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Rescuing and Celebrating Black Women’s Voices, an interview with Nikki Grimes

Today we are thrilled to have Nikki Grimes join us for an interview about her wonderful new book LEGACY: WOMEN POETS OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE.

Tell us a little about the research you did to rescue and celebrate Black women’s voices from the Harlem Renaissance era.  Did you discover new-to-you poets?

NG: The research work for Legacy actually began with One Last Word

Those sources included a deep dive into Voices in the Poetic Tradition, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1996), for starters.  I raided my own library for collections by each poet, found others referenced online, found copies of previously published, as well as unpublished manuscripts by a few poets through the miracle of interlibrary loan and the able assistance of a librarian—what would we do without librarians?

I mentioned this research on social media, and someone suggested I take a look at Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance edited by Maureen Honey.  This valuable resource led me to a few new-to-me women poets like Esther Popel and Clarissa Scott Delaney who died young, and only published four poems in her career, but what poems they were! In all, I read maybe a dozen poetry collections, plus anthologies, and biographies, and searched out individual poems and poets online, as well.

I found the stories of these women as inspiring as their poetry, and I knew young readers would, as well.  I was grateful my publisher made ample space for longer than usual biographies of each poet.  These poets included women who were among the first African American women to earn PhDs. They were well-traveled educators, social activists, editors, librarians, and directors of cultural institutes at a time in the early in the 20th century when little was expected of Black people, women especially.  I wanted young readers to have models of what is possible.

Strong themes of self, community and the earth prevail throughout all the poems in this book, as well as the unsurprising thread of hope (that I think is always found in your writing). Did you see other common themes emerge?

NG: I think there was a real celebration of life, throughout, even in the midst of heartache, of pain.  These poems all ended in a place of “Yes!”

The obvious and perhaps reductive answer to this question is probably “racism and sexism,” but why do you think so many gifted Black women poets from this era are overlooked?  As you said in your book, many people can readily name men who are Harlem Renaissance poets, but not women.

NG: Women always fall out of the narrative, almost right before our eyes!  If we want women to be paid attention to, it usually requires a woman to lift them up.  That’s true in the sciences, the arts—name any arena.  And we have to lift women up again and again.  The poets I’ve brought to the fore were not first discovered by me.  They were discovered, or rediscovered, by the academics who edited some of the dense, annotated, special collections I used for my research.  But few middle graders, or even casual adult readers, will go looking for these women in academic tomes, or on library microfiche, or on the shelves of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  They will, however, pick up a beautifully illustrated collection of golden shovel poetry that highlights some of these women.  That’s my job.

I love the Golden Shovel format that you use here, and that you used in One Last Word. It helps create such a powerful connection between the source work and your own poems—they can be in conversation with each other and show ties to themes and feelings across the years.  What is it you like about this form and explain the form a bit to our readers.

NG: The Golden Shovel form in one in which you borrow a line or more from an existing poem, line those words up in the right margin, and then write new lines, each ending in one of the words from the original poem.  The new poem you write may be on the same theme, or it may be on an entirely different theme.  The choice is yours.

I love this form because it feels like literary sculpture.  The clay I start with are the few words I’ve borrowed from another poet.  I add in a few more words of my own, and start molding away.  I don’t quite know what the final image will be until it reveals itself.  It’s the not-knowing, the backwards puzzle-of-it-all that excites me.  With Golden Shovel poetry, anything seems possible!  Ten people could borrow the same line, the same handful of words and end up with entirely different poems, different messages, different points-of-view, each relating to the source poem in its own way.

In addition to your Golden Shovel poems in response to the original poems, the artwork is such a wonderful way to add dimension to the writing.  How did you pair artists with poems?

NG: I didn’t.  I worked on my dream list of artists, then we invited them to choose the poem that spoke to them.  The earlier an artist signed on, the more available poems she had to choose from.

This collection has certainly made me want to go seek out more of the works of these women.  Do you have favorite resources you discovered while researching to recommend (a great anthology, a fantastic website, etc.)?  What about recommendations of contemporary Black women poets?

NG: I already mentioned Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance edited by Maureen Honey.  That would be a great one to start with.  I also loved Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille T. Dungy, poetryfoundation.org is also a great place to search.  Two of my favorite Black women poets left the earth in the past few years, but their work is evergreen: Lucille Clifton and Mari Evans.  Other poets on my radar—not necessary for young readers, though—are Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Nikky Finney, Rita Dove and Toi Derricotte.  Really there are almost too many.  It’s a great problem!

I noted so many poems that stood out to me as I read and took notes but was particularly moved by Esther Popel’s “Flag Salute” and your “A Mother’s Lament.”  Do you have a favorite poem from this collection?

