Reading While Young

Children's book art of mother goose, peter rabbit, jack climbing a beanstalk and a lion

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images via the Library of Congress (CC0).

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Original Air Date: 
May 01, 2021

Remember when reading still felt magical? When a book could sweep you off your feet into another world? It might be that the best way to find your way back the magic is through a kid’s book. We talk to authors about Wonderland, magic wands, unicorns and other children's stories that inspire.

children reaching for the stars

English author and professor Katherine Rundell thinks all of us – even adults – can benefit by reading books primarily meant for kids. Reading children’s books might inspire us to take chances, learn new things and go — literally and figuratively — to new worlds.

A wolf

"White Fang" by Jack London is a classic outdoor adventure story about a wild wolf-dog's struggle to survive in the Yukon Territory during the 1890's Gold Rush. Writer Quan Barry read it for the first time at age 11 and learned just how powerful a book can be. 

Huck Finn

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain is one of the most controversial books in the American literary canon, particularly because of its frequent use of the N word. But for Enrique Salmon, a young Native kid trying to master the English language, “Huckleberry Finn” was the book that launched his lifelong love of reading.


Ebony Thomas doesn't see Hermione from the Harry Potter series as Black. But a whole new generation of young Black girls do, and they're using fan fiction and online communities to re-imagine a witch they can identify with more deeply.


Inspired by "Alice in Wonderland" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," L.L. McKinney's Nightmare-Verse fantasy series reimagines Alice is a young Black girl from Atlanta. She told Steve Paulson that this Alice’s superpower is self confidence.


Lulu Miller, author of “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” first read the young adult book “The Search for Delicious” when she was in that transformative and uncertain stage in between childhood and adulthood.


Show Details 📻
May 01, 2021
December 11, 2021
July 23, 2022
February 25, 2023
November 25, 2023
Children's Book Author
Author and Poet
Ebony Thomas stands in front of green bushes
Professor of Education
Author and Public Radio Reporter/Host
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Some of us have been having trouble reading lately. It's like the pleasure, the magic is gone. Writer Katherine Rundell has a solution.

Speaker 2 (00:18):


Speaker 2 (00:23):

Variants spread across the US.

Speaker 2 (00:25):

[inaudible 00:00:25]

Speaker 2 (00:25):

Existing vaccines-

Katherine Rundell (00:27):

We're in the middle of a global pandemic, and I think you should be reading children's books right now.

Speaker 2 (00:39):

... spreading across the US.

Speaker 2 (00:39):

Existing vaccines-

Katherine Rundell (00:39):

Children's books are books that traffic in hope and in possibility. Their books, rich, give you sense of the world as being colossal. Children's books say to you hope matters, love matters. Children's books will not ever pontificate or self-congratulate because children will not wait while they do so. Children's books have to be a distillation. They are a distillation of our most vulnerable heart, of our hopes and of our dreams. They're a kind of literary vodka. And right now, in the middle of the pandemic, I think we have never needed literary Vodka more.

Anne Strainchamps (01:40):

Remember what it felt like when a book could sweep you away in the very first sentence? Katherine Rundell writes books like that, adventure stories for children. She's also a literary scholar at All Souls College, Oxford, and she believes that no matter how old and wise you think you are, you should be reading children's books, and I totally agree.

Katherine Rundell (02:07):

So I write adventure stories, often unlikely adventure stories where children are sent on wild quests. [inaudible 00:02:15] about a girl who discovers that her mother, who she thought had drowned in a shipwreck, might in fact be in Paris. And so, she discovers a gang of children who live up on the rooftops of Paris, this wild, secret life. And they shoot pigeons with bows and arrows and leap from rooftop to rooftop. So this is just the opening of it.

Katherine Rundell (02:38):

"On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. It was the only living things for miles, just the baby and some dining room chairs, and the tip of ship disappearing into the ocean. There had been music in the dining hall, and it was music so loud and so good that nobody had noticed the water flooding in over the carpet. The violins went on soaring for some time after the screaming had begun. Sometimes, the shriek of a passenger would duet with a high C.

Katherine Rundell (03:10):

The baby was found wrapped for warmth in the musical score of a Beethoven symphony. It had drifted almost a mile from the ship and was at least to be rescued. The man who lifted it into the rescue boat was a fellow passenger and a scholar. It is a scholar's job to notice things. He noticed that it was a girl with hair the color of lightning and the smile of a shy person. Think of night time with a speaking voice, or think how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal cords. Give those things a narrow, aristocratic face with hooked eyebrows and long arms and legs, and that is what the baby saw as she was lifted out of her cello case up into safety. His name was Charles Maxim, and he determined, as he held her in his large hands at arm's length as he would a leaky flowerpot, that he would keep her."

