heroine, Jane, is a mixed-race zombie-slayer whose inability to keep her opinions to herself keeps landing her in trouble. “Here’s a thing about me,” she tells the reader early on, “I ain’t all that good at knowing when to keep my fool mouth shut.” Ireland knows that feeling well. A few weeks ago, on a visit from her home in York, Pennsylvania, Ireland, who is 39, met me at a dive bar on the Upper West Side, her short hair wrapped in a pink bandana, her bright blue cardigan decorated with saucy pins (“Don’t @ me”). In person, she is much warmer than her Twitter presence suggests, with dimples and a throaty laugh. Over a round of IPAs, she described how the mess surrounding The Continent consumed hours she might have spent working on her own fiction. When I asked if she ever regretted her tweets, she nodded. “There is a point every single time where I’m like, I should have sat this one out,” she said. “But the other option is to just sit there and watch the shit pile up and never change. I hope it ultimately makes things better because otherwise …” She reached for her pint and took a long swallow. “Otherwise I’m just going to sit here and drink myself into oblivion.”
Ireland and her peers are hardly the first to try to change children’s and young-adult publishing. That distinction probably belongs to W.E.B. Du Bois, who, in 1920, published the first magazine for black children, The Brownies’ Book. Its arrival was hailed as a milestone, but just a year later, it folded due to lack of funding. In one way or another, this pattern has repeated itself again and again in the decades since.
In 1986, the acclaimed black author Walter Dean Myers wrote in the New York Times about the flourishing of books written by black authors in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the heartbreaking decline that followed. “I actually thought we would revolutionize the industry,” he wrote. “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. No sooner had all the pieces conducive to the publishing of more books on the black experience come together than they started falling apart.” That year, Ireland was 7, and already well aware of the shortage of books on the black experience. She was living in a trailer park outside San Bernardino, and spent most of her spare time in the stacks at the local library. She never found what she was looking for, though. The librarians always steered her toward books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, an account of black children dealing with poverty and racism during the Great Depression. Ireland hated it. “Books were my escape from the shittiness,” she said. “The last thing I wanted was to read about kids suffering.” She loved fantasy, horror, and thrillers, but the black characters were always the first to get killed. She felt like those stories were written for someone else. “It’s like when you’re invited to a dinner party, and you’re sitting at the table, but everyone is talking past you,” she said. “I always felt like that when I read.”
Ireland wanted to be a historian, and at 19, she enlisted in the Army to pay for college, ultimately serving as a linguistics expert specializing in Arabic. It wasn’t until she was married and pregnant, nearly a decade later, that she tried her hand at fiction writing; she wanted her daughter reading books written for kids that looked like her. Her first manuscript, a contemporary fantasy featuring a black protagonist, didn’t sell. This came as a surprise to Ireland’s agent at the time, Caren Johnson. “When I signed Justina, I was looking for main characters that were African-American and Latina,” she told me. “I’d heard from editors that they wanted more main characters who had different experiences to share.” But in the intervening years, the industry had failed to produce a best-selling young-adult genre book featuring a heroine of color. Publishers began to question whether such a book could really succeed. “By the time I went out with Justina’s book, in 2010, no one wanted to take a chance,” Johnson said.
Most of the editors who read the manuscript told Johnson that they couldn’t “connect” with Ireland’s main character, which Johnson and Ireland both took to mean that they couldn’t relate to a character of color. As the rejection letters piled up, Ireland began working on a similar contemporary fantasy book, this one about a white girl. “I’m not dumb, I understand how the world works,” Ireland said. “I just wanted to get published.” She told me she thought the novel, Vengeance Bound, was “terrible,” but Simon & Schuster bought it at auction within a month of submission.
Christopher Myers, the son of Walter Dean Myers, and an award-winning author and illustrator in his own right, noted that the industry has always been resistant to change. “There are structures at the center of the publishing industry that make it challenging to bring new voices to the forefront,” he said. “A black editor I once spoke to told me, ‘You would think that this is the most successful industry in the world, with a zero percent failure rate, given the teeth and claws that are used to hold on to the old way of doing things.’” Ling, the Little, Brown editor, pointed out that it’s hard for most new writers to get published, regardless of their race. Still, in a business where more than 80 percent of editors are white, the barriers are higher for writers of color. “Publishing is a passion industry, and as an editor, you’re taught that every book you aquire is ideally a book that you love,” Ling said. “If you’re not used to reading books with characters that are not like yourself, then I do think that it’s legitimate but unfortunate to say, ‘I didn’t connect to this character.’”
Neither Vengeance Bound (published in 2013), nor Ireland’s second book with Simon & Schuster, Promise of Shadows , which came the year after, sold many copies. Ireland began to grow concerned that she might not get another shot with a major house, but in a way, a burden had been lifted: now she could write whatever she wanted, without worrying what the industry gatekeepers would think. She started working on Dread Nation soon after. She already had a few thousand words of the zombie saga written, when, in 2015, she began an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University. Her critical thesis focused on “microaggressions in children’s literature.” By then, a movement had begun to coalesce on Twitter: Authors of color and their allies were calling for change under hashtags like #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices. In response to these demands, publishers put out a call for more “diverse” submissions, and a spike in novels about nonwhite characters followed. But the majority of these books were written by white people. Myers told me the phenomenon reminded him of an old practice he’d heard stories about. “Back in the day, black grandparents would sometimes paint the characters in books brown colors, so that their children could see images that vaguely looked like them. In some ways that is the philosophy of a lot of the publishing industry: If we get enough brown faces we will have solved this problem.”
If the goal of these ostensibly “diverse” books was to offer nuanced, thoughtful portrayals of marginalized cultures, some of them landed wide of the mark. Keira Drake’s The Continent, for instance — it told the story of a rich white teen who brings peace to a brutal land where dark-skinned natives wantonly slaughter each other. Ireland, like many of her cohorts, berated the text, but she also tried to help white writers like Drake do a better job. She started a database for “sensitivity readers” — writers from marginalized backgrounds who were willing to hire out their consulting services to authors trying to write outside their own experiences. The goal, she wrote at the time, was help authors see “internalized bias and negatively charged language” in their manuscripts during the editing process, rather than after the book was printed. The response was enthusiastic; hundreds of authors took advantage of the service.
As her Twitter profile grew, Ireland gained a fan in Jordan Brown, a white editor at Balzer + Bray. “For me, a lot of what she was saying was really eye-opening,” he told me. But ultimately, he said, the choice to make an investment in her work was also a business decision. “The bottom line is that it makes good business sense to publish books across genres that represent the lives and experiences of all readers, not just white ones,” he said. In 2016, Ireland sent Brown the manuscript for Dread Nation, and he offered her a two-book deal. He realized that the heroine’s endless battle against the undead of the Civil War was, in part, a metaphor for Ireland’s frustrations with her fight against racism in publishing. “Very little that Justina’s written before can compete with Dread Nation,” Brown said. “She found a way to channel her worldview into a fictional character. Some writers go their entire career without finding that perfect combination.”
This week, six out of ten of the young-adult best sellers on the New York Times hardcover list are by writers of color, a resounding rebuke to the hoary claim that books by such authors could not sell. This year will also see the publication of five major young-adult fantasy books by black authors, including Ireland’s. By all accounts, this is an all-time high, but Ireland is hardly ready to declare the industry redeemed. The number still represents just a tiny fraction of all the young-adult fantasy titles set to hit bookstores in 2018, and Ireland, like many others, wonders how long this momentum will last. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the resurgence is taking place at this particular moment, with a race-baiting birther in the White House. In his 1986 op-ed, Walter Dean Myers predicted that a “round of race riots, or the next interracial conflict” would prompt a spike of interest in black literature. “It will work,” he wrote, “but it’s a hard price for a transient market.”
Lately, Ireland has been taking breaks from Twitter to focus on writing the sequel to Dread Nation — and to “cleanse the soul.” She still works full time, a director of logistics and weapon-systems support for the Navy, and this fall she’s starting a Ph.D. in English literature. “Sometimes I feel like a kid-lit’s mule,” she told me. The work of pointing out white people’s blind spots can feel exhausting, thankless, and lonely.
But she can never stay away from the fray for long. “She’s becoming famous for not being able to keep a hiatus,” her friend and fellow YA author Heidi Heilig told me. “I think there’s this fire in her that won’t let things go if there’s a fight.” In February, when I told her I was planning to publish a story on the revision of The Continent, she announced on Twitter that she was taking time off to avoid the pending Twitter “storm”; a month later, when the Washington Post ran a favorable story on the Continent revision, she couldn’t refrain from returning to express her displeasure. “All of these other books out here and we’re still talking about this mess,” she tweeted. It reminded me of something she’d told me over drinks. In Dread Nation, the zombie threat distracts the nation from its deeper problems, particularly the unresolved conflict over slavery. And in the world of YA publishing, as Ireland sees it, the battles over specific books haven’t yet forced the industry to adequately reckon with its long history of discrimination and bias. “We have the same conversations over and over and over,” she said. “We only deal with the immediate threat.” She drained her pint, and we stood to walk out into the rainy night. “It feels like a zombie sometimes,” she said. “It’s like, I thought I killed you. But here we are again.”