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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nic Stone’s unique storytelling blend of mental health, equity and teen romance coming to Northwest Passages

By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

Nic Stone has a gift for taking people out of their comfort zone, whether they like it or not.

Her stories of teenage angst have landed Stone on the New York Times bestseller list – and on the growing list of popular works banned by libraries and school districts around the country.

But the latter are far outnumbered by those who see Stone’s work for what it is: an honest attempt to help teens and their loved ones navigate the chaos of life.

She will speak before a crowd at the Bing Crosby Theater on Thursday night for a Northwest Passages event with moderator Kiantha Duncan to discuss Stone’s latest book, “Chaos Theory.”

Those are the people who will feel challenged, not threatened, by her words.

Among Stone’s work are “Odd One Out,” a story of three queer teenagers of color in a love triangle; “How to be a (Young) Anti-Racist,” a book co-authored with Ibram X. Kendi that attempts to empower youth; and “Jackpot: All Bets are Off,” which explores economic inequality and class privilege.

Stone’s best-known book is “Dear Martin,” the story of Justyce McAllister, a gifted Black student in a predominantly white school.

Justyce is bound for Yale University but faces blatant racism. Following a dangerous encounter with a white police officer, he begins writing letters to Martin Luther King Jr.

After debuting at No. 4 on the Times bestseller list in 2017, it returned to the list in 2020 for Young Adult Paper and then for New York Times for Young Adult Paperbacks. A sequel, “Dear Justyce” was written and published in 2022.

Stone’s latest work will evoke similar reactions.

Though its characters are people of color, “Chaos Theory” focuses on the stigma surrounding teens’ mental health.

It’s an easy read with an edge, the story of awkward teen romance between a nerdy girl and a politician’s son. Shelbi is a genius who self-harms, while Andy abuses alcohol to run away from his grief.

Both struggle to believe that they are worthy of love, and hope to find it from each other. It’s a hard journey with dysfunctional families, sexual tension and more than the usual quantity of teen hormones.

And it wouldn’t be a modern teen novel without the phone texts – hundreds of them with the power to harm and heal.

Stone’s overriding message, sure to be repeated Thursday, is to destigmatize mental illness among teens, especially those of color.

“As a Black person who is living with – and has been medicated for – a couple of mental illness diagnoses, creating accurate and well-vetted representation of Black kids with ‘abnormal brain chemistry’ (Pffffft!) is of paramount importance to me,” Stone posted on Instagram prior to the book’s publication.

Stone has an eager audience among teens in Spokane, according to Kelly Diamond, a language arts teacher at Rogers High School.

Three years ago, she and colleague Kendra Egly saw the need to broaden a curriculum that Diamond felt was a “narrow expression” of wider society and lacking in diversity, sexual orientation and cultural responsiveness.

They worked to get approval from Spokane Public Schools to add “Dear Martin” to the curriculum.

“I’m really grateful for the work of Nic Stone, and grateful to work in a state and a district that embraces these books, because it does empower kids,” said Diamond, who plans to attend the event on Thursday.

“These books act as mirrors for many of our students,” Diamond said while criticizing book banning for shutting down “necessary conversations” about social justice and equity.

Stone was more blunt.

In an interview last year in Michigan, the mother of two opined that “kids are really pissed off” that books like hers have been banned.

“Young people want this information,” she said.