Jewell Parker Rhodes on writing for young readers

For decades, I wrote for adults trying to become good enough to write for the most important audience in the world—youth.  I always try to affirm children’s resilience, strength, empathy, and intelligence.

Middle grade is especially challenging as youth make the passage from childhood to young adulthood. My own middle years were difficult. (Sometimes I think I’m “rewriting” my own history through characters inspired by today’s amazing youth.)  Most importantly, I’m providing diverse mirrors and a “safe place” for students to discuss critical issues about identity, social injustice, family, and friendship. Words are powerful; books open hearts and minds.

We live in tense, unsettling, and disruptive times.  Social equity issues, climate change, and the current spread of the coronavirus, in particular, affects us all. Youth are desperate to discuss conflicts and for opportunities to develop critical thinking skills and empathy. Characters become a conduit for them to explore ideas, feelings and, perhaps, more importantly, to discuss with classmates, teachers, and parents, ways to become empowered and make their future better and brighter.

Quintessentially, the image of a child curled up, reading a book, is powerful.  Even with the current social distancing, a book can change a child’s interior, alleviate loneliness, and expand their world.  Lanesha, in Ninth Ward, survives Hurricane Katrina affirms her future by saying, “I’ve been born to a new life. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.  I just know I’m going to be all right.” Even Jerome, an innocent black youth murdered because of racial bias in Ghost Boys, asks all of us to “Wake. Only the living can make the world better. Live and make it better.” And Déja, particularly relevant today, proclaims in Towers Falling, “I love my American home. We are a family—not perfect, not all the same, some rich, some poor, all kinds of religions and skin colors, some born in American, some immigrating here.” She asserts “people helping people [can] make [us] feel safe again.  Strong.”

In my newest novel, Black Brother, Black Brother, I explore how 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.  Ghost Boys addressed racial bias in our cities and towns. Black Brother, Black Brother addresses bias in schools, both public and private.

My characters, two brothers, Donte and Trey are inspired by my own experiences raising two bi-racial kids (one, light-skinned; the other, darker).  Because of skin color, my children have had very different experiences growing up in America. Skin color should not determine the ease with which one child is more fully embraced by society and the other is subject to racism. Like Donte and Trey in Black Brother, Black Brother, I want my children (all children) to be treated equally and none privileged because of skin tone. Ironically, today’s virus crisis demonstrates that the “human family” needs to be more inclusive and less divisive.
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 becomes a fencing champion. It’s hard for family to watch a loved one struggle–yet, allowing Donte’s struggle allows him to become heroic.

Ultimately, Donte reminds youth: “Be YOU.  Even if others can’t see you.” Self-esteem is built from within, built on the foundation of self-love and compassion for others. 

One day, middle grade students will be in charge of our world. (I can’t wait!)

In the meantime, I write to celebrate their intellectual and spiritual resourcefulness, and to remind them that they are unique and wonderful. A child + a book = soulful, positive change.