YA author L.L. McKinney re-imagines Alice in Wonderland—in Atlanta

Alice in Wonderland meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer “with a healthy dose of #BlackGirlMagic" in A Blade So Black and sequel, A Dream So Dark

L. L. McKinney A Dream so Dark
A Dream So Dark hits bookshelves September 24.

Photograph courtesy of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

When Atlanta teenager Alice Kingston’s father dies of heart failure—while at their favorite event, Dragon Con—she immediately is attacked by a “Nightmare” monster and then saved by Addison Hatta, a guardian of the portal between Atlanta and Wonderland.

That’s the fast-paced beginning of A Blade So Black, the debut young-adult novel from L. L. McKinney released last fall, which built a devoted following for its mashup of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—“with a healthy dose of #BlackGirlMagic,” as McKinney describes it. In the book, Alice becomes a guardian herself, still grieving her father and trying to balance her relationships with her mother and friends with her new duties as a “Dreamwalker,” a protector of the world. Last year, Lionsgate Television optioned the television rights to A Blade So Black.

Today, McKinney, is releasing a sequel—A Dream So Dark—and she’s currently at work on a third. We chatted with McKinney about Atlanta, diversity in storytelling, and nightmares both fantastical and terrifyingly real.

L. L. McKinney A Dream so Dark
Author L. L. McKinney

Photograph courtesy of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

You’re based in Kansas City, though you have family in Atlanta and frequently visit, especially at Dragon Con, where you’ve been a regular presence. Why was it important for the book’s setting—at least in “our” world—to be in Atlanta?
It was this place where there were thriving black businesses and a multicultural setting—it was a utopia, which is how it was painted when I was a child. I needed a place where Alice could be Alice and it wouldn’t be incredibly fraught, in terms of dealing with race. Atlanta is one of the best places for that because race comes up, but it’s not the focus of the book. And I wanted a place where the city itself would be able to be a character, playing the part of both antagonist and protagonist in terms of how Alice functions; Alice doesn’t have a car, so there’s moments where she has to deal with MARTA not running.

So much of the book deals with nightmares, monsters, fear. It’s so interesting how you play in the book with the metaphorical connections between Wonderland—a place sometimes full of fantastical terrors—and the U.S. South, a region fraught with racial terror.
Fear is this tangible thing, particularly in marginalized communities. In the first book, there is a girl that who is killed by police in Alice’s neighborhood. And Alice’s mom and the rest of the neighborhood have this visceral reaction.

That’s one of the ways that this departs from Buffy, too: Buffy would have her weapons at home with her, but if Alice gets caught wandering around for whatever reason by authorities with weapons in her backpack, it’s not gonna go well. Police violence is not the focus of her everyday life, but she literally has to fight the monsters that are the result of that.

In the South, there’s this sort of generational trauma rooted in the land itself from slavery and genocide with the indigenous cultures. That’s why the area around Stone Mountain was perfect for one of the gateways to Wonderland in the book. It’s perfect, because that’s where the Nightmares pop up. It was just this way of making the two worlds lean on each other and depend on each other.

Your series comes during a wider movement to reimagine classic literature or movies with black or nonwhite characters—you’re a longtime publishing diversity advocate, and you’ve talked about the #YAwithSoul moment a couple of years ago when black writers and readers thought about how changing the main characters of, say, the Harry Potter series would affect those stories’ dynamics. Why did you choose Alice in Wonderland (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to do that with?
In Alice in Wonderland, anything is possible—both in a good way and in a bad way. And I think it’s a perfect story for these times: We had a black president, we’re having more stories with black people (like the new Little Mermaid casting), but at the same time, the world is a very scary place right now. So, Wonderland just felt like the perfect reflection of being a person of color—being black, being indigenous right now. The best in the world is possible, but you’re also one speeding ticket away from possibly ending up as a hashtag. It’s chaos. But the black community manages to thrive in chaos. There’s no map for it, but somehow you’re still able to navigate it. You don’t even know if it’s up or down or left or right, but you’re still able to make your way through.