- Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. Why did you focus on writing books with an urban setting featuring youth of color?
I am one of those people who always was a writer. In middle school, in high school, in college and beyond, I always wrote, wrote, wrote. The fact that I turned it into a career is the [happily] surprising part. Yet, if they stopped paying me for my stories I would still cook them up. It’s not a want as much as it is a need for me. Truth is I think I’d go loony without this vehicle to let all the voices in my head get out.
As far as why I focused on an urban setting, well, it doesn’t take a therapist to see that I am reliving my own youth in many ways. I had a hardscrabble teenage life filled with lots of things and goings on that characterized growing up on the “other side of the tracks”. To me, the pain of financial trouble, emotional instability, crazy highs and swooping lows feels normal. In a way so many of my books are gritty because when I was a kid, that’s what life was for me. And fans of my books often are readers who see their own lives reflected on the pages in front of them. Maybe not in the exact circumstances, but they can relate to the emotional aspect of these tales. As far as featuring “youths of color” (as you put it) when I was a kid, I went to a school where whites were in the minority so lots and lots of my friends were “youths of color”. Of course I knew we were different but I also knew we were, in many more ways the same.
That’s why it’s really not an issue for me. People are human and kids are kids before they are “youths of color”. I learned that on the front lines.
2. Your books, starting with The Hoopster, are popular for lots of reasons, but in particular often with kids who can’t or won’t read other books. Like me, I know you speak at conferences about how to connect these kids with books, so give me the short version: in your opinion, what are the elements of a successful book for reluctant teen readers?
To really draw teens in I work hard on grabbing them by their reading jugular right out of the gate. Pick up any of my books, from HOMEBOYZ to CAGED WARRIOR to NOBLE WARRIOR, and so on, and you’ll see that the action starts on page one, blasts the reader in the face by page two, and from that point on they better strap in and get ready for a ride.
In many of my books, I pull no punches. Then again, in many kids’ lives these days, the world is not holding back either. My books reflect that reality – especially for “urban” kids – and provide a sense of hope for them that no matter how nutty things gets, there is always a way out for people who choose the high road.
Of course, all well-told tales have ups-and-downs, moments of intense action and other times where the pace slows so the readers can catch their breath and look more deeply into the interior world of the characters, but I definitely write the books that I myself wanted to read as a teen. That means gritty, intense, funny, exciting and provocative. At the end of the day, my opinion is that teens are finicky – rightfully so – which means that authors have to craft stories that come from a deep and meaningful space inside of themselves. Not all kids will relate but the ones that do really do. Those are the ones I target.
3. You are a former classroom teacher and I know still spend lots of times in classrooms doing school visits. Why should librarians and teachers invite authors to their schools? What do you get out of it? What do the kids get out of it? Why is this such a win win?
When I was a kid in school, I thought all authors were dead. Now of course, things have changed and kids today know that many of their favorite authors are not only alive but can be easily reached through social media and the such. However, the truth remains that an author visit has some sort of magic rocket sauce in a bottle that awakens kids’ interests in reading unlike almost any other tool out there to get kids excited about books and literacy.
I’ve seen it hundreds of times. And so have many of the writers with whom I am friends. Behind the scenes we all talk about how it’s not only a great treat for us to interact with the fans who keep us in print but also we speak about how amazing it is that we can be the ones who help trigger a tipping point for young people.
Teachers and librarians do so much of the hard work on the front lines to manifest author visits and, as we all know, pulling off these feats is not the easiest thing in the world to do by any stretch, but, once an author hits campus, speaks to students, signs some books, poses for some pictures and so on, it’s just amazing how it leaves a hunger to read in students who never really showed much of a proclivity for reading prior to the author’s arrival on campus.
Personally, I love doing author visits and find them to be exceptionally well received. As for their value, it appears self-evident.
4. Okay, the big question: so I reluctantly read a blog review of Outburst in my The Alternative series. This book tells the story of an African American teenage girl coming out of detention and going into a foster home. The review began with “Jones, who is white …” and I wished I would have stopped reading there. Have you faced this being a white male writing stories for and about kids of color? Most everybody seems to be onboard with we need diverse books, but not if those books are not written by people of color. What are our thoughts on this issue?
This is an issue that is really not a big issue for me at all because, as an author, before my characters are people of a certain race they are first and foremost human beings – at least as far as a fictional characters go. Their inner humanity is the Archimedean point from which I build them… and not their skin color. The characters in my book struggle, they fight, they laugh, they dream, they love, they hurt and so on. No one racial group owns a monopoly on any of those emotions and reading, if it is anything, it is an emotional experience.
Of course this doesn’t mean that I am not sensitive to the voices who argue that that literacy across the world would be better served if more books were written by people of color but I don’t have any ability to control any of that. All I can do is be the best author I can be.
5. What are you working out now? Can we expect more books like Caged Warrior about people punching each other in the face (although stay out of Detroit, that’s my turf. If not, we’ll have to settle in the cage!)? So what is coming up in the next round?
CAGED WARRIOR has received some of the best reviews of my career. I am very proud of the book, readers have been lavish with their praise, teachers who struggle to find good materials that can engage their disengaged teens – particularly boys – have raved so all in all, the project has been really wonderful. MMA is a tremendous sport and the battles in the cage mirroring the battles inside McCutcheon’s soul made for an excellent arena.
Of course, CAGED WARRIOR also ends on a huge cliffhanger but the good news is that in July 2015, NOBLE WARRIOR, the second book in the series, hits the shelves. It’s just as raw and gritty as the first, too. And yes, Detroit is back in the mix.
Here’s a quick summary:
After placing teenage mixed martial arts phenom McCutcheon Daniels and his mother and sister in the Witness Relocation Program,the FBI comes to realize they have a unique asset on their hands. Recruited to help the FBI, McCutcheon finds himself hunting bad guys. But when he discovers that the notorious Priests have targeted Kaitlyn-the girl he loves and was forced to leave behind-as a way to seek revenge on the Daniels family, MD convinces the FBI to send him right into the belly of the beast: Jenkells State Penitentiary where the mob boss of Detroit is serving time. Yet in his universe where up is down, McCutcheon ends up disavowed by the government and left to rot in one of America’s most notorious prisons. It’s there here connects with his father and discovers the truth about his circumstances. McCutcheon, a trained urban warrior, escapes and sets out for revenge on those who betrayed him and his family.