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Autumn Allen on “All You Have to Do” and Finding Parallels in History
Autumn Allen is an educator and writer based in Boston. She spoke to Fann about her debut YA novel “All You Have to Do” and her journey as an author.
Fann’s “Fall Into Reading” series spotlights Muslim authors changing the game in children’s literature. Each week, we’ll sit down with a different author to discuss storytelling, representation and what it means to be Muslim in the world of publishing.
Autumn Allen is an educator and writer based in Boston. Her debut, the young adult novel "All You Have to Do," tells the stories of two Black boys, decades apart, who are facing similar struggles against racism in their prestigious schools. Autumn Allen is also a senior editor at Barefoot Books, an independent publisher of children’s books in Massachusetts. She was a Writer-in-Residence selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library from 2020 to 2021, and was a Highlights Foundation Muslim Storytellers’ Fellow from 2021 to 2023. She spoke to Fann about “All You Have to Do” and her journey as an author.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Fann Staff: What inspired you to become an author?
Autumn Allen: [It was] mainly the dearth of stories about kids like mine. When I was growing up, it didn't really faze me that there weren't a lot of stories about kids like me because I was growing up in a mostly white space. I just kind of figured that's the default. My mom did intentionally bring books about Brown kids home, but generally speaking, the dominant culture just seemed to me that [the lack of kids like me] was normal. But when I started to raise my own children, I homeschooled and part of the goal was being able to design a curriculum that fed their whole selves. Not just intellectually, but culturally and identity-wise. I found it [difficult] to build an entire year's worth of curriculum with books that reflected who we are. I had always wanted to write — I love to write — and I thought, “‘Hey, maybe I can use my writing to fill this gap.”
You can always be a writer, as long as you're writing.
Fann Staff: You have mentioned previously that your work in education inspired the story of “All You Have to Do.” Could you tell me how you brought that experience to writing the book?
Autumn Allen: My students have taught me that they're curious and they want to get to the bottom of things. They're not afraid to have difficult conversations. When I was drafting [“All You Have to Do”], there was a point at which I wasn't sure if it was young adult or adult. Some people in the industry thought [that since] Kevin is in college [that], maybe it's [for] adults, but I felt like kids are really mature;they want to know what's coming and they want to know what's next. They're not just solely focused on right now, as people think they are. The mental flexibility and the curiosity and intelligence of my students really helped me to respect the reader [of my novel] and not dumb things down.
Fann Staff: Could you tell me about how you chose the specific time periods of 1968 and 1995 in “All You Have to Do?” What was the goal in putting them together?
Autumn Allen: My original goal was to set the story in 1995. [It would have been] mostly about Gibran trying to find a way to the Million Man March and that conflict between his prep school and the culture that he's trying to connect with. But I felt that, based on my own family, the intergenerational ways in which our parents face racism versus the ways in which we do has a lot to do with the conflicts that came up within families and the different decisions that different generations made. I knew that there had to be some amount of [parental] background.
In the first version [of the book], the [portion in the past was] the story of Gibran’s mother growing up: of her integrating [in her] neighborhood, in grade school, in her college. Those stories showed how she got to be the woman she is. In order to flesh out that story and those flashbacks, I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library to get a sense of daily life in the 50s and 60s.
I found [that] in some of the videos and perspectives of the students who had grown up in the civil rights movement and were college students in the late 60s, [they shared] a lot of these similar emotions that I saw in my brothers in the 90s. The frustration, the anger, the impatience really — “we want to be equal now, we're not waiting anymore.” That parallel was so striking to me that I wanted to explore it and highlight it in the book. And so I created Kevin, as a brother of Gibran’s mom, and explored some of the similarities and differences in both the setting and the experience.
Fann Staff: The book felt very much like it was a parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement and everything that happened in 2020. Was there any intention in speaking to that now as well?
Autumn Allen: My major revisions were in 2020 and 2021, but I started the story back in 2017. I think the situations that Black people face in this country are just so cyclical and ongoing, sadly, [that you can] write a story about the past and it could very well be the present. That's what I experienced when I went to the Schomburg Center. The way that the young men were speaking in the videos [from the 50s and 60s], [any of them] could have been my brother.