Anne Strainchamps (04:03):

Oh my god. That's so great You had me at baby floating alone on the ocean. And that reminded me. I guess it's like rule number one for a children's book author, or at least a writer of adventure stories. The first thing you have to do is get rid of the parents, right?

Katherine Rundell (04:19):

Right. So this is the thing that parents impose the imperatives of the adult world. And how can you go on an adventure when your parents are saying, "Make sure you call me by 5:00 PM and be home for supper"?

Anne Strainchamps (04:30):

But I think one reason that that can speak to us at any age is that we often all have the feeling as we move through life of being alone or finding ourselves sort of adrift or abandoned in the adult world as well as the children's world.

Katherine Rundell (04:51):

I think it's exactly that. I think we know what it is to feel powerless as adults. When we write about orphans, we write about children who navigate the world in the knowledge of their vulnerability. And I think what you're doing when you write orphans is you're telling adults as well what is left of us when we are stripped away, when we need to start out all over again. That's why so many children's books are about things like fundamental kindness, love, passion, and people who rise to swing for those to whom they are not connected by blood.

Anne Strainchamps (05:29):

Just listening to you talk, I'm thinking about how many children's books are suffused with this ... Well, you write about it as a hunger for moral justice. Thinking about how many classic children's books there are that have somebody evil who's punished, whether it's Captain Hook, or Cruella de Vil, or Cinderella's step mother who goes down, there's a sense that the bad people will be punished.

Katherine Rundell (05:55):

Absolutely. I think a lot of that comes from the [inaudible 00:05:59] of children's books which lies in fairy tales. We want the baddies to go falling through the air and be devoured by their own rage and fury and be beaten. The idea that we have of fairy tales as a girl in a beautiful dress marrying a prince over and over again, it's entirely recent, really dates to the last 80, 100 years. And in the 19th century, Giambattista Basile's version of Cinderella, she marries the prince, and she goes back to the wicked stepmother with a trunk full of clothes. And she says, "I forgive you. I love you. I've brought you these clothes." And the wicked stepmother leans in to look at the clothes, and Cinderella slams down the lid and chops her head off. And that is often what fairy tales really were. They have kind of grittiness, a kind of darkness. They have blood in them, and they have a completely unabashing acknowledgement of our darkest desire, and I love that about them.

Anne Strainchamps (07:00):

Yeah. Is there an Icelandic version also where somebody winds up eating somebody else?

Katherine Rundell (07:04):

Yes. In the Icelandic version, the evil stepmother is an ogris, and she makes her ogris daughter cut off her toes in order to deceive the prince and put on the shoe. And then when he finds out, he kills the ogris daughter, and he makes her into porridge, and he feeds her to the wicked stepmother, which again for some reason Disney didn't go with that particular option. We'll never know why.

Anne Strainchamps (07:31):

Yeah. Just think what we're all missing. And that's the other thing I think that children's books, the best of them, can do is reconnect us to something primal, the most powerful instincts, hunger and justice and searching and adventure. And I think that if there's a tragedy of adulthood, it's that we grow up. We become free in the world and powerful in a way that every child dreams of being, and then we discover somehow we live in this world that feels completely flat.

Katherine Rundell (08:10):

I think exactly that, but children's books can sometimes be the antidote to that, to the sense that it is naïve to hunger for justice, or maybe more importantly, that it's naïve to imagine the possibility of a better world. Children's books stand fundamentally against that believe. For instance, Le Guin, I remember ... I'm just looking for this quote. She said, "We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words." So she believed that her books might be something that would sew the seeds that are necessary for resistance.

Anne Strainchamps (09:03):

Wow. Now you're painting a picture of children's books as politically subversive also, as having kind of a deep element of antiestablishmentarianism.

Katherine Rundell (09:15):

I think that's absolutely true, some of them. It's very important to acknowledge that huge numbers of children's books, especially British children's books, have suggested that the best thing you can be is quiet, white, thin, rich, and profoundly acceptable according to the lights of the day. So, they have not always been a tool for rebellion, but it is true that many children's books were also a little bit subversive. They had a surprising politics to them.

Anne Strainchamps (09:47):

Going back to your Roofwalkers book and some of the other adventure stories, you seem like a very adventurous person. I mean, you've been taking trapeze flying lessons.

