In the new young adult novel “A Blade So Black,” the main character, Alice, doesn't have long blonde hair, and the other side of the looking glass isn't a place full of innocently quirky tea parties.
Latrice "Elle" McKinney, a Kansas resident who writes under the name L. L. McKinney, has created a fantasy world full of adventure and imagination but infused with real-world issues and black girl magic.
Her book lands in bookstores on September 25. She sat down with Steve Kraske, host of KCUR's Up to Date, to tell him about it.
“For years you've been told that being black is a problem, that’s it’s something to be ashamed of," McKinney said. "And black girl magic says, 'No, it's magical. Who you are is very special.'”
Figuring out exactly how to do that was a sticking point, though. McKinney grew up a big fan of fantasy and sci-fi — stories often starring a white boy as the hero. That meant, in the books she was reading, she couldn’t find characters that looked like her.
“I started writing this when my sister got pregnant with my first niece, and I refused to let her grow up in that same sort of situation,” she said. “This allows black girls to see themselves.”
The first black main character she has written, McKinney's Alice is a teenager living in present-day Atlanta. She’s navigating the world after her father’s untimely death and the murder of an unarmed 17-year-old black girl by a police officer. She’s juggling school, friends and a protective mother.
She also happens to spend time in a parallel dream-realm, fighting evil creatures. This place is full of fantastical nonsense reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's classic Wonderland, but is also home to evil beasts known as Nightmares. Alice, along with sidekicks human and otherwise, sets out to rescue her mentor and protect humanity from the havoc of these dark beings, which are born from things happening in the real world.
As page 22 of the book explains: “Folks might not see the monsters themselves, but they sure saw the end result. On the news, reports about someone snapping and killing their whole family, or shooting up their job for no reason? Yeah, people were still messed up, dudes not being able to take no for an answer, KKK mofos, the ‘lone wolf bullshit,’ all that mess … but sometimes? Nightmare. And she was here to face one.”
“I didn't want to write a book that was an issue book,” McKinney said. “I didn't want a book that was just about race, but race is an important factor of our lives.”
McKinney has been an advocate for more diversity in young adult literature and helped launch the hashtag #WhatWOCWritersHear, which serves as a platform for writers who are women of color to discuss the racism, sexism and general pushback they receive from the world of publishing.
Some of Alice’s experiences reflect real moments from McKinney life: Alice fretting about not being able to find make-up in her skin color, or Alice getting pushback because she’s interested in things that aren’t thought of as “traditionally black,” such as cosplay and anime.
“That was me in high school,” McKinney said. “So I've pulled from various experiences because you were told what black is and isn't by a media who doesn't know.”
This won't be readers' only trip down the rabbit hole to this modern-day Wonderland. McKinney said she's already begun the editing process on a sequel.
“It's a beautiful thing now because blerds, or black nerds, and black girl nerds are being more and more embraced today than they were back when I was a kid,” she said.
Blade So Black book launch party, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 25 at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.
This interview was conducted as part of an Up To Date program hosted by Steve Kraske. Listen to the entire conversation here.