Two prominent YA authors tell Moneyish why young adults need to hear about these issues
As a teen raised on Indianapolis’ gang-infested west side, Jay Coles set out to write a YA novel about a kid who looked like him and lived in a neighborhood like his. But the fatal 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida 17-year-old whose death became a rallying point for the Black Lives Matter movement, pushed the project on an urgent new course.
“I thought, ‘Man, this could’ve been me; this could’ve been my brother, my sister,’” Coles, 21, told Moneyish. “That actually is what kept me going back to the story.”
He revisited the manuscript when a cop gunned down unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and again when a Cleveland policeman killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy gun. His five-plus years of labor produced “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” in which Marvin’s twin brother, Tyler, is fatally shot by police as gang violence erupts at a party.
“I wanted to have a window for black kids to express their hurt, pain and frustration with society,” Coles said. “Nationally, the conversation kept moving forward with ‘Trayvon Martin was a thug, Michael Brown was a thug, Tamir Rice was a thug’ … These were not thugs; these were kids who were wrongfully gunned down by people — and I felt like I had an obligation to speak up.” He figured no one would ever read the book, but wound up landing a literary agent.
“Tyler Johnson Was Here,” which debuted Tuesday from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and whose cover Moneyish exclusively revealed in September, is just one of a growing body of young-adult novels grappling with the grief, anger and soul-searching that stems from racial tension and police brutality.
In Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” — which inspired a 13-publisher bidding war, opened at No. 1 on the New York Times’ YA bestseller list last March and nabbed an upcoming film adaptation starring Amandla Stenberg — a girl sees a cop kill her childhood friend. Kekla Magoon’s 2014 novel “How It Went Down” explores the aftermath of a white man shooting a black boy through multiple, conflicting accounts. And 2015’s “All American Boys,” a critical and commercial success by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, traces a cop’s bodega assault of a black teen he mistook for a shoplifter.
The American Book Award-winning Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of six adult novels, has also penned a handful of middle-grade books tackling tough topics: “Ninth Ward” follows a tween through Hurricane Katrina, for example, and “Towers Falling” sees 9/11 through children’s eyes. Her forthcoming “Ghost Boys,” which hits shelves April 17 and whose cover Moneyish also revealed, was inspired in part by Rice’s slaying: After a cop shoots 12-year-old toy gun-wielding Jerome, his ghost tells the story — drawing wisdom from the spirit of Emmett Till, the black boy lynched in 1950s Mississippi, and urging Sarah, the daughter of the policeman who killed Jerome, to bear witness and do better. “Only the living can make the world better,” Rhodes writes. “Live and make it better.”
Rhodes drew upon her own experience raising a black son, a now 26-year-old who has been targeted in stop-and-frisk practices. “I really wrote it with a particular type of urgency that really calls for empathy, that really calls for acceptance of the innocence of black kids. Black children are seen as less innocent … as much larger than they really are, much older than they really are,” she said. “When I see my boy, I see a sweetheart — and there are other people who see this catalog of negative stereotypes that have been burned in their head.”
Coles also sees himself in his book’s protagonist: Like Marvin, he knows the reality of losing friends to gang violence, being racially profiled and writing letters to an absent father. (Marvin’s dad serves time after being wrongly accused of a crime; Coles’ was sent away for about two years to deal with his addiction and abuse of family members.)
“I think books are one of the most essential ways that we retain and learn about empathy,” he said. “And I think empathy is one of the most powerful things in the world to further change and to start a conversation.”
“Tyler Johnson Was Here” is geared toward kids 14 and up; “Ghost Boys” is for the 10-and-up crowd. But kids need to read uncomfortable, inspiring stories like these, both authors said — to give them hope, assure them they are valued and challenge them to create a better world. “Sometimes it feels like teens and young adults get left out of the conversation,” said Coles, whose protagonist attends a Black Lives Matter-inspired protest. “Including these aspects of activism in these books would help teenagers get a window of, ‘I can do this. I don’t have to wait on adults to make change. I can get involved in my community.’”
“I think our society’s future is really dependent upon our children,” Rhodes added. “And we need to talk about issues. I have faith that they will do better; that they might finally free us of this legacy of racial bias.”
Accordingly, the two novelists didn’t sanitize too much. “I don’t think that I’m excessively graphic, but it is what it is,” Rhodes said. The trick with showing violence and death, she said, “is to be deft.” “You don’t sensationalize it; you don’t belabor over it,” and you juxtapose it with moments of quiet and grace, she said. Coles, meanwhile, recalls toning down a earlier version of his book that read too anti-cop: “I’m not anti-cop; I believe there are a lot of good police officers out there,” he said. A subsequent revision added an “extra layer” that cast Marvin’s aunt as law enforcement.
Authors like Coles and Rhodes add color to a very white industry: Seventy-nine percent of people in publishing were white or Caucasian in 2015, according to Lee & Low Books’ survey of 34 publishers and eight review journals. And though the number of children’s books prominently featuring African-American characters spiked from 166 out of 3,150 books received in 2002 to 268 out of 3,400 books received in 2016, according to stats compiled by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the number of African-American authors only increased from 69 to 93 over the same period.
“These are a very small segment of the books that are coming out, so there’s a ton of work left to do … but it’s good, at least, that we have really good books about this stuff coming out,” Dan Kraus, books for youth editor at the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine, said of the socially conscious YA lit emerging in recent years. “Hopefully this is not a trend … this is just sort of a place at the table that should always have been here, and those books are finally being invited to the table.”
Generally speaking, “nobody’s getting rich” off writing tough, realistic stories like these, Kraus added — but that doesn’t detract from their relevance. “If people don’t see themselves reflected in books, particularly when you’re young, that could turn you off from reading or just sort of create this void of emotion, of feeling like you don’t matter,” he said.
“I think (young adults) have the capacity to understand, empathize and get involved. I think kids really, really, really want to speak up and feel like they have a place,” Coles said. “I know I did.”
This article was originally published Sept. 11, 2017 and updated upon the release of “Tyler Johnson Was Here.”
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