Katherine Rundell (09:59):

Ah, that was so much fun. That would be the best example of doing something that you wouldn't necessarily do otherwise, for research, and then falling in love with it. I was writing a book called The Good Thieves, which is a heist set in 1920s New York City with four children, and they all need individual skills, so there's a lockpick and an animal tamer, and a boy who is a great trapeze artist. And so I wanted to know what it felt like to fly and to be caught midair, so I took quite a few trapeze lessons. I did land on my face very badly at one point. I went blind in one eye for half a day.

Anne Strainchamps (10:34):

Oh my god.

Katherine Rundell (10:37):

I know. It was a little bit dramatic, but it was worth it. It was a delight.

Anne Strainchamps (10:41):

Did you keep on with the lessons after that, or did you decide, "No, enough"?

Katherine Rundell (10:45):

I kept going. The flying trapeze, I cannot recommend it too highly. You just feel a little bit like you're flying, and you feel so elegant. And then someone shows you a video, and you realize you do not look elegant. You look like a sort of badger on a fishing line, but the idea is still there.

Anne Strainchamps (11:02):

And then I also read that before you wrote The Explorers, the one set in the Amazon, you learned to fly a small plane?

Katherine Rundell (11:09):

I was going to do that anyway because a lot of my family were pilots in the second world war, and my uncle was a bush pilot. So, when I would go back to visit my family in Zimbabwe, I was learning to fly this tiny little yellow two-seater Piper Cub, and I got quite far with that, such that, by the end of my lessons, I could take off, and I could fly in the middle quite well, and I'm very, very bad at landing, which is not at all the way around that you want it.

Anne Strainchamps (11:41):

Reading those things about you, I found that just remarkable and exciting, and it gave me some of the same sense, that life can be an adventure, that I get from reading children's books. So, my theory in my head is that reading children's books is a way to remember what it felt like to be learning things, how that feeling of learning something is connected to the feeling of adventure and the feeling of possibility in the world. And I think as adults sometimes we forget to learn. We have the feeling that we grew up, and we moved through the various stages of education, and then graduated into adulthood and ... Yeah, I think learning reawakens the child in all of us.

Katherine Rundell (12:31):

I'm so sure you're right. I've never actually thought of it in that specific way but of course. Of course that makes perfect sense. And also the way they say that the way to make time slow down, if you feel like your life is flashing by in a blur, the best way to make it slow, to grab hold of it again is to learn something new. And I think there is a great liberation in, as an adult, deciding to learn something, even if you're quite rubbish at it at first. Because I think as adults we become used to being quite good at what we do, and I think I have taught myself to be willing to be really bad at something for a long time, and that has been an enormous pleasure.

Katherine Rundell (13:12):

The first time I landed an airplane sort of by myself, I said to my instructor, who sits behind you, "How did I do?" And he said, "Well, technically ... I mean, technically, no one died." I'm like, "Thank you." [crosstalk 00:13:27] not really a compliment, but in these things there is such joy in doing something and discovering it, even if the discovery is slow and painful.

Anne Strainchamps (13:45):

That's Katherine Rundell. She is who I want to be when I grow up, or grow young. Her children's books include Rooftoppers, The Good Thieves, The Explorer, and a book length essay: Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old And Wise. And that's the case we're making with this entire hour, and here's another reason why. You know that we talk a lot with writers on this show. And at the end of interviews, we often ask them to recommend a book, something they've loved, something that's been important to them. You'd be surprised how often it's a children's book.

Quan Barry (14:31):

My name is Quan Barry, and I'm the author of We Ride Upon Sticks. And the book that I'd like to talk about that effected me quite a bit as a writer is White Fang by Jack London. I have to admit, I haven't read White Fang probably since I read it when I was in 7th grade. I was 11 years old. I have this memory of sitting in the house that I grew up in as a child. I had my own bedroom. It was tiny. It had a red, red rug, and I have this memory of lying on the floor on my stomach reading White Fang for 7th grade English.

Quan Barry (15:12):

For those of you who don't know, White Fang, basically very similar to Call of the Wild. It's a book about a dog in the Yukon or somewhere in Alaska and the adventures that this dog has. The thing though that I remember, and again I was 11 years old, many, many years ago, like more than 30 years, like 35 years ago or so is when I read this book. I have a memory though that it was the first book that made me cry when I finished it.

Quan Barry (15:42):

I couldn't even tell you what happened at the end. I barely remember. I'm like, "Does he live or die?" I don't even know. I think White Fang might, not to be a spoiler, but it might be the kind of thing like son of White Fang goes on, that kind of thing, but I don't really remember. But I just remember crying, and I didn't realize that literature could do that to you, that you could read something and then cry about it. It was such a new experience to me. So it's interesting that I remember that. I don't even remember the story itself. I just remember my reaction to it, and that's the reason why it stayed with me all these many years.

