RAWing with Greg Neri answering the five questions of doom
1. So you’ve written graphic novels, picture books, and middle grade fiction. Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. What is it that draws you to tell the story of teens, in particular young men of color like Kalvin in Knock Out Games?
If I could talk to myself in 1995 and show what I’m doing today, that version of myself would think I was crazy. Writing was never something I thought I would do or even could do. It all came about by accident. I was a filmmaker, who was setting up another project called Yummy as a movie. But every time it was about to go, something felt off. It had to do with the why. Why tell this story? And to who? Working with kids in South Central, especially gangbangers who were getting sucked in at very young ages, I realized they were the ones who needed this story and movies felt like the wrong medium. I stumbled on the idea of doing it as a comic because when I was 10, I hated to read, but loved comics– and these kids were the same. Yummy taught me how to tell a story in book form and that lead to another book, Chess Rumble. Stories came easy to me in this way and I felt it was better than filmmaking because I had total control and could work quickly without big budgets and loads of people to depend on. And for some reason, I felt very comfortable writing in the voices of these urban kids. It came naturally and the stories flowed. The evolution of my books was not planned but they just came along, inspired by the real places and people I encountered in life. I haven’t looked back.
2. I teach young adult literature at local university and use Yummy as one of the required texts. One of the discussion questions in the class is which of the texts in the course would be best to teach in a secondary school urban classroom. About half the students say they would teach Yummy, the other think it is too raw. Given your motto “teen fiction for the real world”, what would you say to my students who would shy away from teaching Yummy?
In all the middle schools that I’ve visited around the country, I have never encountered a problem with teachers or librarians using this book. In urban schools, even 5th and 6th graders use it. It has been universally praised and has had a huge impact everywhere I go. It is the most popular book of mine for reluctant and no-readers, especially boys. I would never hesitate to use it as a text, as it gives insight into the gang culture and why young people get sucked into those worlds. It is valuable even to white suburban schools because it allows the reader to walk in the footsteps of the main character, allows students to empathize with them and see them as human beings that can’t be written off easily, as “oh, I would never do something like that.” It humanizes the headlines so anyone can see that they are not so different and that, given those circumstances, they might do the same thing Yummy did. All races of kids have responded the same, because the story is not a ghetto story but a human one.
3. You write about high interest topics and also have an easy to read style. Many of your books are also short! Thus, your books are often picked up by reluctant readers. What feedback do you get from readers? I would imagine you hear a lot of “I never finished a book before” until I read … stories.
Amazing feedback. So many kids who have never read a book before, read one of mine and it opened a door to reading for them. I consider my books to be gateway stories that lead to all kinds of opportunities. Here’s a prime example: http://www.slj.com/2014/04/industry-news/how-author-g-neri-and-librarian-kimberly-defusco-changed-a-life/ but I see and hear about kids like Raequon literally every place I go. I am also told by librarians all over the country that my books are the most stolen from their libraries but that the books are then passed around like secret currency on the sly. The letters and emails I get are enough to keep me writing forever.
4. Last year the #we need diverse books movement kicked into high gear and interest in a more diverse body of literature for and about diverse populations, in particular kids of color. What do you think are some of the barriers to making YA more diverse? Also what is your take on white authors writing books about young people of color? Yes? No? Maybe?
I don’t care what color you are as long as the writing is honest and real. Alan Sitomer may look as white and suburban as you can get, yet he is able to beautifully capture the urban world of black and Hispanic teens. The biggest challenge is to get the publishers and bookstores to see the financial upside of writing for what will soon be the majority of teens instead just pushing the white stories we have. And for authors to write wider and in different genres with characters of color. There are some really interested writers and editors playing with these boundaries and I look forward to seeing what comes of it. Publishers are coming around but bookstores are still a big problem in stocking these books.
5. And now in this corner, Blatant Self Promotion: tell us about what just came out and if you care to confess, what you are working on now?
My last two books were my YA novel Knockout Games and a free verse picture book bio Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, which both came out early last fall. As for what’s coming up, I’ve just finished 3 projects: a MG novel about the childhood friendship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote, set as a southern gothic mystery in the Jim Crow era (and is also the true story behind To Kill a Mockingbird). I have a graphic novel that’s about my cousin Gail, who’s kind of a modern day outlaw who stole a thoroughbred horse on Christmas eve to save its life and went on the run. She sacrificed everything to save that horse, took on the horse racing industry and ended up representing herself in a case that went all the way to the California Supreme court. The 3rd book is a free verse picture book like the Johnny Cash book, but its subject is top secret at the moment!