Legal thrillers are usually thought of as escapist reading. A new novel by attorney Pamela Samuels Young offers that and more.

Pamela Samuels Young is regarded as one of America’s top African-American authors of legal thrillers, having penned 14 books over a 20-year writing career.

Her work has received numerous awards, most notably the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Fiction for her thriller Anybody’s Daughter. In an interview about her new novel, Failure to Protect, released in October, Young says, she didn’t choose the subject — the subject chose her. 

Pamela Samuels Young: It was Christmas Day 2018. I had a phone conversation with a friend who is an elementary school teacher in Marion, Alabama. She was incredibly sad because one of her former students had taken his own life and, in addition, two 9-year-olds in nearby towns had also taken their lives just weeks earlier. I was like, 9-years-old? How does a 9-year-old even know what suicide is?

When I read news articles about their deaths, I learned that both little girls had been bullied at school. Their deaths weighed on me that whole night, and I cried thinking about them, seeing their cute little faces. I woke up the next morning and knew this was something I had to write about. When I started researching bullying and child suicide, I was stunned to learn that there were many, many kids taking their own lives.  I was also stunned to learn that the suicide rate for African-American kids under the age of 12 was twice that of white kids. So it just went from there.

Grit Daily: Your research turned up the term “bullycide?”

PSY: That’s right. But I quickly learned that mental health professionals despise the word bullycide—which was penned by the media—because it implies that bullying causes suicide, which isn’t correct. Not all children who are bullied take their own lives. While bullying may be part of the problem, a combination of risk factors, such as childhood depression, also play a role.

GD:  Initially, you didn’t want to talk openly about the subject matter of the book because you thought it would scare readers away.   

PSY: That’s correct. I even shied away from using the word suicide in the synopsis on the back of the book. I thought the topic was just too tough and that readers wouldn’t be able to handle it. So I intentionally avoided any mention of suicide in marketing the book.

But then I realized I was only amplifying the problem that parents, educators, and mental health professionals face. Suicide, especially among children, is something nobody wants to talk about. So, I decided to come front and center with the topic because, otherwise, I would just be continuing the silence that keeps people from understanding what’s really going on.

GD: What surprised you most as you researched the book?

PSY: Other than the shame and secrecy surrounding suicide, I would say the cruel nature of bullying today. We all know that social media amplifies bullying far beyond anything that young kids of my generation grew up with. But I don’t think social media by itself is responsible for just how vicious kids can be to each other. I think the culture they’re raised in is also to blame. Take some of our reality TV shows, like The Real Housewives of Atlanta or New York or wherever. These shows are designed to have the participants embarrass each other. It’s about being raunchy and mean-spirited. Even though they shouldn’t have access to them, our kids are inundated with shows like that and it’s having a negative impact on their psyche.

GD: What’s the explanation for the radically higher rate of suicide among African-American children?

PSY: No one has been able to answer that question. The Congressional Black Caucus has called for a study of the issue, which they say has reached an epidemic level in the black community. Right now, it’s really about a search for answers.

GD:  What can you tell us about your book’s plot?

PSY: My primary villain in Failure to Protect is an elementary school principal who’s sued by the mother of a bullied student. In the face of that lawsuit, the principal vows to do whatever it takes to protect her career and her school’s reputation. While I’ve attempted to educate readers about bullying, suicide, and childhood depression, I was also determined to write a legal thriller that readers would have a hard time putting down. The early reviews tell me that I accomplished those goals.

GD: This could not have been an easy book to write.

PSY: Without question, it’s the hardest book I’ve ever written. Even harder than Anybody’s Daughter, which dealt with a kid pulled into child sex trafficking via a Facebook scam. But at the same time, Failure to Protect, is also the most rewarding book I’ve done to date because it has the potential to save lives. If reading the book causes just one parent to reach their child before he or she takes the desperate step of ending their life, then it was worth it. I never imagined I would become an expert on bullying and suicide, but if you’re going to do a subject justice, you have to jump all the way in. And that’s what I tried to do.

Failure to Protect is dedicated to those two 9-year-old girls who took their own lives—McKenzie Adams of Linden, Alabama, and Madison Whitsett of Birmingham, Alabama.  I actually kept pictures of them on my desk as I wrote. They were with me every step of the way and I hope I did them proud.