Kim Johnson’s THIS IS MY AMERICA delves into the U.S. legal system, particularly in regards to people of color, specifically those of black men. It’s a powerful book with a strong relatable message for our current social climate.
We have included a Q&A from Random House Children’s Books with both the author and the cover artist, Chuck Styles. And if you wish to pre-order the book, we have links below.
About This Is My America:
How much do you really know about the American justice system? And does it work differently for different people? Kim Johnson takes a hard look at this and more in her debut novel THIS IS MY AMERICA (Random House Books for Young Readers | on sale July 28, 2020 | $17.99). Seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont has been battling the justice system for years—and in the process uncovers the ugly past that her town has been hiding.
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. Will Tracy and her family survive the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?
THIS IS MY AMERICA is a gripping read that examines the racial injustices of our country’s legal system. It is honest and unflinching, but also hopeful and uplifting. As New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone said about the book, “Read and reread . . . and reread again.”
Q&A with Kim Johnson, courtesy of Random House Children’s Books:
THIS IS MY AMERICA is your debut YA novel. Where did the idea behind the book come from, and why did you decide to write the book for a teen audience?
The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of the Ferguson protests that emerged from not only the murder of Mike Brown, but Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, and generations upon generations of Black people disproportionately targeted, profiled, and over-sentenced. After reading Bryan Stevenson’s JUST MERCY, I wanted to expand understanding of the faults and foundation of our criminal justice system and dispel myths. As a teen, I didn’t have characters in fiction who looked like me or held similar interests. In THIS IS MY AMERICA, I wanted young people engaged in activism to see themselves on the page. I continue to long for Black freedom around the world, and I use activism through literature to bear witness and document our times.
Can you tell us a little bit about Tracy, the main character in the book? She is determined to get justice for her father, who sits on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Why did you decide to craft the story from her point of view, and how do you think readers will view her?
Tracy Beaumont is my fictional hero, braver and bolder than me. As a teen, I was an activist and a leader in social justice organizations, so she and I have the same dogged determination. Her life experiences amplified her need for persistence, and I wanted to build from that for her character. I wrote her in honor of the activists and student leaders I have worked with over my career who paved their own way, often making the impossible possible. I wanted students like mine to feel seen. To feel inspired. I also wanted to honor all the Black women who lead movements and organizations that often don’t get their due credit. Black women were behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and so many Black women are putting in hard work for change. I wanted all readers to see a young Black character who is unapologetic and takes up space—regardless of how others view her.
Tracy’s town has a long history of racism. How does that factor into the story?
There’s a misconception of small towns being safe communities that are devoid of “crime.” Spaces where good folk can find community. A small town was a perfect model of how ingrained racism can persist in communities. I chose Galveston, Texas, because Texas is a well-known death penalty state. Galveston is also where Juneteenth began. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Galveston operated as a symbolic location with an entrenched history worth exploring. I also wanted the story to reflect how Tracy’s family were evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, and how difficult it is to pick up and start over as a family when you don’t have generational wealth and resources.
You cover a lot of topics that have been systemic issues in our society. What was your approach? Was there research you used to inform your writing?
Because of the complexity of issues in the novel, it was critical to develop a deeper understanding of our criminal justice system. My research was extensive, with well over a hundred sources from nonfiction books; memoirs; crime podcasts like Serial, In the Dark, and articles; documentaries; recorded interviews of the wrongfully incarcerated; discussions with people and families who have been impacted by incarceration; and interviews with defense attorneys and former law associates from the Equal Justice Initiative. Extensive resources are second nature to me because as an undergraduate I majored in ethnic studies, with an emphasis in African American history, sociology, and literature and my graduate work focused on counseling and college student development and Black identity development.
Who is your favorite character in the book, and why? Who was the most difficult to write?
My favorite character was Tracy, the heroine in this story. She is like so many student activists I know: fearless, relentless, and inspiring. She was a character I wanted to keep writing about because there was so much to her story, from her early life to what happens after the novel. The most difficult character was Tasha, Tracy’s best friend. She has her own story to tell, and I had to make sure to focus on Tracy so it wouldn’t overwhelm the reader.
THIS IS MY AMERICA keeps readers on the edge of their seat as the mystery unfolds. What are some of your favorite mystery thrillers, and how did you learn to write in that genre?
