In 2020, now more than ever, stories that encompass a diverse array of experiences deserve to be celebrated and not just during months designated for that purpose—like Black History Month in February or National American Indian History Month in November. Children, especially, deserve to see themselves in books. Representation is so important and can be life-changing for a young reader. For that reason, I wanted to showcase two fabulous authors and their equally fabulous books, Jewell Parker Rhodes and Brandy Colbert.
Out this March, Jewell’s middle-grade novel Black Brother, Black Brother and Brandy’s debut middle-grade The Only Black Girls In Town capture not only the experience of being an adolescent but tackle important issues that are affecting young black kids today. You instantly connect and deeply feel for Donte and Alberta, and these powerful narratives prove why diverse stories are so important and needed.
These authors deserve to be on everyone’s must-read lists for their insightful and loving characters. I can’t wait for you to meet Donte and Alberta. Enjoy the interview, then pre-order the books (here or here), or put them on hold at your local library. You won’t regret it.
First of all, thank you so much for both of your novels. They’re extraordinary and real in a way that I really appreciated, and I know readers will too. What inspired you to write them?
Jewell Parker Rhodes: Doing research for my novel Ghost Boys, I learned elementary through high school students of color are often unfairly suspended, arrested by police, and in many cases charged with crimes. Once arrested even for minor infractions, the odds that a student will be entrapped by the criminal justice system and not graduate, double. Black Brother, Black Brother addresses bias in schools, both public and private.
Brandy Colbert: Thank you! I was inspired to write The Only Black Girls in Town when thinking of my own childhood. It’s not an exact depiction of my life, as I grew up in a slightly larger town in the Midwest instead of a small beach town in California. But my hometown was only 3 percent black at the time I was living there in the ’80s and ’90s, and I went to a predominantly white high school; the only place I really saw black people outside of my home was the black church we went to. So, I thought, What if you were one of the only black girls in your small town and then one moved in across the street?
Donte and Alberta’s voices in both of your novels are so fresh and alive—did you have a certain way you went about creating these characters?
JPR: Creating characters is always mysterious for me. Literally, I have to wait until I hear their voice. Once I have the voice, I create Donte with his actions/reactions to events. Since I don’t plot in advance, Donte often surprised me—becoming more complex and humane.
BC: Characters usually come to me first, and that is partially true with this book, too. While I had the general idea of the book, I knew the main character was a twelve-year-old surfer named Alberta. Like Jewell, I don’t plot before I start writing, either, so I write my way into the character’s voice and story. Alberta’s story really got going when I figured out the family dynamics, including her two fathers, and her surrogate/biological mother Denise.
Both Donte and Alberta are in situations where they are the only kids of color in their sports teams and towns, yet they find ways to survive and thrive. What did you draw on to help tell these stories and how did you find hope and happiness when parts of their stories that might have been tougher to write?
JPR: Initially, Donte uses anger to fuel his fencing battles against his racist nemesis. But sport, especially, fencing with its’ codes of chivalry, honor, and integrity, empowers him. Donte focuses on his own growth and desire to be “the best.” Dismissing other people’s negative views of you can be challenging for young people who are just discovering themselves and moving toward adulthood. Self-esteem is dependent upon loving yourself. Donte comes to realize this and messages to others: “Be you. Even if others can’t see you.”
BC: Well, I was almost always the only black kid or one of very few in the activities I was involved in—dance, cheerleading, track, etc.—primarily because of my town’s and school’s demographics, so I tried to draw on my own experience, as it’s not something I’ll soon forget. Alberta has a pretty great life with supportive, loving dads, good friends, and surfing. I wanted to show that despite her being taunted with racist remarks that can lead to self-doubt, she doesn’t allow herself to get lost in that pain and embarrassment. Yes, it’s something she has to confront, but she also knows she’s more than someone’s ignorant comments or racist views. I felt similarly when I was growing up; I never forgot I was one of the only black kids, constantly being watched, but I knew I had to keep being me, no matter what.
Even though the stories are centered on the experiences of Donte, Alberta, and Edie, they have such supportive family members who try and sometimes fail to see their struggles. Why was including their families so important, especially when so many middle-grade and children’s stories seem to have absent parents or adult figures?
