A Conversation with Dhonielle Clayton, “Belles” Author and 2018 SLJTeen Live! Keynoter

The NYT bestselling author, former school librarian, and SLJTeen Live! keynoter chats about beauty and power and gives advice to her teenage self.

Capping off our inside look at the 2018 SLJTeen Live! keynotes, we caught up with New York Times best-selling author of The Belles (Disney/Freeform) and former school librarian Dhonielle Clayton. A founding member of We Need Diverse Books, she has created a fantasy series opener full of lush colors and delicious desserts that also “challenges readers to reflect on their notions of beauty,” says our SLJ review.

Join Clayton, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Sabaa Tahir on August 15 for our daylong virtual event on all things teen and YA lit.

What inspired you to write your latest work?

My teenage journals and my obsessions with beauty and makeup were my inspiration for The Belles. I returned to the feelings I had about my body and looks during that formative time as the heart of the novel. I wanted to wrap a world around that sickness.

How does your book relate to the theme of this year’s SLJTeen Live! event: “Speaking Truth to Power”?

Because it aims to open up a conversation about how our society commodifies women’s bodies and assigns value and social currency to them. I wanted to present a tough and complicated world that is true to the difficulties teens face with beauty. Particularly, I wanted to look at the connection between what one looks like and how they navigate the world as a result of that. I also wanted to imbue readers with the power to interrogate the structures in place in my fictional secondary universe, and those in our real world, so that they might be able to reclaim their own power over how they feel about their bodies.

If you could take only one book and one music album with you to a deserted island, which ones would they be?

If I could only take one book and one music album to a deserted island ... I’d be very sad to have only one and probably wouldn’t survive due to heartbreak. But if really I had to choose, I’d take Earth, Wind & Fire’s greatest hits collection and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

What do you wish you could tell your 15-year-old self?

I wish I could tell my 15-year-old self to relax. The destination will be there when you get there, so spend a little more time wandering and a little less time obsessing. You will be fine, actually grand, and just enjoy it.

What advice would you give librarians working with teens?

See [teens] as people who you can learn something from. [They] have so much to teach us. It’s not just the other way around. Be open to hearing them and enjoying their quirks. You’d be surprised by how alike you are, and you’ll do a better job at giving them that right book at the right time if you open yourself up.

What are you working on next?

The sequel to The Belles comes out in March of next year, but now, I’m working on another YA that I have coming out in 2019 with my writing partner Sona Charaipotra called The Rumor Game. It follows three girls and the destructive power of a rumor.

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Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is  School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children's & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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