By Christine Lively
Today we’re pleased to welcome Ibi Zoboi to the WNDB blog to discuss middle grade biography Star Child, out now.
Acclaimed novelist Ibi Zoboi illuminates the young life of the visionary storyteller Octavia E. Butler in poems and prose. Born into the Space Race, the Red Scare, and the dawning Civil Rights Movement, Butler experienced an American childhood that shaped her into the groundbreaking science-fiction storyteller whose novels continue to challenge and delight readers fifteen years after her death.
Why did you write this book specifically for young adults?
This started out as a picture book, and now it’s a Middle Grade book for ages 10 and up. Octavia Butler started writing as a middle schooler first writing I see it and I know you probably saw an image in the book of her very first “novel” she wrote when she was 10 years old. So, if she wrote her first novel at 10, and she was thinking about writing at probably six or seven or eight. She was the kind of child who was observing the world and thinking about what it means for her and writing her thoughts down on paper. I saw some of her earlier writing—I think she was six years old and she wrote the date down so this was her early writing. So she was a child who was writing, and what better way to let other young people know that, look at this famous writer and look at this writer who stuck to it for her entire life! I wanted to let people know that hey, you probably already know what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, you’re probably very passionate about it, and here’s what can happen if you stick to it. Here’s what can happen if you follow your dreams and follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell [did]. It’s a prime example of a child who was said to be weird or backwards or slow, and I have poems about that. I’m sure those comments hurt her feelings, but she just dusted herself off and kept doing what she loved most.
So, this started as a picture book. Can you talk about how it evolved from there?
You know, my former agent went out went out with it in 2014, and it was my the first thing I asked I went out with—a picture book about Octavia Estelle Butler, so no one knows that, of course. People know me as a YA writer but my first submission was a picture book version of this book, and no one wanted it. Octavia Butler was important to me, she was important to a lot of other people, but she wasn’t the trend that she is now. People have T-shirts quoting her and have, you know, Instagram posts about her and just six, seven years ago that was not the case. So, to get it from a picture book to a middle grade book, I had a hard time figuring out how to tell her story, because there’s not much that she did that she did physically. She did live a very internal and cerebral life, so how do I capture that internal and cerebral life for middle schoolers? I still wanted it to be for middle schoolers primarily because she was writing as a middle schooler but she was all internal in observing the world.
So, this is why I have historical context for the way she was thinking and how she views the world. I could only do that through poetry because of her abstract thoughts. There’s a quote that’s in the beginning that serves as the epigraph of the book—something about poetry simplifies complex ideas, and that’s why I chose to write the book in verse to try to capture an idea that she had and a moment in history then to connect that to the prose. Because she was figuring herself out and she was figuring out her writing style through her journals, and I’m [figuring] out how to tell you her story through my writing. I want young people to say, “Hey, you know, the poems are not all uniform,” and that’s me as the writer practicing my craft and figuring out how to say a thing. So, this book is equal parts a biography but it’s a writing exercise for me too in the same way that Octavia Butler’s Kurt papers and her journals were all writing exercises.
So, you kind of had two parallels—you figuring out what you think or how to capture her as she was trying to think and capture herself, and then also you pushing through this idea over years and her pushing through her writing over decades. I love the historical information because, again, this is just my own ignorance, but I didn’t really realize that there was a migration to California. I knew about Black Americans migrating from the South to New York or to the Midwest or to those larger cities, but I didn’t know about African American families migrating from the South to California, and we need that historical context.
Because of how US history is framed, we don’t talk about the strong African American presence in western cities like Los Angeles and Sacramento and she moved to some small towns outside of LA like Victorville, which we’ve never heard of. There’s something that happened where her grandmother lost her chicken ranch and that land is taken from them and developers come in, but we don’t know the history of that land and how African Americans contributed to it.
