Administrator Scores HBO Max Series
By day, Kimberly Johnson is a University of Oregon administrator, helping guide young people through their academic path as Vice Provost for the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Success. But by night, Johnson is a bestselling author whose young adult book This Is My America is being developed into a series for HBO Max. Not bad for a debut novelist who didn’t dive into writing until she was 32 years old.
Johnson, who grew up in Eugene and earned her Bachelor’s degree from UO in 2001, spent time volunteering with social justice organizations like the Eugene NAACP as a young person. As an adult, she began writing in her free time when she had a spark of inspiration, and then fell in love with the writing process.
The idea for This Is My America formed around 2014, during the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, when the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became part of the American consciousness. “I wanted to help write a story that actually expanded out that Black Lives Matter isn’t just about police brutality, it’s about the entire ecosystem of racism in our country and the criminal justice system,” Johnson says. “So I really wanted to tell a story centering it with the activists.”
In This Is My America, Johnson tells the story of a 17-year-old Texan named Tracy Beaumont, who is writing letters to an organization called Innocence X to help get her innocent Black father off of death row. Tracy’s situation grows even tougher when her brother is accused of killing a white girl, which leads her to discover her small town’s racist history. Johnson calls her novel a “social thriller,” based on her passion for social justice and page-turning mysteries.
After its release in summer 2020, Johnson’s debut novel went on to earn a great deal of attention and accolades. Among her successes, UO chose it as their annual Common Reading Program selection and it became an NPR Best Book of the Year. States like Tennessee, Texas, and Florida picked it up as a recommended book for schools. Locally, some UO faculty members have added the book to their courses and Johnson participated in a teach-in session with teachers around Oregon. And then came the bidding war for the series, which landed Johnson the production team behind Gossip Girl and her own executive producer credit.
Johnson laughs with humility at her achievements. “It’s been incredible,” she says. “I honestly never imagined that my book would be as widely read and picked up in a lot of different ways as it has.” She’s excited about possibilities that translating the book into a TV series brings. As much as she loves reading all sorts of books, “I love bingeing series,” she says, “What I’m so excited about, is that around film and TV, you can have conversations around the [water] cooler. It actually forces—in a very public way—a space for people to have a conversation on these really important topics that I bled into the story.”
Beyond the series, Johnson’s future is even brighter. She already sold her second novel, Invisible Son, which will tell the story of a boy who goes missing amid a pandemic and a summer of racial reckoning. It’s scheduled to be published in Fall 2022.
Science Communication Through Comics
With science-related issues dominating headlines over the past year, the need for clear communication of the challenging topics is stronger than ever. At UO, students and professors are working together to figure out how to impart that kind of information. Assistant professor of physics Tien-Tien Yu and assistant professor of comics studies Kate Kelp-Stebbins have teamed up to create the UO Science and Comics Initiative. Since spring 2020, eight undergraduate fellows have collaborated with researchers to create comic books that use illustration to help explain scientific matters.
Yu grew interested in exploring the idea after participating in a workshop at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York a few years ago. When she learned about UO’s first in the nation Comics & Cartoon Studies Program, she made contact with Kelp-Stebbins. “My initial hopes were two-fold: One was to disseminate knowledge about science—particularly the science done at UO—to the broader community in a way that was memorable and accessible,” Yu says. “The second hope was to foster a relationship and collaboration between the humanities and sciences at UO.”
The program is partially funded by Yu’s National Science Foundation grant, which has a portion dedicated to “broader impacts.” Each term, two student applicants are chosen to receive the $1,000 fellowship and spend the term collaborating on their comic with a designated UO researcher. Yu said she received enthusiastic responses from colleagues interested in participating in the program. So far students have created comics on topics including dark matter, serotonin, and biological populations in space. “From my own perspective, I’ve just been astonished at how adept our students are at using the comics form,” Kelp-Stebbins says. “They’re such great artists and they’re such great storytellers.”
Audra McNamee, a Clark Honors College senior majoring in math and computer science and minoring in environmental studies and comics studies, participated in the fellowship alongside assistant professor of biology Luca Mazzucato, creating “A Trip Into Serotonin.”
“I think this form of interdisciplinary collaboration is absolutely essential for a number of reasons,” McNamee says. “First, it’s genuinely an excellent way to lay out scientific information clearly, the combination of words and images, along with the fact that the reader can consume it as slowly or quickly as they’d like, make it suited to conveying complicated scientific ideas, full stop. Science communication in general is absolutely essential—no matter how much groundbreaking science occurs, if the public doesn’t know about it, it can’t be harnessed for the public good.”
The Science and Comics Initiative comics can currently be viewed via comics.uoregon.edu, but Kelp-Stebbins aims to share them more widely through a future gallery exhibit and/or a printed book. The founders also hope to push the program goals of diversity and inclusion further by translating the comics to other languages as well. “We want as many people as can possibly read them and get excited about them to do so,” Kelp-Stebbins says.