Her Story: Ladies In Literature 2018 with Amanda Joy

Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty-six authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!

About Amanda Joy

Amanda Joy grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. She earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in writing for children at The New School in New York. You can find her in Chicago, taking pictures of her ever-expanding library and touring the city’s best coffee shops. Her debut young adult fantasy novel, A River of Royal Blood, is coming from Putnam in 2019.

Author Links: TwitterInstagramGoodreads

I don’t know when the idea that black girls weren’t beautiful worked its way into my head. I just know that by the time I reached my final year of high school, it felt like a thing I’d long since accepted.

It’s hard for me to admit that, because I don’t have much of an excuse. When I was young we lived in the city and then we moved to the burbs, but even in my mostly white neighborhood, I knew plenty of other black people, and I had no lack of brilliant black women around me.

Thinking about the ways racism has affected my self-image makes my stomach churn. I’m terrified that I’ll never root it out completely. It’s hard to get rid of weeds once they’ve been given fertile soil to grow. And the roots of white supremacy spread in a thousand different directions.

White supremacy made imagining my skin a shade lighter seem harmless. It made me obsess over the length of my hair, chasing beauty ideals that I would never catch up to, no matter what I changed about myself. And worst of all, it made it so that it didn’t even occur to me to cast a black girl in the stories I worked on for hours after school.

At a certain point in high school, because I was lonely and because reading is as fundamental to me as breathing, I spent all of my free time with my nose in a book or with my hand clutching a pencil. Before workshops in college, I learned to write by rereading the words of my favorite authors. Back then black girls of YA were extremely rare and often defined by some stereotypically tragic circumstance. And they were always stuck in the school hallways I wanted to escape. It seemed like no one could imagine black girls as the kind of special — warrior, priestess, princess — that lived in other worlds. Or had magic. Even in the rare case there were black girls in the fantasy books I read, they weren’t the main characters. At best they were sacrifices, killed to further another’s cause. At worst, stinging caricatures.

And my writing reflected that. If black people could only be written abysmally, then I wouldn’t write them at all.

That’s how I felt until I read Fire by Kristin Cashore. In the book, Fire is the last human with monstrous magical beauty in a world where peace is crumbling partly because the sins of her father. 

I realized Fire was black several chapters into the book, because Fire isn’t portrayed on the US cover. That realization sent a shock through my body. It was like being given a gift, and stumbling upon a secret. Did anyone else know this book was about a black girl? I almost didn’t believe it. Fire was black and preternaturally beautiful. I savored details about her warm brown skin, her curls made from every shade of red.

This was a book I’d never thought to want. Fire’s beauty wasn’t benign, but a weapon that exposed the flaws in men. Fire was like me in that her mind could be a lonely tangle, where she got lost in painful memories. Despite that, Fire honed her mind until it became blade sharp and used it to defend against men who wanted to consume her beauty.

Fire was also fiercely intelligent and kind. I felt so secretly and quietly soothed to know she loved men and women. Fire learning to trust herself helped me do the same, and taught me I could be selfless without surrendering my will.

Fire’s beauty started me on a journey of learning to cherish my skin. A journey I owe mostly to the works and accomplishments of black women. Nearly ten years later, my love for Fire is bittersweet because it came so late. YA failed me until this book came along.

It’s failing less now. I would have devoured The Belles, Dread Nation, and Children of Blood and Bone at seventeen. And Piecing Me Together and Akata Witch. Still we can do better. More often than not I come up empty handed when looking for books to represent my students’ intersections. They shouldn’t have to wait till seventeen to be reflected in the pages of a book.

I re-read Fire every year. I’m still working through some of the same things I was at seventeen. I need the reminder to trust myself and to choose kindness, and the confirmation that black girls are beautiful and much more than that. We can be tender and hurt easily. We can be the center of the story. We can have magic and be magic.

Title A River of Royal Blood
Author Amanda Joy
Pages N/A
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Fantasy
Publication Date 2019 by Putnam
Find It On Goodreads

Set in a North African-inspired fantasy world, two sisters — one with magick of light and persuasion and one with magick of blood and bone — must compete in a duel to the death for the right to inherit the queendom.

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