Books, television, film, documentaries, and news are all places I have learned to write well-plotted mystery and thrillers. Unsolved Mysteries was a love of mine since I was eight years old and sparked my interest in mysteries. Because I have consumed so much of this genre, I often solve a mystery long before the ending of a book. The books that excite me the most are so well done, I want to go back to read them again to pick up the trail. If I read something that I find unique or that provided me meaningful moments as a reader, I think about how I can craft similar solutions in my projects. I work to master a good mystery plot that is based in a contemporary setting where the stakes are important to the main character. I start with issues I care deeply about and want resolved, and then I build my mystery around and through the issues. That’s my “it” factor in writing. Mystery and thriller writers I auto-buy are Stephanie Kuehn, Karen McManus, Kara Thomas, Monica Hesse, Lamar Giles, Justine Larbalestier, E. Lockhart, Megan Miranda, Gillian Flynn, Ruth Ware, Walter Mosley, Simone St. James, Steph Cha, and Attica Locke.
You mention in the author’s note of THIS IS MY AMERICA that Innocence X and Steve Jones are based on Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative, as well as The Innocence Project. Can you talk more about this and why you decided to do this?
JUST MERCY is a profound memoir that inspired me to use literature to tackle the systemic issues that matched my social justice background. I found the use of a death penalty case to be a powerful way to showcase the faults in our system. If the system can convict innocent people and sentence them to death, then what other egregious errors are taking place? Bryan Stevenson so poignantly says, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” I wanted young people to engage with a text to explore humanity and one day be a part of the solution.
You have said that you learned how to be a writer from rap music, and that rap became your “life’s soundtrack.” Can you explain more about how music inspired you to write?
I am by no means a rapper or singer. However, I learned more about storytelling from music than I learned from reading in my teen years. Much like books, music allowed me to feel joyful, angry, sad, inspired, motivated, or rebellious. When NWA and Public Enemy came out, their message was about how the constant policing of our existence was destroying Black communities. Rap, hip-hop, and R&B provided forms of expression that I could access when writing wasn’t encouraged by my teachers. Artists like 2Pac, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Dead Prez, The Roots, Common, conscious rap with a message I resonate with. Lauryn Hill’s album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was essentially a series of short stories that packed an emotional punch for me. Her songs gave me hope, and inspiration to write words that would speak to young readers in the same way that her music spoke to me.
How did you come up with the title THIS IS MY AMERICA?
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 gave me ideas for titles. His activism caused many white Americans to question his “patriotism.” This resembled many other conversations around assimilation and not recognizing the Black American experience and fight for equality. So I came up with the title THIS IS MY AMERICA. When Childish Gambino’s song “This Is America” came out, I felt like the universe was telling me I was on the right track, that a larger conversation was brewing about what America represents, and how there is another America that we fail to acknowledge.
Renowned artist Chuck Styles created the beautiful cover of THIS IS MY AMERICA. What was your reaction when you heard he would be the artist and when you saw the final cover illustration?
When my editor shared Chuck Styles’s portfolio, I was blown away and incredibly impressed that he agreed to illustrate my cover. His work is phenomenal. Fresh, hip, it’s basically for the culture. The way he uses color is expressive and bold and has that signature style where you can always tell when it’s a piece of his. I feel like my cover is another one of his masterpieces. Hands down, Chuck was the best selection in so many ways. He is not only incredibly talented but also completely supportive. I don’t know many authors who have their illustrator support them as much as Chuck supports me.
Because of your background, you are well versed in knowing how entrenched systemic racism is. How do you keep hope?
In a world filled with darkness, I have always looked toward the helpers and the problem solvers. Through my work with young people and service in the community, I’m regularly rejuvenated in my philosophy of optimism. With every challenge, there is a way forward because someone will be inspired to make a positive change somewhere in the world. When I write, I hope to inspire the next generation of leaders. My optimism is fueled by belief in the human spirit and our ability to make a way out of no way. Young people bring me joy. They also give me hope in the future, because they are shaping the conversation to explore things we almost thought were impossible to resolve.
What would be your advice to aspiring writers?
The most important lesson has been the value in building resilience and working through revisions. When I first began querying, I was frustrated with getting published and 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 I practiced writing queries, pitches, loglines, and the dreaded synopsis. And 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 I could hold true to that and still be published 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. Finishing 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 do you hope your readers take away with them after reading THIS IS MY AMERICA?
