An award-winning novelist is turning his talents to a graphic novel series for kids, written with his daughter and inspired by his grandson. In “Can Science Fiction Fix Everything? Using a Thrilling Adventure Series to Excite African-American Students about STEM and Fight Bullying,” held at the PopTop stage at the American Library Association’s 2019 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Seattle on January 28, Charles Johnson introduced The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series (Chatwin Books, 2019) for middle-grade and YA readers. He was motivated to create the series because he wants to encourage an interest in STEAM topics for black and brown kids, who are traditionally underrepresented in children’s books.
Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for his novel Middle Passage, wrote the series with his daughter, the artist and poet Elisheba Johnson. He said he has had the idea for several decades to write about a black, scientific, funny child prodigy—a character not reflected anywhere else. His daughter wanted to tackle the issue of bullying, which affected both of them as children.
They named the protagonist Emery after Elisheba’s six-year-old son. The character has adventures grounded in real science with his poet friend Gabby (who puts the A in STEAM). The series will follow Emery throughout his school career at the fictional Moms Mabley Elementary and Richard Pryor High Schools.
After their first illustrator bailed, Johnson took over drawing duties. He had been a cartoonist as a young man, first published when he was 17 in 1965 in magazines like Ebony and Jet. He illustrated the entire book in 18 days to meet the production schedule.
Johnson said one reason for writing the books is that his grandson—the real Emery—faces a reading experience in which whites have a monopoly on goodness and beauty, and people of color are invisible or subservient. An annual survey by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that of the 3,700 children’s books published in 2017, only 340 featured prominent African-American characters. “The genre of children’s literature must change,” Johnson said. “People of color make up 70 to 83% of the global population.”
Why science fiction? Johnson said the “what if” element allows young readers to imagine what doesn’t exist, making the first step toward change and toward the future. The first book is about time travel. “We use a real theory by a black scientist about how time travel is possible,” he said. “It hasn’t been tested yet, because that would take billions of dollars.”
Johnson said the series is really a labor of love: “I want for all the young Emeries to have something to read.”