Anne Strainchamps (16:19):

That's poet and novelist Quan Barry. We actually have a whole separate micro podcast called Bookmarks, which now includes an entire section of writers on kid's lit. You can download the collection at, and keep listening because we'll sample a few more this hour. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (16:50):

Children's books get dated just like everything else, and sometimes when you go back to one that you loved as a kid, you're in for a nasty shock. Babar, that sweet story about an elephant who wears a dapper green suit and visits the opera, today it reads like a colonialist fantasy with racist illustrations. Huckleberry Finn, the story about the adventures of two runaways on a raft in the Mississippi River, it's so full of racial stereotypes and more than 100 uses of the N-word that it's banned in a lot of schools. So, having fond memories of a book can be complicated.

Enrique Salmon (17:32):

I'm Enrique Salmon. I'm a professor of American Indian studies at California State University, East Bay. I've also written the book Eating the Landscape, and I have a book coming out right now about American Indian ethnobotany called Iwígara.

Enrique Salmon (17:49):

When I was growing up, I couldn't really read or write or speak English very well, up until like 11th grade. It was amazing I even made it to 11th grade. And then there was a teacher, an English Teacher, Mrs. Anderson, who decided she was going to bring me up to speed with regards to being able to read and write in English. And she introduced me to Mark Twain, and more specifically Huckleberry Finn. And I remember working my way through Huckleberry Finn and reading about Huck and Jim and the Mississippi River and all of those things. It really had this impact on me as a person of color, of how people from different ethnic backgrounds can just be friends in that space along the Mississippi River, in this area that was actually very racist.

Enrique Salmon (18:52):

I can understand where people are coming from with the use of the N-word that Mark Twain used, but I look at it from the perspective that Mark Twain was writing in a period and from a perspective emerging from his own experience. He never says if he liked or disliked the word. It was just that was his experience, then the fictional character's experience. We have to acknowledge that experience and be mindful that cultures and people change through time, and today we realize that that part is not acceptable anymore, and we have to respect that as well.

Enrique Salmon (19:39):

That book led me to other Mark Twain books. It led me to Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea. It led me to Steinbeck and to Faulkner. And ever since, I've just had this incredible fascination with books and with reading, and to the point where I'm a writer myself, and that's the power of an 11th grade English teacher taking it upon herself to teach a young native guy to read and write through Mark Twain.

Anne Strainchamps (20:18):

Enrique Salmon is the author of Eating the Landscape and Iwígara, about American Indian ethnobotany. And that's one of the essays you can hear in our separate Bookmarks podcast now featuring writers on Reading While Young. You can hear them all at

Anne Strainchamps (20:46):

We're talking today about reading kid's books as children and as adults. And I have to say I got through the pandemic by reading YA fantasy books, not just any YA fantasy, a specific sub-genre, warrior girls, girls who carry swords or wands or both, ninja girls, fae girls, girls who were secretly werewolves or assassins, who can call up fire and ice, melt [inaudible 00:21:17] kill darkness, girls who bring down kingdoms. If their fierceness and strength and magical abilities got me, a 60 year old woman, through the pandemic, imagine what they do for real girls. And now imagine growing up without them, being told every time you reached for a book about an enchanted land or a kid on a magical quest, "Those books aren't for you." Here's Ebony Thomas.

Ebony Thomas (21:53):

There is no magic. This statement, perhaps most famously attributed to Harry Potter's uncle, Vernon Dursley, is also something that my mother has said to me since I was a child. The eldest daughter of an African American working class Detroit family, I was born in the late 1970s, just as the fires of the civil rights era were smoldering to ashes. My mother was doing me a favor by letting me know that magic was inaccessible to me. The real world held trouble enough for young black girls, so there was no need for me to go off on a question to seek it. I was warned against walking through metaphoric looking glasses, trained to be suspicious of magic rings, and assured that no gallant princes were ever coming to my rescue. The existential concerns of our family, neighbors and city left little room for Neverlands, Middle Earths or Fantasias. In order to survive, I had to face reality. My life has been intentionally constructed to prove my mother's words wrong.

Anne Strainchamps (23:11):

Ebony Thomas became a writer herself, of fan fiction, YA fiction, and a study of race and imagination called The Dark Fantastic. To explain how black girls have to fight their into magical fiction, she points to the ongoing debate about a character everyone knows, Hermione Granger. In stage productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hermione's black, but in the books her skin color's never mentioned. JK Rowling has said she loves black Hermione, but is that how she wrote her? Charles Monroe-Kane put the question to Ebony Thomas.