I wanted to center the story around an amazing family and a teen with remarkable friends, and provide a much-needed look at complex issues around race, justice, and the brokenness of our prison industrial complex. I hope readers rip through this thrilling story, then read it again to picture themselves as Tracy. Jamal. Corinne. James. Quincy. Tasha. Dean. Every character, with each of their threads and experiences. Everyone has a role, and sometimes it takes reading from another perspective or a closer look at the issue. It’s a rich story that I also hope leaves readers inspired and ready to be a voice for change. I hope readers are not only enthralled with the story, but recognize that the Beaumont family represents the experiences of too many Black families—that a family’s hopes and dreams can be disrupted at any moment. I want readers to leave the book hungry for more books with Black main characters across all genres and categories.
Q&A with Chuck Styles, cover artist for This Is My America:
Q: THIS IS MY AMERICA is the first YA book jacket that you illustrated. What drew you to the book?
What drew me to THIS IS MY AMERICA was the amazing story it was telling and the book’s main character. I have a nine-year-old daughter, Nala, and we make her aware of her history, social climate, and the injustices that she may see and need to understand. I was most definitely happy to be a part of this project, especially in today’s climate.
Q: Your art is so detailed and beautiful. How do you decide the subjects of your art?
Thank you! I choose my subjects based on what story I want to tell at the moment. Sometimes I go by what the world needs in order to heal, feel empowered, feel loved. Channeling those emotions and needs first often helps direct me in discovering the subject for the art.
Q: What is your process like?
My process always begins in research and energy. I like to learn about whatever the content is by doing historical research to get a better understanding. From there I begin curating a musical playlist of sorts that helps keep a specific energy for the duration of the art process. This greatly helps, especially when days have passed or my mood has changed and I can harness that energy to put inside the art.
Q: What made you want to be an artist?
I decided to take my art gifts seriously in my early twenties. Having the gift to create visual artwork at an early age gave me the advantage to pursue a career in which I never saw creating as work. It was pure enjoyment. Not having any Black art role models to look up to growing up was another reason I wanted to be an artist. To give hope and inspire not only my children and my family, but to show my community that following your dreams is possible, even as young black creative who grew up in poverty with five siblings.
Q: While you were creating art, you also became a barber. How did you get into it?
Barbering was a profession to which I gave more than ten years of my life. From age thirteen, I practiced cutting my little brother and my friends’ hair until I was able to work at a shop at eighteen. This gave me insight on being an entrepreneur and marketer. I began to build my barber career and win multiple competitions around the county, have celebrity clientele, and appear on television. Many of those soft and hard skills I learned as a barber helped me become the successful artist I am today.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the Urban Art Gallery’s Art Buds Program and how you got involved with it?
Art Buds is a nonprofit program that offers free art classes to children ages seven to fifteen within West Philadelphia’s Urban Art Gallery, home to my first gallery show. The owner and those involved became family, and I made it my mission to give back to the gallery and the community that it served any way I could. I began volunteering as an assistant teacher to Shanina Dionna, artist and director of the program. Every eight weeks we would tackle both fundamental lessons in art and social topics to help give our children the problem-solving skills necessary for a better future. It has been an amazing four years dedicating a few hours of my Saturday mornings to these talented leaders of creativity.
Q: In 2019, you started creating paintings digitally. Why did you decide to use this method?
My experience showcasing in New York and Miami and trying to sell $10,000 paintings opened my eyes to my purpose. My audience and the individuals who supported me, looked like me, spoke the same visual language, and were not necessarily in spaces and opportunities to financially support those kinds of works. I wanted to give my people art they could take home. Art that reflected our beautiful culture. Art that would not need any experience in the art market as a beginner collector. My decision to try the digital medium allowed me to create beautiful pieces at a faster pace and reproduce canvas prints that would be of quality and yet affordable. It was my way to provide artwork for my family and community and to help provide positive black images for households around the world.
Q: Will you be illustrating any other book jackets in the future?
Yes. I most definitely hope to do more book covers. Visual art and other art forms help create iconic moments in history. Visual art with a great compelling story can live for lifetimes.
Q: What advice do you give to aspiring artists?
Promote yourself as best as you can, as hard as you can, and as much as you can. The world and its opportunities for you are so much bigger than your neighborhood or city. Always stay open to creative paths that may open new possibilities and partnerships. Lastly and most importantly, move with purpose.
Q: What would readers be surprised to learn about you?
I never wanted to be an artist growing up. And when I decided to pursue a serious art career, I was conflicted. Trying to be accepted in the large art world, I initially chose not to paint many African American people or faces in hopes of being accepted as an artist and not a “Black artist.” It was a period of self-discovery and reflecting on the kind of artist I wanted to be, who my art was helping, and what legacy I wanted to leave for my family.
You can pre-order This Is My America at the following links: