I was invited to join a session at this year’s NCTE convention about complexity in YA literature. As part of the session, Dr. Jennifer Buehler (author of Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives) and Dr. Cathy Fleisher asked me and the other authors (Elizabeth Acevedo, David Arnold, Sharon Draper, David Levithan, Emily X.R. Pan, & Ibi Zoboi) each to speak for five minutes about how we approached complexity in our own craft. Here’s what I shared:
When I was in training to be an English teacher, a teacher I admired told me that one of the most important things I would do is choose the books; therefore, I should choose texts that speak for themselves.
I nodded my head because that sounded deep as hell—but I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. But now, almost a decade and a half of teaching later, I think I have a better idea.
The longer I’ve taught, the more discussion has played a central role in my English classroom because I came to realize that if students can’t think at a certain level, they can’t read or write beyond a certain level. I use a style of discussion called Harkness, which is an approach that fosters proactive intellectual engagement by explicitly teaching students to ask questions, participate responsively, and self-facilitate in such a way that encourages an equity of voice—it also requires the teacher to get out of the way and trust that students can do this if given the space. What I’ve learned in doing so is that essential to having a good discussion is having an interesting, complex text to explore together. However, what I think this means is not that a text that speaks for itself in that it’s didactic—when that’s the case, there’s nothing left for anyone to say and the discussion falls flat on its face. Rather, I believe a text speaks for itself by asking important, complex questions and not offering easy answers. It invites readers to wonder.
So when I write, I start with an authentic question, one that I don’t already know the answer to. The idea for After the Shot Drops began as I thought about all of the traditional narratives of black and brown kids in poverty whose lives are saved through sports. Those stories always left me with the question: What happens to those who are left behind?
To explore that question I created my two main characters: Bunny, a black teen and star basketball player on track to make it; and Nasir, Bunny’s half-black, half-Filipino best friend who’s not a standout athlete and who feels abandoned because of Bunny’s decision to transfer schools. The story’s told in alternating first-person POVs to approach that initial question from both angles.
Like a true complex question, there was not an easy answer. In fact, the more I wrote, the more questions arose.
As I developed Nasir & Bunny’s friendship: How have they been impacted by toxic masculinity? Can that be undone, and if so, how? How do we forgive?
As I tried to figure out Bunny’s inner conflicts as he struggled with competing pressures to take care of his family, his community, his friends, his own future: To whom are we responsible?
As I developed the setting of St. Sebastian’s, where Bunny transfers: What are the systemic effects of such high-stakes athletic programs on those communities both with and without successful programs? How does race and class factor into that? How does all of this affect the individual?
There’s also a third main character to the story, who plays the role of antagonist: Wallace. In early drafts, Wallace was a cardboard bad guy. He moved the plot forward and served as a foil to Bunny, but other than that, he wasn’t very interesting. But as I delved deeper into Wallace’s character during revisions, I was led to a new question, one which I think is ultimately the most important underlying my initial question: Whom do we value? And this of course, leads to another question, an even more important question: Whom should we value? It’s our answer to this question which determines the limits of our empathy, and the limits of our empathy determines the limits of our world.
So as a writer, I see the complexity of my work as growing organically out of my attempt to explore a complex question. If I build such a question into the story’s foundation, I believe its complexity will resonate fractally throughout every aspect of the work as I make decisions about setting, characters, plot, theme, and style.
As an educator, I try to imagine my book being used as the basis for the kinds of class discussions I facilitate. I feel it has succeeded as a complex text when readers encounter questions worthy of discussion: that is, questions that don’t have easy answers, questions that will demand empathy and multiple perspectives, questions that will lead to other questions, and questions that help us appreciate the asymptotic nature of knowledge. And to me, it is essential that we acknowledge the paradox at the heart of complexity: that is, though wrestling with these questions leads to a fuller understanding, we will never understand anything fully.