In ‘Dear Martin,’ African-American teen writes letters to King to cope

I gotta say: I’ve been reading your sermons and studying your books for six months now, and it feels like all I have to show for it is frustration and a sense of defeat. I swear I heard some girl ask “Why are black people so angry all the time?” as I left Blake’s house, but how else am I supposed to feel? — from “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone

In “Dear Martin,” the debut novel of Atlanta author Nic Stone, a high school senior named Justyce McAllister writes letters to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., hoping that may help him deal with angst and confusion.

Justyce is one of just a few African-American students at the private (and fictional) Braselton Prep Academy in Atlanta. He’s ranked fourth in his senior class of 83 students and aiming for an Ivy League education. “Jus” knows he’s a good dude with, as his mom puts it, “a great head on my shoulders.” He’s always tried to do what’s right.

As the book opens, Jus has a troubling late-night confrontation with cops. He was trying to help someone and he winds up in handcuffs. The experience changes him. That’s when he begins to write the letters. Even though King has been dead for nearly 50 years, Jus writes to him to help sort out his feelings.

This new young adult (YA) book includes about 10 brief letters written in Justyce’s voice to “Martin.” The larger portion of Stone’s novel unfolds in the third-person point of view and mostly follows Jus and his classmates in their senior year at the privileged school where Jus is on full scholarship.

RELATED: Atlanta writers battle the lack of diversity in books for young adults

The daughter of a retired police officer, Stone grew up in Norcross. She graduated from both Norcross High and Spelman College. She has two metro area events this month to launch “Dear Martin,” each beyond a typical book-and-author appearance.

The idea for “Dear Martin” took hold of Stone right about Nov. 23, 2012. That’s when Jordan Davis, 17, was fatally shot in Jacksonville, Fla., by a 45-year-old white man over a “loud music” dispute.

“The incident shook me to my core,” the author recalls. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Then, in the summer of 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, which led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“What would Dr. King say and do, were he alive today to witness some of the things happening in our country?” Stone wonders. “That’s the part I couldn’t shake. I kept seeing his quotes being used in opposition to Black Lives Matter protests, like signs that said things such as ‘Dr. King would never!’”

That set her off. Stone mentions civil disobedience as a central tenet of the American civil rights movement. Any suggestion that King would be opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement and nonviolent protests connected to it was “galling” to her.

So she set out to explore what King, if he were alive today, might be saying, thinking, feeling and doing.

RELATED: Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights movements confront generation gap

At the time Jordan Davis was killed, Stone had a 5-month-old son. Now 32, she’s mother to two boys, ages 16 months and 5 years. She had her boys in mind, especially in writing from a boy’s perspective — the letters in Justyce’s voice.

Those letters are bursting with soul-searching thoughts. Questions like “How do I work against this, Martin? … I’m working hard to choose the moral high road like you would, but it’ll take more than that, won’t it?”

When Justyce writes such things, “honestly, those questions are really from me, everything in this book,” Stone says. “To know everything that they (King and colleagues) faced, I wanted to know how he stayed true to his principles and remained dignified.”

She needed to explore all these questions now, when her “sons are small, so that when they get older, they can read the book and use it to grapple with their own questions and their place in society. They need to see how they can move through a world that sometimes looks at them with suspicion and disdain.”

As much as she hopes for things to be better for her sons, “I should be realistic. It’s been 50 years since the civil rights movement and here we are. I definitely think they’ll have some things to contend with a decade from now.”

“Dear Martin” is a fast-paced read. It hits you in the heart, in the gut. As fellow YA author Becky Albertalli puts it, Stone’s novel “will charm your socks off and smash your heart to pieces.”

That’s what Stone was going for. “I wanted it to be a very intense and realistic story, but not so heavy that you can’t get through it. The idea of it being charming — well, that means a lot to me.”

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