I didn't really think about the Black Lives Matter movement while I was writing. I was just trying to get to a sense of outreach and search for authenticity — the ability to be authentically oneself and still succeed — [and how it felt] for that not to be a choice for a Black teen. But we're seeing it all over again in the present. Contrast the colorblind era of the 1990s [against] the Black Power era in the 1960s, and [compare that to] the Black Lives Matter movement having that pushback of people saying again that “color doesn't matter.” It just keeps going in a cycle. I hope that [“All You Have to Do”] can spark some conversations that are helpful in getting us out of that cycle.
We are people and we are proud of who we are. We don't have to become you in order to be respectable. To see the huge amount of change that happened in a small amount of time really gave me some perspective that helps to frame the book.
Fann Staff: You mentioned the backlash that is coming towards the Black Lives Matter movement and a broader push for diversity of stories, as well as a recognition of that diversity. With all the book bans happening now, how do you feel about writing in this current context as someone who has experience in education?
Autumn Allen: Well, part of my reason for homeschooling is to be free of all those bureaucracies and political decisions [determining] what other people's kids get to learn and read. I envision education [as] a community-based process, where we're always learning from each other and from books. It's not just about sitting in a classroom and learning what's allowed to be taught there.
It's a very frustrating time. I had to write in a hole and build blocks around myself and just not think about what's going to happen when [the book] comes out — who's going to be against it and all of that — because it can be so demoralizing and make you feel like you're not sure if there's even any point in writing. But for me, I had to write the story. I had to understand it. And I just hope that everyone who needs particular stories can reach those stories. I think kids are smart enough to know that when adults are trying to keep them from something, there's an agenda. Sometimes the agenda is to protect them. But sometimes the agenda is to protect the status quo or to protect something that's not worth protecting, and kids are wise enough to find what they need.
Fann Staff: As a book reviewer and a Black Muslim author who is very aware of the ways in which Black Muslim people are not represented in children's and young adult literature, did you struggle at all with writing this book while keeping representation in mind?
Autumn Allen: Not really. Not until it was going to print. I basically wrote [“All You Have to Do”] focusing on the question, “Would the people who are represented in the book approve of the way that they are represented?” [The book] is for them, you know; it's not to explain them to someone else. It's to explain them to myself and to hopefully express their experiences in a way that they identify with and say, “Yes, that's how it was.” I had my brother read it, and I also had an alumnus from Columbia University read it who was there during the 1968 occupation, and I was on the edge of my seat hoping that they would like it because if they [didn’t then I would] just have to throw it out. Thankfully, they both felt that it was a beautiful representation of the experience — not like the details and not a history book, obviously, but just how it felt. I really focused on the people who I was writing for and didn't think about outsiders until the book was heading into the world. Now, I'm in that sort of waiting period where people are excited to read it, [and] people who knew me and who saw me throughout the writing process have been texting me and saying how wonderful [the book] is and how much they love it. So that feels amazing.
Fann Staff: I want to ask you about your experience going to the Schomburg Center. These kinds of archives are unfortunately rare, and incredibly important because of that. Did you have any surprising discoveries? What was your experience going through those resources and hearing from those voices?
Autumn Allen: I could have stayed for years and just read and listened and watched. It was amazing. I got to watch the footage from the March on Washington, and importantly, [a lot of it focused on] laypeople who attended. I got to hear audio of people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X. I also read speeches by Malcolm X, some of which were handwritten. It was just mind-blowing: you learn about these figures and they seem larger than life, and you just think of them as heroes. They're just legendary. But then you hear their voices and you see their handwriting and you're like, “No, these were just people, and they were just that brave. It could have been me, but they were brave enough to do what they did.” It was a beautiful experience.
We've seen a fair amount of killing in our time, especially of people in the streets, but [I immersed myself] in a period of time when there was [even more] strife over what society was going to look like — these clashing opinions of what's ideal. When you really put the timeline together — how many assassinations there were, one after the other; how many urban uprisings happen in the summers, one after the other — [you notice] how the dialogue changed from people who want access to better schools and [other parts of society] to just wanting to be recognized as human. We are people and we are proud of who we are. We don't have to become you in order to be respectable. So to see the huge amount of change that happened in a small amount of time really gave me some perspective that helps to frame the book.
I think kids are smart enough to know that when adults are trying to keep them from something, there's an agenda. Sometimes the agenda is to protect them. But sometimes the agenda is to protect the status quo or to protect something that's not worth protecting, and kids are wise enough to find what they need.
Fann Staff: I wanted to ask about the lyrical nature of “All You Have To Do,” and in particular, the rap lyrics woven throughout Gibran’s narrative. Was there any particular artist that inspired those lyrics? Was there a specific style you were going for?
Autumn Allen: So, funny story about the lyrics — I did not write them. My brother wrote them. In the very first draft, I did write some lyrics and I had asked him to read that draft and I don't think he ever did [laughs]. At one point I asked him, “So what did you think of my lyrics?” and he just kind of ignored that text, so I was like, “Okay, either he hates them or he never read them.” Either way, it was fine because rap has evolved so much. It's hard to believe it's really been almost three decades since 1995. There’s old school rap, and there's 90s style, and there are more current styles. I was able to ask him to write some lyrics in the style he would have written in high school, and he was able to do that. He just wrote a bunch of them and was like, “Pick what you want.” That was amazing.
Fann Staff: You have been involved with organizations that are becoming incubators for Muslim authors like the Highlights Foundation. Do you see this as a rise of more institutional support for Muslim authors? Do you see any gaps in it?
Autumn Allen: I'm feeling pretty optimistic. There are definitely still gaps, you know, still leaning toward a certain kind of Muslim story. Publishing sort of lags behind the times; it takes a few years for a book that's acquired to get published. Having a foot in both worlds, I am optimistic that things are still changing, and that we will start to see even more diversity within the Muslim stories that are represented. We just have to hope that they're supported enough to get wide reception and to be on many shelves.
Fann Staff: You have two picture books coming up. How was it different writing a picture book versus writing a novel?
Autumn Allen: People ask me, “How long does it take how long does it take to write a picture book?” And I say, “It takes much longer to publish a picture book than it does to publish a novel because the art takes its own year or so.” But even writing it [takes time]. I can write a draft of a picture book in a day. I might share that draft or I might not, but whatever feedback I get, it takes months and months to be able to implement it. For one of the picture books I have coming out, I wrote it one January and sent it to my agent, and she sent me some feedback, and I just let it sit and I went back to my novel. The following January, I was ready to come back to it, and I went back in and I edited it in like a weekend and sent it [back to my agent]. In terms of chair time, it was only a few days, but in terms of the marinating, that definitely takes a lot of time.
I am optimistic that things are still changing, and that we will start to see even more diversity within the Muslim stories that are represented.
Fann Staff: Do you have any particular Muslim authors that inspire you right now?
Autumn Allen: I love the work of Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow; she just touches my heart every single time. S. K. Ali is amazing, not only [in] her work ethic but the way she brings people in. There are a bunch of books that are coming out: Rhonda Roumani wrote “Tagging Freedom”, which is coming out [later this] November. There’s too many [to list].
Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for fellow up-and-coming writers, whether they’re Black Muslim or of any marginalized background?
Autumn Allen: Just know why you're writing and keep that at the forefront. Try to know who you're writing for, and keep their opinions in the forefront so that you don't get distracted with [whether or not it is] relatable to the masses. Whatever has meaning to you has meaning. Just focus on doing your absolute best to communicate that and to explore that. It'll touch someone. If you're really into the writing, then no matter what happens with that particular project, you will be a better person for having written it. You will be a better writer and you will have benefited from the writing. So my advice is to really revel in the process.
Publishing is a difficult industry. I also separate writing from publishing. You can always be a writer, as long as you're writing. Publishing is its own beast, and it is more of a job. Enjoy the art, and just be tough when it comes to publishing;it's going to take a while. Have a community that you can commiserate with and celebrate with, [who will] cheer you on.