Charles Monroe-Kane (23:49):

So, was Hermione black?

Ebony Thomas (23:53):

This is an unpopular opinion. But in the original books, no, she was not black. I don't want to rain on the parade of young black women who insisted that she was black.

Charles Monroe-Kane (24:09):

I spent hours on the internet last night looking into this, and there are a lot of black scholars and especially young black women who are arguing that Hermione is black. This seems like people really care about this issue.

Ebony Thomas (24:21):

Well, I do think that readers and viewers and audiences can revise our opinions over time. I think that's perfectly valid. So, here's the thing. When I was in Harry Potter fandom, I did not see Hermione as black because I could not unmake my late Generation X reality to place a black girl protagonist in a white British author's fantasy blockbuster. I just could not. That world was not a world that I grew up in, came of age in, or existed in. So, that's where I was initially.

Ebony Thomas (25:06):

Then, in the early to mid 2010s, as millennial women came of age who had grown up with Harry Potter, they read themselves into Hermione because they came of age with slightly more representation. I think having your childhood in the '90s was quite different than having your childhood in the '70s or '80s. So, if you grew up in the '90s and the double-Os, then of course you could open up Harry Potter and read yourself into Hermione's character. Growing up, Hermione was a mirror of me. She had bushy hair. She was smart. She was black.

Charles Monroe-Kane (25:50):

So, millennials, they read themselves into the story.

Ebony Thomas (25:54):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles Monroe-Kane (25:55):

What does that mean? I mean, these same millennials now are the folks that are the protagonists of Black Lives Matter.

Ebony Thomas (26:02):


Charles Monroe-Kane (26:02):

Did something happen?

Ebony Thomas (26:04):

Absolutely. Let me tell you what happened. The internet happened. The social web happened, and I really think that is the hard line between Generation X and millennials. I was born in 1977, and it would have been impossible for me to experience a 2000s childhood. My childhood in the 1980s, so I was three through 13 from 1980 to 1989, I had no access at all to the internet, to streaming television. And until 1988, we had no cable. That is a Generation X childhood, period.

Ebony Thomas (26:46):

My childhood and my ideologies are much closer to my aunt and uncle. My youngest aunt and uncle were born in the late '60s. We had almost the same childhood experiences, the same culture because ... It's not some magic marketing thing. So, I know people market to generations, but it really is about your space-time. And in the space-time I came of age in, we were siloed. So, here is the difference, Charles. I'll tell you. Here's the difference. If I thought Hermione was black in 1985, or if I thought Alice was black, Anne of Green Gables was black, Meg Murry was black, I would have had that thought, and everything around me would have invalidated that thought, from schooling to television to movies. It would have been like, "Okay, that's a silly thought."

Charles Monroe-Kane (27:39):

So it's fascinating if you think about it. We have a group of black girls who think Hermione is black. It's like a validation of their imagination, which I think is amazing.

Ebony Thomas (27:48):

Yeah, I do too.

Charles Monroe-Kane (27:49):

So, how do we get from Hermione to Black Lives Matter? And I think more importantly, where do we go from here?

Ebony Thomas (28:00):

I am so excited about this rising generation of young black women. So, we have this idea that black kids can't read, or they don't read well, but what I am theorizing is that perhaps we don't know how they read. So, for instance, I'm saying, "No, Hermione's not black," because I was carefully taught to know that a Hermione would not be black in the 20th century. The book wouldn't be published. The publisher would say, "Nobody's going to read a book about a little black girl in magic school." That's exactly what they said to thousands of would-be authors as they rejected manuscripts.

Ebony Thomas (28:37):

So, if a child who is 10 reads Hermione as black into the text, or reads Hermione and Harry Potter as black, she grows up and learns that, no, people don't think that you are the protagonist. They think that you're the black best friend. They see you as the help. They see you as the mule. They see you as someone who is supposed to set yourself aside and voluntarily put yourself on the margins. Then there's going to be dissonance between what you imagined your reality would be and what your reality is. And so what we're seeing now is a global generation of kids, yes, young black women, but a global generation of folks who are determined to make these new worlds, or, as Langston Hughes said, to make the world anew because they're going to ... They are refusing their place. I take heart in this new generation because they are setting this world on fire in the best of ways.

Charles Monroe-Kane (29:43):

After finishing your book, and I've been thinking about this for days, and maybe it's odd in the context of what we're talking about, but what is imagination?

Ebony Thomas (29:52):

That's a really good question, and I have defined the imagination gap because I talk about there being a gap between what we imagine is possible for children of color, particularly black children, and the boxes we put them. But imagining itself is sort of like dreaming wide awake.

