6 Popular Black Authors Collaborate on Teen Romance ‘Whiteout’

NEW YORK (AP) — Dhonielle Clayton isn’t just a bestselling author of young adult fiction. She is an organizer, former teacher, and founder of the grassroots publishing movement We Need Diversity Books. She’s also the kind of friend who can convince five of her high-profile peers to collaborate on a novel and come back for another.

Opinions vary about her personal style:

“A little tyrant,” joked novelist Tiffany D. Jackson, whose books include “Mondays Won’t Come” and “Let Me Listen to a Rhythm.”

“It’s a little aggressive,” says Ashley Woodfalk, author of When You Are Everything and Timeless Beauty, among other books.

Or, as Clayton likes to describe himself, “leader,” “the heart of the circus,” a practitioner of the art of “gentle leadership.” “They say I bully them. But I have leadership skills, and I’m persuasive,” she said.

Clayton came up with collective narrative after seeing the 2019 romantic comedy “Let It Snow,” and wanted to create a story centered on the lives and loves of black teens. She brought not only Woodfolk and Jackson (who agreed despite their backgrounds in thriller writing), but other bestsellers Nicola Yoon (“Everything Everything”), Nic Stone (“Dear Martin”) and Angie Thomas , whose “The Hate U Give” is one of the most talked about teen books in recent years.

In 2021, six authors teamed up to create Blackout, a romance about black teens during a blackout in New York. The Obamas’ Higher Ground production company is adapting the book into a Netflix series. The friends had just published their second novel about another city in paralyzing moments: “Whiteout” takes place in Atlanta on a snowy day when even a few inches of precipitation can stop traffic as effectively as a northern blizzard.

Like Blackout, the new book tracks a wide range of young people at different stages in their relationships. Clayton helps build narratives by sending other authors a list of common romantic tropes she thinks are worth dramatizing—ex-versus-lover, enemy-versus-lover, forced approach, best friend-versus-lover, and guy-in-distress (as opposed to damsel in distress) ).

“Each chapter is about helping a hard-core couple with their problems,” Clayton says.

Multiple author stories are not new – Clayton previously co-authored “The Rumor Game” with Sona Charaipotra. But the creators of “Blackout” and “Whiteout” organized the books to the point of scientific certainty. If Clayton is the best at kicking things off, Woodfolk is Google Docs’ resident expert, tracking the amount of sunlight in a given part of “Blackout” and placing characters in precise areas of “Whiteout” Atlanta.

Rosemary Brosnan, editor of the book at Quill Tree Books, HarperCollins, has her own record. She set up an Excel spreadsheet she named “Whiteout – Continuity and Consistency,” through which she kept track of “character details, settings, timestamps, character intersections,” and other parts of the narrative. She needs another chart to make sure she knows where each scene is.

“I wasn’t familiar with Atlanta, so I used Google Maps to map out where the characters were, and then asked the author to address any questions about the setup,” she adds.

Individual authors rotate chapters, but readers aren’t told who wrote which, except for a series of clues at the end, ranging from the easy-to-search (“The Only Atlanta Native Among Us”) to the more cryptic (“The self-proclaimed Love Grumpy groups”). Hiding identities is part of the fun, the authors explain (“Kids love puzzles,” says Clayton), and a way to keep the reader focused on the book itself.

“One of the things we realized from ‘Blackout’ was that people were kind of obsessed with who was writing which story and seeing it as an anthology rather than an actual book written by six people,” Jackson said. “So there was an executive decision not to say who wrote each story.”

“People are biased against themselves whether they realize it or not,” Woodfalk said. “So seeing someone’s name automatically adds color to the reading experience and the book experience.”

“Whiteout,” like “Blackout,” is a page-turning romance and a loving message from the writers to fans that their stories are worth telling and their flaws can be forgiven. Jackson remembers seeing few of her likes in the books she read as a child, and that black characters in romance novels were often categorized as “snazzy best friends.” Clayton believes that the shared ambition of contributors helps make an otherwise clunky project reliable and professional.

“We all understand the mission and the parts we need to add to get it done; everyone knows what they need to do,” Clayton said. “We’re all in the business of serving children and teens. It’s purposeful work for us. So at the core of what we do, it means there’s no bullshit in this work.”


This story has been updated to correct the name of HarperCollins editor Rosemary Brosnan.


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