By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re pleased to welcome Kristen R. Lee to the WNDB blog to discuss YA novel Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman, out this week on February 1, 2022! We previously revealed the cover the book here.
Wooddale is far from the perfectly manicured community it sells on its brochures, though. Savannah has barely unpacked before she comes face to face with microaggressions stemming from racism and elitism. Then Clive Wilmington’s statue is vandalized with blackface. The prime suspect? Lucas Cunningham, Wooddale’s most popular student and son of a local prominent family. Soon Savannah is unearthing secrets of Wooddale’s racist history. But what’s the price for standing up for what is right? And will telling the truth about Wooddale’s past cost Savannah her own future?
A stunning, challenging, and timely debut about racism and privilege on college campuses.
First and foremost, for the publication of this interview, how would you like to be identified? What are your preferred pronouns?
You can call me Kristen and my pronouns are she/her.
Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshmen is your debut novel. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your inspiration for entering the YA world?
Actually I’m very new to this world. RRFTDF isn’t only my debut novel but the first novel I’ve ever written. When I started writing this novel, I thought it was going to be an adult story since it was set in college. It wasn’t until I started querying, and someone pointed out it may fare better as a YA that I began to learn about this industry.
However, I’ve always been a YA fan. I grew up reading Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon M. Draper, and Rita Williams-Garcia books. So I went back to the basics and read their books again before I started working on draft two. Reading those authors as a young person gave me a sense of pride. I knew I wanted to reflect those feelings of being seen into my own novel.
What is your writing process? How do you craft characters? In general, are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m more of a pantser. When an idea comes to me, I sit down and get to it. Once I start to write, if I feel like the idea is going somewhere, then I’ll start an outline. I know some authors create detailed charts, but I like my characters to come to me. I like them to be more natural than planned.
The main character, Savannah, experiences racism multiple times her freshman year at the prestigious, predominately white Wooddale College. These experiences force her to choose between being true to herself and sticking up for what’s right, or letting the racist system “win” and losing a part of her identity. Pressure from Mama to seize Wooddale’s opportunities fuels Savannah’s internal conflict. At one point in the novel she states:
“Mama thought she was setting me up for greatness. Wooddale may be one of the best schools, but it costs too much and I ain’t just talking about money”.
Can you discuss the burden of Savannah’s conflict and the mental gymnastics she negotiates in order to make peace with herself? In what ways is this struggle a central theme of the book?
From jump, Savannah doesn’t want to disappoint her family. She struggles with being the first to attend college and this nags at her constantly throughout the story. She doesn’t want to disappoint her mama, but she also doesn’t want to be complacent about the things that are happening on campus. This eats away at her during the entire novel and is what eventually drives her to be the change she wants to see.
Lucas Cunningham, his girlfriend Elania, and their friend Meggie represent the many faces of white privilege. At the beginning of chapter 34 Savannah is tired of the double standard and reaches a breaking point. She shares:
“Lucas, Elaina and Meggie walk in. All three giggling together like they have no care in the world. I’m angry. Angry that I trusted Meggie. Angry that I let her into my life. Angry that they get to have joy and I don’t. That they get to be normal kids and I don’t”.
Why is this scene a pinnacle moment for Savannah? How does this reflection and the subsequent interaction with these characters help her find her voice and regain confidence in who she is?
This is one of Savannah’s main “come to the light” moments. Especially regarding Meggie. Savannah already knew that Elaina and Lucas were never on her side, but to have someone such as Meggie, who she thought was an ally, turn on her, makes Savannah realize that she’d been giving out her trust too easily and that no one in this friend group and even on campus is going to turn against their own. With this revelation, Savannah flips the script and starts to come into her own again. She no longer wants to fit in with a group that would have never let her be an “insider” in the first place.
Mrs. Flowers enters Savannah’s life at precisely the right moment. Why is she an important character to this story?
Mrs. Flowers is an important character in this story because she’s the link between generations. In a way, she’s sort of like Savannah. She’s a Black person who lives in this majority white neighborhood that she moved to during Jim Crow. Yet, she overcame prejudice and she gives Savannah hope that she can, too
Social media plays a key role in this novel. Specifically, the use of the hashtag #WooddaleConfessions and its ability to quickly spread images and videos. How can social media be both a catalyst and deterrent for social change? Would Savannah have found strength in numbers without it?
I believe that social media is great for getting information out. We literally have the world at our fingertips now. I was in college when the BLM movement began. The predominantly white college that I attended was a bubble with respect to the things that were happening on the outside. Without social media, I would have been left in the dark about most things that were taking place. They just weren’t being talked about.
But, on the other hand, we cannot just depend on social media. We still have to find information for ourselves, read books by activists, do the research and not just rely on social media to be the change we want to see.
Savannah eventually would have found her people without the use of social media. It would have taken longer. I believe it’s not about being fastest but doing what comes naturally to you.
Given the title of your book, what titles do you think should be “required reading” before students graduate from high school and why?
A Raisin in the Sun and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings are the first books that come to mind for my required reading list. I chose A Raisin in the Sun because of its theme about the need to dream. I think every young person, especially in high school, has formed some dream that they hope to achieve, and they also may have encountered obstacles to attaining that dream. This book can teach them that failure is okay and sometimes the dream you think is most important, isn’t at all.
I chose I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings because it helps young people to understand the power of their voice, which is also a recurring theme in RRFTDF. Sometimes your words are all you have and trust me, people want to hear them. Even if you believe they don’t.
Fun Fact: The character Mrs. Flowers in RRFTDF is an homage to the Mrs. Flowers who helped Maya Angelou out of her bout of silence.
Visibility can be powerful for students who are struggling with the many intersections of identity. What is one thing you hope students discover about themselves, each other and the world after reading this novel?
After reading RRFTDF, I hope readers will realize that you’re worthy just the way you are, no two persons are the same, and the world is not allowed to define you, only you are.
Is there any question I did not ask, but you’d love to answer?
My favorite question to answer is “What advice do you have for writers?”
I’m a firm believer in taking your time. This journey is not a race. Your story can get a “yes” at any time. Don’t compare your process to others. Just because someone sold their book in two days doesn’t mean they’re going to be more successful than someone who sold theirs in three years. One of the first things my mentor (J. Elle) told me was no two things are the same—keep your eyes on your own paper.
What’s next? The young adult world always needs more Kristen Lee!
My second novel Sun Keep Rising will be a companion novel to Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman. In the first chapter of RRFTDF, we meet Savannah in her Memphis hometown. In book two we pick up with Savannah’s best friend B’onca in the same town and follow her coming-of-age journey.
Kristen R. Lee is a native of Memphis, Tennessee. After graduating from college, she began to write her experiences attending a predominantly white institution, which led to the first draft of Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman. She’s worked as a mentor for foster youth and has interned in a school setting, where she counseled middle-school-aged children. Writing stories that reflect often-unheard voices is what she strives to do. Learn more about Kristen at kristenleebooks.com.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.