Author Spotlight: Kimberly Johnson
July 17, 2020
We are pleased to feature YA author Kimberly Johnson and her debut novel, THIS IS MY AMERICA (Random House Books for Young Readers (July 28, 2020).
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|Cover: Illustration Chuck Styles and Designer Ray Shappell
Tell us about your background and how you came to write for teens.
Growing up you could find me reading stacks of books from the library, but never writing in a journal. I avoided writing because I was not giving the encouragement to develop my skills as a writer. Although, I have always been a storyteller with a wild imagination. At 32, things changed when I forced myself to write down a dream. Nine years later I haven’t stopped writing. In my non-writing career, I am a senior leader in higher education focused on issues of equity, access, and student success. Working with young people keeps me in higher education because it’s a place of discovery and curiosity. The We Need Diverse Books movement in its early formation let me dream that maybe there was a place for my research and interests in African American issues, history, activism, and social justice could connect to readers at younger ages.
Congrats on your debut YA novel, THIS IS MY AMERICA. Tell us about the book and what inspired you.
The Black Lives Matter movement and Bryan Stevenson’s JUST MERCY were my inspirations for THIS IS MY AMERICA. Growing up as an activist I was a student leader in many organizations. I continue to serve in Black organizations along with being an advisor to some Black student leaders. The issues I cared about as a teen are the same things my students are activated around—how to make change. The conversation in 2014 and 2015 around BLM in media was focused on police brutality, but not the fact that 1 in 3 Black boys born today will wind up in jail at some point.
I wanted to tell a story that addressed police brutality but also the faults and foundation of our criminal justice system that lead to this staggering statistic. I also wanted to dispel myths about crime as just an “issue” in the Black community, and share the truth in that targeting, profiling, over-sentencing, fair legal processes, probation systems, and lack of rehabilitation and support that disproportionately impact Black, Brown, and poor communities.
When I began writing THIS IS MY AMERICA I wanted to showcase the generational impact and cycle that occurs in our criminal justice system. I also wanted a teen girl to have agency so that young people could feel empowered to become activists.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
The process to querying was about five years. Most of my time was spent polishing novels and learning how to query agents. My first novel I queried well over 100 agents. With my second novel, I knew a lot more about the querying process and how to narrow to agents with a better fit for me. I also learned from online writing and pitch contests, and participating in the Writing in the Margins program developed by Justina Ireland. In that program I was matched with Jen Ung from Simon Pulse. Through that revision process I begin querying again and received an R&R.
My now agent and I clicked, but I wasn’t ready to tackle a revision again because I was really focused on finishing THIS IS MY AMERICA. She asked to see it and a month later I had an agent. We spent a year revising before going on submission. We did one small batch, and a few weeks later I was going into acquisitions. This resulted in a pre-empt two book deal.
Your book deals with such serious and heavy topics, yet also keeps the lighter parts of your protagonist's life (friendships, humor, some romance). Was balancing these difficult and how did you do it?
Balancing those aspects were fairly seamless because my work with students proves every day that even with hardships, they also have friendships, love interests, goals, and joy. I write with a holistic lens like I do with my work with students. Every day I live as a Black woman, experiencing micro-aggressions or sadness from some hateful aspect in the world--like right now. And I still have to balance showing up in all aspects of my life. I see it now as the world is awakening to racism, we have non-Black people who have been protesting or paying attention to these issues who are already growing fatigue. But generations of Black people live with these realities every single day. We don’t get to rest. We have to live. So yes, balancing was necessary. The most difficult part was identifying what really needed to be on the page. Some readers come to stories like this and are so used to expecting sadness, I didn’t want to do just leave it at that. I wanted my story to feel real in every aspect. Love, life, laughing, and all the challenges.
What projects are you working on these days (and can you concentrate)?
I am working on an untitled Historical YA with Random House. The closest comp I can give is the VANISHING HALF meets LOVECRAFT COUNTRY without speculative elements. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone is concentrating these days. I work a more than full time job overseeing five units with embedded student support, access, and diversity work. Under a pandemic, both my husband and I working at home with two young kids. Because of the current issues around police brutality and protesting for Black Lives Matter I’m on social media a lot more too. While the YA world has a culture of expecting everyone to be actively involved on social media, I have to constantly remind myself that it’s not conducive to my life circumstance. If I’m online, I’m not writing. Or not at a board meeting. Or not spending time with my family. Social media will be the thing that will have to give.
What advice would you give to your younger self, and is this the same you'd give to aspiring authors?
Everything you want to achieve in life requires taking that first step. Then the next one. If you are committed to setting goals, even big ones, you can make progress if you stay the course. That’s how I tackle writing in the limited window I have. To finish a novel will always take me longer than someone who does not have the same responsibilities as me. I have to keep my eyes on my own page, at my own pace.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
As a kid I loved watching Unsolved Mysteries even though I was way too young. In high school I wanted to be an FBI agent, psychological profiler, or a lawyer. Now as a writer I use my investigation and legal interests to my hearts content!
Where can people find you online?
Connect with me on Instagram and Twitter @kcjohnsonwrites
my website https://www.kcjohnsonwrites.com/
or sign up from my newsletter http://eepurl.com/cTy-NP
KIM JOHNSON held leadership positions in social justice organizations as a teen and in college. She’s now a college administrator 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.