On the final day of ABA's virtual Snow Days conference, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Alicia Keys spoke with Donya Craddock, co-owner of The Dock Bookshop in Fort Worth, Tex., about her YA graphic novel, Girl on Fire, co-written with Andrew Weiner and illustrated by Brittney Williams (HarperAlley).
Keys and Craddock's lively, laughter-filled conversation touched on music, language, motherhood, inner superpowers and using one's power for good. "We were supposed to be in person, and I wish we were," said Craddock. "The world is showing us we have endless possibilities, and nothing can stop us from connecting." Keys consistently connected with the audience. As she described 14-year-old Lolo Wright, her protagonist in Girl on Fire, she said, "If anybody remembers what it's like, [Lolo] starts to recognize she feels these things, she does not know why she is feeling them." Keys, born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., gave her character the same childhood home, where she is being raised by her father and grandmother.
Lolo discovers her superpowers when her brother is profiled by police officers; they attack him, and she wants to protect him. "She finds this power in her that ends up holding this police officer up in the air and when she lets go, he crashes down to the floor and he is hurt and she is scared," Keys said.
When Craddock asked Keys what made her want to turn her song "Girl on Fire" into a graphic novel, Keys responded, "Sometimes you don't remember that you have this power, you have this internal flame, and you feel defeated." She added, "I find a lot of times when I am writing songs like 'Superwoman' or 'A Woman's Worth' it is because I am needing to be uplifted or to give myself a boost, and this song was similar to that." When Andrew Weiner approached Keys about turning the song into a graphic novel, the idea excited her: "It felt right because the song is a powerful statement and to be able to focus on a young woman of color in Brooklyn, growing up and experiencing her life--we need as many superheroes that look like us as possible."
Keys appreciates what artist Brittany Williams brings to Lolo and the overall project: "I wanted her to have braids, twists, to reflect the hair that we have. That was very important to me."
Craddock asked Keys if Lolo's superpower is a metaphor for social activism. Keys explained that the superpower is a metaphor for many things: "[Lolo] has to take on some of the darkest parts of the neighborhood. And it is not easy. She does not know why she is chosen. A lot of us struggle with that feeling." Keys believes that each person has "a unique power that we do have the opportunity to harness, and yours will be different than mine. There is something about that everyday-ness that you will relate to." Craddock pointed out how much the book will resonate with people of all ages: Lolo's situations, her relationship with her grandmother, father, her brother--"we can relate to it and try to harness what we have, to deal with certain situations."
Craddock observed, "With your success, you have never forgotten your roots. Why is social justice and giving back so important to you? Is there a conflict between the demands of being a superstar and your personal passions?" Keys does not see a conflict: "My personal passions and my life and my music and everything I do is the same. I feel grateful I can express that and have a platform to share that with different people." Later in the conversation, Keys emphasized, "We are all activists. We all get a chance to stand up and make sure we care about what is happening."
When Craddock asked Keys what books have made an impact on her, Keys said the "first book that exploded my mind" was one she read at age 17, A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown, one of the founders of the Black Panthers. "It lit me up in a way I did not know I needed to be lit up and I really related to her and her story and her strength, and to be such a boss." Keys was also influenced by Willa Cather's My Ántonia: "It made me look at the way I was using my words in writing in a different way." Other favorite authors: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Audre Lord. Craddock, ever the consummate bookseller, then recommended a couple of her own: George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin and Daughters of Thunder by Bettye Collier-Thomas. Booksellers expressed their enthusiasm in the chat as Keys wrote down the titles, and asked Craddock for The Dock Bookshop's website to purchase them.
"What is it like to be a star and raise kids?" Craddock asked. "It is the same as any mother. It is pulling the ends together and making it happen," Keys responded. "Mothers are a beautiful superpower." Craddock followed up with "What one thing would you like readers to take away from Girl on Fire?" Keys said, "I would like young adults to realize we contain a world of unknown power within us and that there is no limit--no matter what it seems like, no matter how scary it seems--to finding your greatness and to accepting your greatness, it lives in you for a reason."
Craddock closed with a call to action to her fellow booksellers: "I cannot let you go without saying to my colleagues, there is a trailer on this book that is Alicia and Lolo combining their energies. I know I cannot see you, but do the Alicia Keys and Lolo thing. When you tag me or do your hashtag, take a picture of you pushing that energy out." --Jennifer M. Brown