There are parts where I talk about Pasadena and its population. Pasadena was very diverse when she was a child. I don’t have pictures of her in elementary school, but in my research I came across a class photo of her in her elementary school. I couldn’t use it in the book because we can’t get the source for it, but I can use in my presentations. There were Asians, Blacks, whites, and definitely Latinx kids in that one photo in 1957. So, when we talk about segregation we don’t usually talk about what what was it like, [what] segregation looked like in California and Southern California in the ’90s, during the Civil Rights era. It did not look the same; she did not grow up with Jim Crow laws. She grew up in a diverse community.
It’s so interesting to think about, and it’s why we need more stories because none of this was something that I had ever thought about at all.
There are so many layers to the single-story idea. So yes, we need more civil rights stories, but then let’s move away from that to what happened on the other side of the country. You know, I know there are stories of Black people stopping in different states like Arizona or New Mexico and we don’t get those stories because the people who are able to tell them are so far and few between. So just looking at her archives, she had diverse friends. She said that in her own words, she just never lived in a community with just one kind of people and this is reflected in her novels. Even when the main characters are Black women, like in the Parable series, her communities are diverse, because they reflected the communities that she grew up in.
You knew Octavia Butler personally, right?
Yes, absolutely. I went and sought her out simply because we share a birthday. Not only did I love her books and love her thinking, when I found out we share the same birthday, I was like, I get you, we are like-minded in the way that we think big about the universe. I struggled with writing grounded stories, and those were the first books I was trying to sell as an author. I was trying to sell YA science fiction almost 20 years ago when it wasn’t a thing and editors didn’t know how to market it. I have manuscripts from 10 years ago that, if I were selling them right now I’m sure they would do very very well. So, she was ahead of her time and I get that, I get that sort of thinking about the universe in that way.
I think that leads into the question: Why should kids read or why should anybody read science fiction and Octavia Butler specifically?
You know in part 3 of the biography there’s a quote [where] she says she’s asked about what good is science fiction for Black people, and she answers that, but I won’t give it away. So, I think you’re asking what good is science fiction—for children to learn about this woman who wrote science fiction? I think science fiction right now with technology—and it’s not having a moment, science fiction is not having a moment at all—and I think we are so immersed in technology that we don’t want to think about it in that way. We don’t want to think about the singularity where evolutionary technology and human evolution will intersect and probably one will have to surpass the other in the future at some point. And this is where you’re getting into science fiction novels of the 1950s, like with Philip K. Dick and I, Robot and do machines have feelings or thoughts. And we I think as a culture we’ve been there—done that. So kids have moved on to other things, but it is important to think about, say, where this technology is going.
I love to ask kids, “What do you think the iPhone 50 will be like. You’ll probably see it in your lifetime. What will it be able to do and how will it serve humanity?” These are the things that Octavia was thinking about and writing about in her books—the way that we are kind of destroying ourselves. She wrote about how human beings are hierarchical, and because science fiction is not having a moment right now, I don’t know if young people are forced to think about these things. To ask, “Where is the planet going?” to examine the intersection of race relations and environmental justice, and, you know, the mining of those raw materials to make your iPhone. So. All of these science fiction ideas may be as simple as sociological concepts to technological observations about the world, and Octavia Butler was doing that for her entire career.
Her books are so unbelievably timely that it’s almost eerie.
You know, one important thing I’m going to want to reiterate every time I talk about this book is that—a lot of people apply this sort of like, what I think is a magical negro stereotype to her, [as though] she was a prophet or she saw this coming. I want to stay away from that, because the reason why I provide historical context is to let readers know that she was an observer. She was a keen observer. There wasn’t anything magical about it. It was scientific. She did not write science fantasy, she wrote science fiction. She was into hard science, so if we apply science to her observations and remove the magical part from it, we acknowledge she was a mathematician.
