It was a “dream come true” moment for author and University of Kentucky College of Education staff member Mariama J. Lockington during the American Library Association’s 2023 Youth Media Awards in January.
As the host announced this year’s winners, Lockington’s “In the Key of Us” appeared on screen bearing a seal on its cover as a Stonewall Honor Book. From appearing in the New York Times Book Review to Ebony magazine, Lockington’s latest novel has garnered high profile mentions all year. The accolades come on the heels of critical acclaim for Lockington’s previous novel, “For Black Girls Like Me,” published in 2019.
Lockington holds master’s degrees in creative writing and education and is the research administrative coordinator in the UK College of Education’s Office of Clinical Preparation and Partnerships.
Today, she talks to us about her career as an award-winning author and champion for education.
UKNow: Can you describe the moment you heard your name called and saw your book cover bearing the Stonewall Honor Book designation?
Lockington: I got a call the night before the awards ceremony from the committee that had selected my book as an honor title. My wife and I were in the middle of watching The Last of Us, which is an intense zombie apocalypse show. I paused mid-episode and found myself on speaker phone being congratulated by the committee and told to tune-in the next morning for the official announcement. It was all very surreal— I screamed a little, did a dance, and then went back to zombies. I will say that until I saw my book up on the screen the next morning, with the award sticker on the cover, it didn’t feel real. I’ve always been laser focused on being an author, even from a young age, and I remember going to the library and finding those books with stickers on them, knowing they were special. Getting honored this way means the world, but more than the sticker itself, is the fact that In the Key of Us has been recognized as a book of excellence highlighting and uplifting the LGBTQIA+ experience. In the Key of Us is about two rising 8th grade girls— Zora and Andi— who attend a summer music camp in Northern Michigan. One is a trumpet player and dealing with the loss of her mother and the other is a flute player suffering from perfectionism. The two meet, develop a friendship and more as summer adventures ensue. As a queer, Black woman this book honor is proof that LGBTQIA+ stories matter, are beautiful, and deserve to be in the spotlight. I’m so grateful to all the Trans Black women and queer people who paved the way for me to live in my truth and write these stories.
UKNow: From a review in The New York Times and mention in Ebony magazine to this major honor from the American Library Association, In the Key of Us garnered a long list of accolades this past year. What do these awards and high-profile mentions mean to you?
Lockington: I always feel a bit of panic when I get good news like this— my anxious brain slipping into imposter syndrome. However, when I’m able to work past this, be in the moment, I feel a great sense of joy, purpose, and duty. On one hand it feels great to know I’ve written a story that is well received and praised, that my craft is solid and engaging. On the other hand, I’m also aware that accolades are not the reason I write — I write because it’s a means of survival and a way to build empathy and foster community through storytelling. If I keep my eye on this, I hope to keep producing stories that are authentic and true to my voice. Stories that hopefully will provide sense of belonging to those who don’t often get to see themselves on the page.
UKNow: Outreach and research efforts related to educational equity cross your desk each day in your role at the UK College of Education. Meanwhile, as you write in the evenings, the characters you develop are youth who are experiencing schooling in various contexts. How do you think the education-related initiatives you are part of relate to what the characters you write about could be experiencing?
Lockington: I’ve always been someone who needs to be working with or in service of young people to feel connected and driven. That’s why I have a masters in both creative writing and education, and why I have worked in youth development spaces for over 13 years. In my role at UK, I work to develop partnerships and programs that support teachers and teachers in training to foster belonging and learning in their classrooms. I am deeply passionate about equity issues in PK-20 schools, about listening and responding to what young people and their caretakers need and want. I don’t think we give young people enough credit for their resilience, innovation, leadership, and courage, and so I try to remember this as I collaborate with educators, community organizations, and other stakeholders in my role. I also often interact with young people through supporting the college’s STEM summer camp, or via school visits and weekend writing workshops/programs. Being in conversation and community with young people not only helps me grow, but also gives me a clear sense of the issues that young people are facing every day. I write contemporary fiction for young people —stories about young people living in the here and now. My stories are hopeful and full of joy, but also explore mental health issues, complex family dynamics, grief and loss, sexuality and coming of age, racism and homophobia, and so many other important topics that affect the lives of youth living today. I don’t shy away from portraying the nuance or messiness of being a young adult— because it’s all part of the journey, and young people need books that affirm this. It’s my job to listen and provide a space for young people to feel they are heard and seen, they belong, and that they matter. This is what I seek to do on the page or at work. It’s all connected.
UKNow: You have said all kinds of Black stories are important to read, not just the painful ones. Can you talk more about that?
Lockington: Black people are not a monolith— despite many of the harmful stereotypes that are out there— we are not all the same. We deserve stories that speak to this abundance of experience, and that do not tokenize or profit from our pain. It’s just as important to have a book on shelves about Ruby Bridges and the challenges she faced integrating an all-white school, as it is to have a book about a Black girl who loves comic books, all things space-related, and wants to be an astronaut. We contain multitudes— to quote the great Walt Whitman, and we deserve stories full of singular, focused joy just as much as stories that highlight our struggle and endurance.
UKNow: What do you hope readers gain from “In The Key of Us?”
Lockington: I hope that readers will be able to see themselves in some small or big way in the book. That they will be able to harness a sense of adventure or curiosity for things that are unknown and part of nature, the bigger world. That readers understand that music can be a way to communicate beyond language and background, and that finding your passion and living your truth is more important than being perfect or making yourself small to please others. Lastly, I hope that LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC readers feel a sense of hope when reading Andi and Zora’s story— that they remember they are held and seen and that they deserve love in all its possibilities.