Q&A with Kelly McWilliams, author of Your Planation Prom Is Not Okay
Q: What inspired you to write this novel?
Kelly McWilliams: Periodically, a celebrity of some kind gets married on a plantation. It hits the news, people express outrage, an apology is or is not made…and then somehow we all forget about it and the cycle starts over again. From the perspective of a novelist, that’s both fascinating and horrifying. Grown adults continue to disrespect historical sites and worse, some schools in the South still host proms at old plantations, perpetuating that culture. When someone pretends that a plantation is about love and good old-fashioned family values, it keeps us on very different wavelengths. For me, as an often white-presenting person, I’ve been running smack into that other wavelength my whole life. No matter our race, we all need to grieve the legacy of slavery to move forward.
Q: Tell us about the research involved in writing Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay.
KM: I visited the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, because it’s famously one of the only plantations in the South that tells the history of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved. I wanted to see their statues and memorials in person, and read the writing on their tombstones and plaques. It’s incredibly powerful to be in a place so committed to telling the truth. The Whitney Plantation very much inspired the museum in the book.
Q: Your book explores the role of social media and internet fame. What are your thoughts on social media revolutionizing youth-led activism?
KM: The book focuses quite a bit on both social media and allyship—and, as in real life, those ideas are incredibly vexed. Yes, social media absolutely has the potential to revolutionize youth-led activism, as Harriet learns while putting her message out with Tiktok. But if we’re not careful, it can also contribute to the very same problems we’ve always had, and perpetuate lots of other issues, too.
Harriet’s ally in trying to ‘cancel’ the plantation next door is a Instagram influencer who’s been silenced by the demands of her own platform—made into a kind of voiceless puppet, parroting brands and easy wellness culture lines while feeling immense pressure to appear thin. She connects with Harriet because she wants to break free from that life, and confront actual issues with courage and bravery.
In contrast, the movie star who’s planning her wedding next-door is only interested in accruing more fame and taking beautiful pictures, no matter whose past she’s trampling on.
At the end of the day, fame and social media are just another set of tools. To do good, they’ve got to be used quite consciously. It’s actually a lot like the situation with the monuments and memorials. We can memorialize the wrong thing, and that’s not going to help the culture. Likewise, with social media, we can easily spread the wrong message. The social platforms aren’t good in and of themselves, but I do love when smart, passionate young people use them to find empowerment (and also humor, solace, and snark!).
Q: Your novels range from a genre-defying cult/pandemic mashup (Agnes at the End of the World) to a historical paranormal thriller (Mirror Girls), and now a timely contemporary novel, yet they are all rooted in empowerment and speak to the present day. Is this what drives your writing?
KM: I always start from a place of perplexity—of wondering why things are the way they are. All my books dig deeply into social and cultural phenomena, and it turns out there’s a lot of different potential starting points for that kind of deep dive! I’ve written from the perspective of the past, from a dystopian future, and now, finally, from our contemporary moment. It’s all the same archaeology, in the end. I’m just digging from different spots in the ground. And of course my characters always find that when they finally understand what’s happened in their past—both personal and historical—they’re ready and able to take on the future.
I’ve found this is true of real people, too: when we really put in the work to understand our social situation and what led to it, that’s when an activist is made.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Your Plantation Prom is not Okay?
KM: I always joke that if people read nothing but the title of this book, it will still have done its job!
More seriously, though, Harriet’s family loves this song from Man of La Mancha called “The Impossible Dream.” Her mother used to play it on repeat while they were turning this plantation space into a museum. “To dream the impossible dream… to fight the unbeatable foe…” It’s a song about fighting for what’s right even when you know, on some level, that you’re destined to fail. Harriet’s not going to end racism by herself—her descendants likely won’t even see the end of it. And this has such a strong parallel, for kids today, with climate change (and with feminism, too). In all these mighty struggles, there’s glory in striving, in trying despite what feels like utter hopelessness.
This is something I learned from my own mother: that even if nothing else changes, the world is better because we never quit. The foe may be unbeatable, and the dream impossible…but at least we dreamed it. At least we tried. This is the kind of energy I want to see us bringing, as a society, into the uncertain future.
Meet the author
Kelly McWilliams is a mixed-race writer. Agnes at the End of the World was a finalist for the Golden Kite Award, and Mirror Girls is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and Target Book Club Pick. She’s written for Time, Bustle, and Publishers Weekly among other outlets. She lives in Seattle with her family.
About Your Plantation Prom Is Not Okay
A sharp-witted, timely novel that explores cancel culture, anger, and grief, and challenges the romanticization of America’s racist past with humor and heart, for fans of DEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone and GROWN by Tiffany D. Jackson
Harriet Douglass lives with her historian father on an old plantation in Louisiana, which they’ve transformed into one of the South’s few enslaved people’s museums. Together, while grieving the recent loss of Harriet’s mother, they run tours that help keep the memory of the past alive.
Harriet’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of mother and daughter Claudia and Layla Hartwell—who plan to turn the property next door into a wedding venue, and host the offensively antebellum-themed wedding of two Hollywood stars.
Harriet’s fully prepared to hate Layla Hartwell, but it seems that Layla might not be so bad after all—unlike many people, this California influencer is actually interested in Harriet’s point of view. Harriet’s sure she can change the hearts of Layla and her mother, but she underestimates the scale of the challenge…and when her school announces that prom will be held on the plantation, Harriet’s just about had it with this whole racist timeline! Overwhelmed by grief and anger, it’s fair to say she snaps.
Can Harriet use the power of social media to cancel the celebrity wedding and the plantation prom? Will she accept that she’s falling in love with her childhood best friend, who’s unexpectedly returned after years away? Can she deal with the frustrating reality that Americans seem to live in two completely different countries? And through it all, can she and Layla build a bridge between them?
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 05/02/2023
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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