Charles Monroe-Kane (30:18):

So, is it a good idea that we dream wide awake? I mean, according to your mom, what she said ...

Ebony Thomas (30:25):

Well, I think that we have to, right? So, I feel as if as a society we're in denial about sort of the politics of the imagination. I was really influenced by Claudia Rankine's idea of the racial imaginary, so I think that everything that happens in the desert of the real, to quote The Matrix trilogy, has some analogy in the unreal. So, before you do something, you can often imagine yourself or see yourself doing it or anticipating it before.

Charles Monroe-Kane (31:05):


Ebony Thomas (31:05):

So, that's why we have to think about imagination. We have to think about dreaming wide awake. And the way out is just this generation of folks who are just really demanding change all over the globe and who are wanting a new 21st-century world.

Charles Monroe-Kane (31:25):

Well, the powers that be better be careful of the stories they let us tell. They're paying for it now, aren't they?

Anne Strainchamps (31:40):

Ebony Thomas talking with Charles Monroe-Kane. Her book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, won the British Fantasy Award for non-fiction.

Anne Strainchamps (31:57):

Coming up, meet black-girl magic personified, writer LL McKinney and her dark version of Wonderland. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (32:21):

LL McKinney is a YA writer with some serious superpowers of her own. Her Nightmare-Verse novels are on the best seller list with the TV rights optioned. She's just finished a YA graphic novel about Wonder Woman's twin sister, Nubia. It's DC Comic's first black woman superhero. And she's writing Marvel's Black Widow. It's kind of like she's single-handedly giving us the magical black heroines of the future, the ones we've been waiting for.

Anne Strainchamps (32:49):

Steve Paulson sat down with LL McKinney to talk about where it all started, with A Blade So Black, an urban fantasy version of Alice in Wonderland in which Alice is a teenage black girl from Atlanta whose job is killing monsters, AKA nightmares.

LL McKinney (33:06):

Well, I had grown up loving science fiction and fantasy, and as a kid I didn't have the ability to articulate what bothered me about this genre, that I adored, that didn't adore me back. It was sort of like there's nobody in the world. And if they're in the world, there's only one of us. Like watching Star Wars, you had Lando, but it's like I guess black people hadn't been invented throughout all of space, just this one place, right?

Steve Paulson (33:37):

So when you were growing up, there were no fantasy books with a black girl as a kick-ass hero?

LL McKinney (33:43):

There were, but I didn't learn about them until college. We weren't taught these authors in school, so I didn't know Octavia Butler was a thing until college. And I loved all this type of stuff, and now my sister's started having kids, and I'm looking at their kids who are falling in love with comics and science fiction and fantasy and all this stuff. And for me, I will be damned in there's not at least one book that my babies can look at in the genre that they love to read. That's essentially what happened is my sisters had kids, and I decided to do something about their bookshelves.

Steve Paulson (34:25):

Let's talk about your book and the world that you have created. How would you describe your Alice?

LL McKinney (34:32):

My Alice is essentially a whole geek. She's a huge nerd. It's great. I love it. And she uses both that knowledge and her experience as a black girl in America as her superpower. That's it. And so her self-esteem, her audaciousness to think that she can be big enough to kill monsters, is what lets her kill monsters.

Steve Paulson (35:02):

Yeah. Well, I'd love to get a taste of your book, maybe a reading from near the beginning. Could you give us a little sense of who Alice is?

LL McKinney (35:13):

Absolutely. So let's jump in at chapter one, a few pages into the book, so we've already got a taste of Addison Hatta, who was her mentor. At this point, he has been teaching her for a little bit, and now she's about to be armed with what can kill nightmares for the first time.

LL McKinney (35:41):

Alice ran her fingers over the ivory handles of the daggers on the desk in front of her. Cold light filled the blades, their surfaces more like silvered glass than steel. You'd think after three months of knowing Addison Hatta, she wouldn't be surprised whenever he pulled random weapons out. "Pretty," she plucked one up and raised her eyebrows. "Light. What are they?" "Figment blades." Addison dug around in the drawers where he sat, on the other side of the desk. The old metal rattled and creaked. "For real?" She trilled her fingers over the flat of one of the glittering blades, the only thing that's capable of killing nightmares. She'd never held one before, or seen one really. "They'll help focus your muchness." "My much-what now?" "Muchness." He slammed a drawer, then jumped with a curse, shaking out his hand. "Your muchness, to be precise. That part of you that believes in yourself, even when the rest of you doesn't."