The way that she divided her time and thought about her writing was to think about the word counts and how much money she would make for each word. This is how her brain worked, and I want readers to and her fans to remember that to remove that magical element from what she did and attribute science to that. She observed the world. She was able to say, look at what you’re doing now in the ’50s, look at what this country is doing now in the ’60s, this is what’s going to happen in the 2020s. You know, and it’s the same way that doctors and virologists talk about this COVID-19; if we don’t do this, this will happen. This is what Octavia Butler did. She applied science and social social science and anthropological science to how she observed the world; she wrote that into her novels. I don’t think there was anything magical about that. She loved science, she loved social science, and said, “Here is what will happen if we don’t get our act together.”
I’m probably going to have to say this more often: when I met her I was a little disappointed. I was coming from Brooklyn—New York City, where I was around a lot of like, radical elders who were part of the Black Panther Party, who had played a role in the civil rights movement, and we’re very pro-Black and we’re Black Nationalist and Pan-African. So I read Octavia Butler’s novels through that lens, but when I met her she wasn’t as pro-Black as I thought she was going to be. She is pro-Black in terms of putting Black people in her stories. But the pro-Black that I was thinking about in my early twenties as being this little radical college-aged student that was not her. She was anti-hierarchical.
So there’s a picture of me and her talking and she’s letting me know. I remember that conversation so well because she was just like, “Well, if Black people take over they’ll do the same thing because human beings are hierarchical. Yes, we are oppressed, but at the same time what’s the goal for justice? It is equality. At the same time, human nature has a tendency to want power.” It wasn’t 20 years later that I was like, she was absolutely right. As a Haitian, you know, Haiti was the first free republic, but corruption continued in Haiti. Even if it was a Black country, we had a dictator who was Black. The oppressor in Haiti looked like the people they were oppressing, and we see that across the globe. Colonization has a role to play; at the same time, it doesn’t mean by virtue of being oppressed that we are automatically virtuous people.
There’s a moment in the book and I called her where she was talking to a young Black man who said that he was ashamed of his ancestors who let slavery go on for that long. And that was a sentiment around for a lot of young people at that time, and she herself was ashamed of her mother being a domestic worker. So you see that hierarchical thinking already, young people thinking they’re better than the shoulders that they stand on simply because they’re fighting the man.
How do you recommend people who don’t know Octavia Butler’s writing approach your book since this may be some people’s and kids’ first exposure to her work?
They probably won’t have read her books if they’re reading it in the sixth grade. So this is more about a creative child. Read this as jumping into the world of a child with the world around her falling apart because she was born after a World War. She was a child during a time of incredible paranoia in this country with the Red Scare. She was a teenager during the Civil Rights era, but she had an incredible imagination. She thought about race in terms of alien invasions. She was writing when those four little girls succumbed to that Alabama church bombing. So this really subverts some of the ideas that we have about how Black children were experiencing the things that were happening in the ’50s and ’60s. Black children were not all, “Woe is me. Racism is bad.” They were creating very much like Octavia Butler was. Things were happening all around her, but here she was writing about magical horses and martians. So this is a book about a creative child during a time when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams.
So, even if we don’t know who she was—we do know what paranoia and fear is. We do know what war is and coming out of a war. We know what racial violence is—political unrest. We know what this girl Octavia was doing at that time, and that it was important. Writing poems or journaling about superheroes or whatever kids are thinking about—it’s important. We can see how important that was when we follow her career. She wouldn’t have been a genius awardee. She wouldn’t have been a pioneering science fiction author if she hadn’t been doing those important things like writing about magical horses in 1957.
Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her YA novel American Street was a National Book Award finalist and and her debut middle grade novel, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, was a New York Times bestseller. She is the author of Pride, a contemporary YA remix of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and editor of the anthology, Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America.
Christine Lively is a librarian at Wakefield High School in Virginia. She writes a monthly column for the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog of the School Library Journal about teens who fight the system to change their world. Christine is a Certified Life Coach for Young People ages 14-24 at christinelively.com. Christ