JPR: Parents are incredibly important but for bi-racial kids, they are essential for modelling heritage and identity in profound ways to offset society’s superficial views. What I’m most proud of is the sibling relationship in Black Brother, Black Brother. I LOVE how older brother, Trey, advocates for his brother but allows Donte his own room to grow into young manhood. Donte is never smothered or viewed by his brother and parents as “just a victim.” Consequently, he develops strength, resilience, and moral character. It’s hard for family to watch loved ones struggle—yet, allowing Donte’s struggle allows him to become heroic.
BC: I love writing about family, which is a big theme of almost all my books. But with this one, I wanted to show how important family can be when you’re part of an underrepresented group. Alberta didn’t have any black friends to confide in before Edie moved in, so she had to confide in her fathers, who were the only ones who had any idea what it was like to be her. I also wanted to show a happy black family with a same-sex couple, which isn’t something you see every day in books. And for Edie, whose family is going through a transition, I wanted to show how she and her single mom are able to start over in a new town, along with the challenges that brings.
Jewell, this is your sixth middle-grade novel, and Brandy, this is your middle-grade debut. What drew you both to writing this age group?
JPR: I have always wanted to write for youth. As a child, I always wanted to see stories with characters that mirrored me. But my childhood was also harsh—so much so that I’ve forgotten (or repressed) many incidents. I think writing for middle-grade, I’m giving myself joy. But celebrating kids I meet today is always my intention. My characters are inspired by them! And for those who are having hard times, I ALWAYS remind them they’ll not only survive but thrive.
BC: Middle-grade novels are the books that I am still desperately in love with from my childhood. Thinking of some of my favorite stories from that time, and how I read them over and over again because they made me feel something new or different about the world, is really special. I wanted to recapture that feeling I got from reading them and try to give it to today’s young readers, and I also wanted to write a book that would have been perfect for me at that age. I think, in some way, I’ve always felt a bit alone because of where I grew up, and books were always a place to belong.
Both novels feature sports—fencing and surfing—were those sports something that you were familiar with before you started writing or did you have to do research?
JPR: I’ve always loved swords and knights and vikings! I adored The Three Musketeers! Discovering Alexander Dumas was bi-racial inspired my love even more. But I did have to research fencing—my husband had fenced that helped. I researched on-line and in books. But visiting the Peter Westbrook Foundation in NYC was a revelation for then I discovered that fencing was about strategy not just flailing steel.
BC: I so wish I could surf, but the sad truth is I’d be too scared to even get on a board. I took years of swimming lessons as a kid, yet I’m still terrified of lakes and oceans, and wary of deep swimming pools. But I love to watch surfers on the rare occasion you find me at the beach, and surfing culture just seems so cool, so it was really fun to research.
February is Black History Month. Are there any authors/stories that you recommend readers visit not only this month but all year round? Jumping off of that, what do you recommend that readers read next after enjoying both Black Brother, Black Brother and The Only Black Girls In Town?
JPR: Ghost Boys is a perfect companion book for Black Brother, Black Brother. I also highly recommend my Louisiana Girls Trilogy: Ninth Ward, Sugar, and Bayou Magic. I recommend anything by Brandy Colbert, of course! I also love the Little Leaders books by Vashti Harrison, Finding Langston by Lisa Cline-Ransome, and Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
BC: I definitely recommend any of Jewell Parker Rhodes’ books, as well! Also, anything by Renée Watson and Rita Williams-Garcia, How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons, For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington, A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, and The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson.
About the Authors
Jewell Parker Rhodes is the acclaimed author of Ghost Boys, a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback editions, Ninth Ward, winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor, and Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Her additional novels for young readers include Towers Falling and Bayou Magic. She has also written many award-winning novels for adults. When she’s not writing, Jewell visits schools to talk about her books and teaches writing at Arizona State University. Jewell resides in Seattle, WA.
Brandy Colbert is the critically acclaimed author of YA novels including Stonewall Award-winner Little & Lion, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph, Pointe, Finding Yvonne, and the upcoming The Voting Booth. The Only Black Girls in Town is her middle-grade debut. Her short fiction and essays have been published in several critically acclaimed anthologies for young people. Born and raised in Springfield, Missouri, Brandy now lives and writes in Los Angeles.