Steve Paulson (37:16):

So the world that you've created ... There's the real world that we all know, and then there is this other world. It's dropping down the rabbit hole going down to Wonderland. Can you explain how these two worlds interact with each other?

LL McKinney (37:30):

Yeah. So, Wonderland is connected to the world of man because it is essentially the world of dreams. From the beginning of mankind and the subconscious mind, Wonderland has been around, and it's filled with everything that is part of the human imagination, both consciously and unconsciously, and so they affect each other. Like if something bad happens in the real world, bad stuff pops up in Wonderland, and vice versa. So Alice's job is to keep nightmares, which are physical manifestations of humanity's fears, and they pop up in Wonderland when something happens, or if enough bad feeling kind of coagulates, and becomes this thing. And it tries to get to the human world because humans are the source of its power. If it can cross over, it can cause all kinds of damage, from actually physically attacking people to affecting them, and then those people will start acting out and attacking people seemingly out of nowhere.

Steve Paulson (38:37):

I have to say this is just a great sort of taking off of sort of the whole idea of the subconscious, dreams and nightmares, making them real and part of our lives. You bring it to life.

LL McKinney (38:51):

There's this notion that fear is a physical thing. It has a physical effect on people that we're finally starting to recognize and address. It's sort of like stress, how now, relatively recently, there's scientific data that stress causes physical ailments within people.

Steve Paulson (39:10):


LL McKinney (39:11):

Fear does the same thing. So that's kind of what I was building on was this notion of fear being an actual danger to you, especially if it comes from places ... Like in the book, we don't see it happen, but the characters talk about how there was a young black girl who was around Alice's age. She was unarmed and killed by police. And Alice's community, the fear and the anger and the sadness generates two nightmares at once, which is a thing that Alice has never seen happen, and it's a fight that nearly costs her her life.

Steve Paulson (39:46):

Yeah. And we should mention that. So this black girl who was killed, we never actually see it happen, but there are constant references to it. How does she figure in your story?

LL McKinney (39:57):

Brianne is from Alice's neighborhood, right? So this happens, and Alice's mother reacts by being scared for her own child. And so, Alice is trying to be out here and do her superhero thing, but her mom is like, "Where are you going? Why aren't you coming home right after school? Why aren't you answering me?" And Alice could be like, "Well, I can't answer you because my cellphone doesn't work in Wonderland," but then you have to explain what Wonderland is. And of course Alice's mom is going to be like, "You doing what now?" And if her mom believes her, then she puts the kibosh on the whole thing, "You're done. Like what do you think this is?" And Alice doesn't want to give that up because this is her way of coping with her own grief from the passing of her father, which happens page one of the book. But Alice thinks about it a lot as well where she's like, "I'm doing this. I am a superhero, but at the same time ... I go home, nothing is different for me. I could wind up dead in a ditch somewhere."

Steve Paulson (41:00):

Right. In Wonderland, she can get out her daggers and kill the beast.

LL McKinney (41:04):


Steve Paulson (41:05):

But that's different than living in Atlanta and what happens to people that actually live there.

LL McKinney (41:09):

Right. I love talking about it because there's this thing where Alice is allowed to defend herself in a reality that's not ours. It's a dream essentially for her to be able to defend herself. There's this whole thing where self defense only exists if you don't have dark skin, right? If you're not black, you can defend yourself, but other than that you're the aggressor in that case. So, it has an entire effect on the book. It doesn't necessarily overshadow the book, but it's there. This is a book that it's not about race and racism, but it's not completely divested of it because that's life.

Steve Paulson (41:53):

Yeah. We should talk a little bit more about these nightmares that you've referred to. I mean, in your book, they become monsters. And Alice, her job in wonderland, she is tasked with killing the nightmares, killing the monsters.

LL McKinney (42:10):

The setup is Addison is like, "It's time. You've caught on really quickly. I'm kind of surprised but impressed. Let's go kill this little nightmare. We'll kill this baby nightmare. It's fine." And they go in, and this little nightmare's not so little. So, Alice, even though being a superhero, she's kind of panicked, and that's where we pick up.

Speaker 10 (42:48):

Breathe, baby moon.

LL McKinney (42:54):

Dad's voice filled her head. It did that a lot lately, memories of him laughing with her, talking to her, chastising her. The tears spilled free as she shook her head. "I can't," she whispered.

Speaker 10 (43:13):


LL McKinney (43:16):

"I can't."

Speaker 10 (43:18):


LL McKinney (43:23):

I'll try.

Speaker 10 (43:25):

Ain't no try. You know that. What are you going to do?

