Dhonielle Clayton M.A. ’09 writes about diversity, belonging, and what matters.
By Karen Adams M.A. ’93 English and creative writing; M.A. ’00, M.F.A.’10 children’s literature
When children’s author Dhonielle Clayton M.A. ’09/children’s literature was working as a school librarian and teacher in Harlem a few years ago, she could not find the diverse books she was looking for—so she ended up writing one herself.
That young adult book, Tiny Pretty Things, cowritten in 2015 with her friend and business partner Sona Charaipotra, tells the stories of a diverse group of young women, including an African American lead character, at an elite ballet boarding school and the competitive, often cruel world in which they live.
But the point is that it is not a story about diversity, explained Clayton, 36, speaking recently by phone from her home in New York City. “It’s a story that includes diversity,” she said. “It’s about ballet and that world and about these diverse characters just living their lives.”
In that cutthroat world, female bodies are a commodity, and true friendship is rare and endangered. Clayton observed these realities as an English teacher at a ballet boarding school back home in the Washington, D.C., area, during the years she studied at Hollins in the summer.
Those sad realities for some of her students—competition, isolation, and mistrust among women—were markedly different from her own, especially during her time at Hollins.
“I love Hollins, and I thought, ‘This is where I need to be,’” she said about arriving in 2005, just after earning a B.A. in English from Wake Forest University. She developed supportive, nurturing female friendships at Hollins, and she will return to campus as a faculty member in the graduate program in children’s literature in summer 2020.
Tiny Pretty Things was so successful that she and Charaipotra wrote a sequel, Shiny Broken Pieces, in 2016, also to great acclaim. Netflix has since created a series, Tiny Pretty Things, based on the books. Ten hour-long episodes are scheduled to air sometime in 2020.
The pair’s creative friendship began when they met at the New School in New York, in the M.F.A. program in creative writing. Clayton, who earned her degree there in 2012, had moved to New York and wanted to better understand the canon of children’s literature and learn the mechanics of writing, intending to remain a librarian.
Charaipotra, an Indian American, told Clayton that, until college, she had never seen a book that featured someone who looked like her. And she was unable to find diverse picture books for her infant daughter.
“We both said that people don’t know what to do with characters that aren’t like them,” Clayton said. “So often if there is diversity, it’s all about their struggle. There is a place for those stories, of course, but we also wanted other books to balance that, stories that showed them just living their lives.”
She recalled her days teaching in Harlem at a Title I school. “I had trouble finding books to teach with diversity and that were engaging,” she said. “So many of my students spoke Spanish, and some spoke four languages, and they were not reflected in the books we had available.”
She and Charaipotra decided to form a creative development company, Cake Literary, for publishing, packaging, and marketing diverse books and other materials. But first they wanted to write a book to demonstrate what kind of diversity they sought, and they began their collaboration. They are also working on a third book, Rumor Game, about the power of rumors to harm lives.
Clayton is also the chief operating officer of the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books, whose mission is to spark change in the publishing industry and “to help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”
“Every kid deserves to be the hero of the story, and not just have it be about the pain of their background,” Clayton said.
She has written two young adult fantasy novels on her own, The Belles (2018) and The Everlasting Rose (2019). Both are about the lives of women in a place called Orléans, a dangerous world of beauty, power, and changing identity, and about who gets to decide who is beautiful, often at a high cost.
“I’m asking the question, ‘What are we willing to do to ourselves in order to be considered beautiful?’” Clayton said. “The way you look determines a lot of things. This is true in real life. But in a fantasy, it’s exaggerated and darker.”
She has also published short stories of loss, love, fear, and courage in three anthologies. They include: “Dear Nora James, You Know Nothing About Love,” in Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (2018); “The Way We Love Here” in Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined to Meet (2018); and “The Trouble With Drowning,” in Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America (2019).
“My goal as a writer is to ask the hard questions, not to provide answers,” she said. “That’s the teacher in me: to ask readers what is important to them.”
Karen Adams is a Roanoke writer.