Content Warning: Domestic violence is discussed
I learned early that there is a real monster —and not the imaginary one we fear as children — that might be lurking in our bedroom closets or under the bed. It was manifest in the black eyes and bruises on the faces and arms of several aunts and my own origin story. Mama left a husband of only two weeks after he gave her a black eye when she was pregnant with me. Bigger and often older bullies at school terrorized children who were smaller, shyer, and more alone. They used their fists and hateful words with gleeful abandonment, shoring up their fear and egos on others’ fear.
These were the beginning seeds of Snitchers, my recently published young adult novel about three best friends whose lives are marred by violence. The murder of a little boy in their neighborhood devastates the three who are already bound together by experiences of violence, loss, and trauma.
It’s no surprise that my first novel would be in young adult fiction—a category way more diverse and sophisticated than the label suggests. From a very young age, I started checking out stacks of books at a time from the library, devouring them and returning for more. In the early years of my adolescence, roughly twelve through sixteen, I read everything from Judy Blume’s coming of age teen fiction like Deenie and Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, where stuff like periods and first crushes were common story points, to Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which history, racism, sexual assault, and trauma took center stage.
John Steinback’s Of Mice and Men, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Toni Morrison’s devastating The Bluest Eye developed my ability to think critically about social inequity, gender, race, and humanity— not to mention their reflection of both familiar and unfamiliar world views. It was great storytelling that honored my curiosity and capacity to learn. In school, assigned books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Flowers for Algernon, as well as others, facilitated some of the best class discussions. I don’t want to think about the preparation for college and pleasure in reading I would have missed out on if my favorite high school English teacher, Mrs. Poe, wouldn’t have been able to send me to the school library or to her stash of books in the classroom to borrow transformative fiction like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Reading such diverse books helped me to critically process important, very disturbing events to come. From the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and the national social turmoil that followed, to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 — both took me back to my childhood realization. Safety was not a given but rather a luxury, a privilege…while violence seemed like the given. The school shootings at Columbine in 1999, followed by Sandy Hook in 2012, were more seeds that stirred me to write Snitchers. The main character, Nia, and her friends interrogate the irrationality of random violence and the havoc on regular life that it causes. Grief and comfort are two of the responses explored in the aftermath.
. . . or from your favorite Black-owned bookshop!
Stephane Dunn, Phd, MFA, is a writer, filmmaker, and professor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Vogue.com, Ms. magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN.com, The Root, and Best African American Essays 2009, among others. She is the author ofthe novel Snitchers (2022), the 2008 book Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films, and the Tirota/Finish Line Social Impact Script award-winning screenplay, Chicago ‘66 (2020). She is a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Find her on Twitter at @DrStephaneDunn.
Writer and filmmaker Stephane Dunn makes her YA debut with this endearing, heart-wrenching novel about loss, truth, and the reality of violence in communities everywhere.