LL McKinney (43:33):

Her fingers tightened their hold on the daggers. Something swept through her, pushing outward from the center of her chest to the top of her head and the soles of her feet. "This. I'm going to do this." The nightmare whipped around to face her. It loosed a roar and pounded the ground with its feet. Alice adjusted her weight, then pushed off into a run. The smell of grass and dirt snapped crisp against her senses. Her steps thudded against the ground, mirroring the pounding of her heart, a storm in her chest. She darted across the meadow, coming around the monster's flank. It stood out against the black, her vision sharpening. "Aim for the core," Addison's voice reached her above the scream of wind in her ears. The figment blades burned against the night. Their fire stampeded up her arms, filling her, fueling her, igniting something inside her that would never dim again. As she came down on the beast, she tightened her grip and threw her weight into the thrust. The monster roared, so did she. They collided.

LL McKinney (45:11):

The book, it's sort of like how I like to reference Lemonade by Beyoncé because that's something that a lot of people are quite aware of, is ... Yes, the book is for black kids and black girls in general, but that doesn't mean other people can't appreciate it. So, I never want to write anything that completely shuts anybody out, but it's always going to be geared towards the people that I write for one way or the other.

Anne Strainchamps (45:51):

LL McKinney talking with Steve Paulson. Look for her Nightmare-Verse YA novels beginning with A Blade So Black.

Anne Strainchamps (46:00):

I said at the beginning of the hour that we'd be making the case for children's and YA books as a form of fiction that's uniquely qualified to empower and enchant, to restore your sense of wonder. So we'll end this hour with one last book recommended by a public radio colleague whose voice you may know.

Lulu Miller (46:35):

I'm Lulu Miller, the author of Why Fish Don't Exist, and my bookmark is The Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbitt. It's a young adult novel. It's got some pictures. It's a really fun premise. There's basically this little boy named Gaylen, and he is helping the prime minister of this kingdom write a dictionary. And they are doing all these words, and then they get to the letter D. They get to the word delicious. And the prime minister has his idea of what delicious is. Gaylen has his idea. The king and the queen weigh in. They read it. I believe the king things delicious is an apple, and the queen thinks that's absurd, and she believes it's a certain kind of pie.

Lulu Miller (47:20):

I might be getting these wrong, and I apologize for not checking in advance, but everyone has their different idea of what delicious is. And so it starts this kind of squabble in the monarchy, and so Gaylen is sent out to survey the kingdom to find delicious. And so he has to go on this journey through all these little towns and through the forest and ask everyone he meets what they think delicious is, their definition of delicious. And so it's a really fun plot, and you get to meet all these different characters. You meet bakers who do love bread and bakers who don't love bread. And you meet a mermaid. There's all this kind of wonderful fairytale stuff that goes on.

Lulu Miller (48:07):

But along the way, she's just introducing these little philosophical questions and puzzles like, is there an absolute delicious? Well, no, probably not. And so, if there's not, is there value in subjective truth? And these aren't things she spells out like that, but it starts to ... I guess it sort of like starts to let you use your 12 year old, nine year old, however old you are nascent philosophical brain. And then there's all this interesting linguistic puzzle solving.

Lulu Miller (48:43):

So there are things like the bad guy in the story is called Hemlock, and you learn that Hemlock is a tree, but it's a poisonous tree. And the horse that Gaylen rides is named Marrow, and you learn, "Oh, marrow means like the inside of a bone that really gives strength and life." There's all these subtle wordplay and word-nerdness that I think for me I remember reading this book, and it was just like ... it made me realize there can be an enchanting experience even with the stuff we have around us. So, even just with thinking about what a word means or thinking about the definition of a word and whether there is an absolute delicious or not.

Lulu Miller (49:32):

I think that was the first book that let me feel the enchanting feelings even when we were obeying the laws of physics. And it made me realize, "Gosh, actually you can sometimes find magic purely through looking very closely at the world or through looking very closely at the linguistic definition of something." It was the first book that showed me even if you peel back the cold, dead layer of our bleak Earth, there is magic there.

Anne Strainchamps (50:09):

Lulu Miller, co-founder of Invisibilia, co-host of Radiolab and author of Why Fish Don't Exist. You can hear more writers on books they love on our separate micro podcast. It's called Bookmarks. Look for it wherever you get your podcast fix. And special thanks to sound designer Sarah [inaudible 00:50:30] for the new season.

Anne Strainchamps (50:36):

Today's show was produced by the book lovers at To The Best Of Our Knowledge, Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Mark Riechers, Angelo Bautista, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson, and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening, and now get reading.

Speaker 12 (50:53):


Last modified: 
November 20, 2023