Dreams on Fire
A rich coming-of-age story aimed at young girls
Annette Daniels Taylor
Photo courtesy of Annette Daniels Taylor
Annette Daniels Taylor had never written a query letter before, but she had an idea. After four drafts and input from friends, she had one put together. That letter, as it turned out, was her golden ticket. West44 Books, an imprint of Enslow Publishers, released Daniels Taylor’s young adult book, Dreams on Fire, on October 1.
Written completely in verse, Dreams on Fire tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Shanequa Oni Stephens as she navigates life at Bidwell Academy for Girls. The exciting new world at Bidwell is a far cry from life at home where times aren’t always easy. Her father is in prison, her mother is battling drug addiction, and she and her sister live with their grandmother. Striving for acceptance, she tells a string of lies to her wealthy new friends at the prestigious school. It isn’t long before her “friends” find out the truth about her home life, and they betray her. Without thinking, Shanequa allows her hurt, anger, and rage to take hold. What happens next changes everything.
Daniels Taylor had plenty of inspiration for her book. Her two daughters attended a private school, and some of the tales they told her about the hierarchy of girls there were shocking. She knew that there was pain underneath some of the mean-girl dramatics and that there were stories to be told.
Her time as a poetry- and performance-teaching artist at the Erie County Youth Detention Center has also influenced Dreams on Fire. It’s here that she encounters girls who, like Shanequa, are struggling to figure out their place in the world. Despite the harsh environment and the difficult homes that many of these young women come from, Daniels Taylor bears witness to countless acts of love and connection between the girls.
She recounts a story about a twelve-year-old girl reluctantly deciding to share a poem about her mother in front of a writing class at the detention center. By the third line, she can’t hold back the tears of fear, disappointment, and homesickness. One at a time, every young woman in the class hugs and comforts her.
“There is so much tenderness here, and these girls are making a community, making a family between them even though they may have only been around each other a couple of weeks,” says Daniels Taylor, with clear affection in her voice.
Her engaging lyrical voice enchants the reader with every turn of the page:
“I dream goals,
gleaming glittering glowing.
I dream spirit building,
With pens, with pencils,
I’m writing my dreams on fire.”
But there is also a rawness within those beautiful lines that doesn’t let the reader escape the realities of Shanequa’s life at home:
“Garbage truck wake-up alarm
we’re still home alone.
Grandma’s key unlocks our door.
School called. Dropped a dime to Social Services!
Court took Mama’s
parent rights away.”
This dose of reality appeals to seventeen-year-old Nichols School student Tahynnis Newsome who appreciates the “very down to earth and very real” writing in Dreams on Fire.
“She puts her characters in realistic situations and then comes up with very real consequences,” says Newsome. “Reading Dreams on Fire opens up some of the potential situations you may encounter being a young girl in a city like Buffalo.”
Educators agree with Newsome’s assessment of Daniels Taylor’s book. Carey Miller, an English and history teacher at Buffalo Seminary, thinks Dreams on Fire is the book young women in Buffalo need right now. “They need books to reflect their lived and imagined experiences. Books that feel authentic to their age, community, gender, race, culture, socioeconomic status, etc. Narratives surrounding private schools don’t need to be about boys, horseback riding, and fashion. We’re done with that. Taylor’s story of Shanequa Oni Stephens is a richer tale, one of strong people who have just as much desire and need for better lives than literature’s stock characters but are trapped by outside forces who provide larger than life obstacles at every step. Through Shanequa, Taylor provides the reader a crystal clear photo of the ugly reality of systemic racism. Those who don’t have this lived experience need it even more than those who recognize it all too well.”
Esther Annan, a social worker with Erie County Youth Detention Center and one of the current executive directors at Say Yes Buffalo, is the inspiration for a social worker who appears in the story. She feels hopeful after reading Dreams on Fire and believes that Shanequa is the perfect example of resiliency in the face of adversity. “Dreams on Fire is an important book, because it teaches lessons of faith, perseverance, resilience, and belief in one’s ability to overcome,” she notes.
Dreams on Fire, which was recently named a Junior Library Guild selection, is Daniels Taylor’s fourth book, and she is currently working on a sequel. She is an Arthur A. Schomburg fellow with the University at Buffalo’s Department of Media Study and was recently awarded a New York State Public Humanities fellowship in support of her efforts to develop an Underground Railroad sound-walk through Buffalo’s fifteen Underground Railroad sites.
Learn more about Dreams on Fire at annettedanielstaylor.com.