NG: Yes, “Flag Salute” got me, too!  It’s a powerful piece.  And I’m a sucker for Gwendolyn Bennett, so I love “Advice.”  But I think my favorite might be “Joy” by Clarissa Scott Delany which begins, “Joy shakes me like a wind that lifts a sail.”  She’s given us such a powerful, visceral, beautiful image—not of rage, or pain, or some dark emotion, but of joy!  I love that! 

What projects are you working on or are coming out soon? 

NG: The picture book Off to See the Sea, a bath time book, comes out a week after Legacy, and I have two nature-themed picture book projects in the works, and am gearing up for work on a new middle grade novel.  Never a dull moment!

Meet Nikki Grimes

Photo credit: Aaron Lemen

Nikki Grimes is a New York Times bestselling author and  the recipient of the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for  Children. Her distinguished works include Southwest Sunrise, illustrated by Wendell Minor; the Printz Honor and Sibert Honor book Ordinary Hazards; NAACP Image Award nominee  Planet Middle School; Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade; Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings, which was also named an ALA Notable Book; and What Is Goodbye?, an ALA Notable Book. She lives in Corona, California. www.nikkigrimes.com, Twitter: @nikkigrimes9

About Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

From Children’s Literature Legacy Award-winning author Nikki Grimes comes a feminist-forward new collection of poetry celebrating the little-known women poets of the Harlem Renaissance—paired with full-color, original art from today’s most talented female African-American illustrators.

For centuries, accomplished women—of all races—have fallen out of the historical records. The same is true for gifted, prolific, women poets of the Harlem Renaissance who are little known, especially as compared to their male counterparts. 

In this poetry collection, bestselling author Nikki Grimes uses “The Golden Shovel” poetic method to create wholly original poems based on the works of these groundbreaking women-and to introduce readers to their work. 

Each poem is paired with one-of-a-kind art from today’s most exciting female African-American illustrators, including: Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Cozbi Cabrera, Pat Cummings, Nina Crews, Laura Freeman, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Ebony Glenn, April Harrison, Ekua Holmes, Keisha Morrison, Daria Peoples-Riley, Andrea Pippins, Shadra Strickland, and Elizabeth Zunon.

Legacy also includes a foreword, an introduction to the history of the Harlem Renaissance, author’s note, and poet biographies, which make this a wonderful resource and a book to cherish.

ISBN-13: 9781681199443
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 01/05/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

#ReadForChange: Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Midnight at the Electric and climate change, a guest post by Marie Marquardt

ReadForChange copyTeen Librarian Toolbox is excited to be partnering with Marie Marquardt for her #ReadForChange project. Hop on over to this post to learn more about the initiative. Today, she and Jodi Lynn Anderson join us for a conversation about climate change and Anderson’s new novel, Midnight at the Electric. 



We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one less traveled by – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.

Rachael Carson, Silent Spring, 1962


A Smooth Superhighway that Ends in Disaster?

midnightJodi Lynn Anderson’s Midnight at the Electric begins with Adri, one of the story’s three teenage protagonists, climbing into her self-driving car and speeding north on a superhighway away, from Miami and toward Kansas. The year is 2065 and Miami has been submerged in seawater. Leaving her devastated city behind, Adri sets out for a brief stint in Kansas, where she will train to be a “colonist” before heading off to Mars.

In the hands of a less innovative author, this might be the setup for a futuristic science fiction novel that takes the reader to an imagined place far away from this planet. In the hands of Jodi Lynn Anderson, Adri’s escape from Miami sets up something entirely different. We might call it a love story to the planet earth, and to the relationships that we build on its particular landscapes.


Adri arrives in Kansas to live with a distant relative, the fabulous, flaky 107-year-old Lily, and Lily’s ancient Galapagos tortoise. When Adri sanctimoniously announces that Galapagos tortoises are endangered, and thus it’s illegal to have them as pets, Lily replies with her mischievous humor, “We should have her arrested.” Lily inherited the tortoise – she came along with the property. As Adri learns more about the history of this ancient creature, she begins to uncover the two stories that weave together with Adri’s to form Midnight at the Electric.


The first story is Catherine’s. Her diary entries bring readers into the devastation of living in Oklahoma’s dust bowl in the mid 1930s. Catherine’s sister is being slowly suffocated by dust in her lungs, and the farm they live on can no longer sustain the family. When a traveling show called the Electric comes through Catherine’s town, she’s lured into the promises made by its creator: “It is a time of upheaval and uncertainty. The world is changing beneath our feet. Death is around every corner. Fear and despair lurk in every house…. But it is possible to outrun it, to outstrip it, to outsmart it.”


Like Catherine, the story’s third protagonist, Lenore, lives in a world transfixed by the power of human technologies. Lenore, a young woman living in England at the end of World War I, grieves the death of her brother, a fallen British soldier, as everyone around her seems bent on hailing technologies of war and “progress” and celebrating the bravery of the dead and wounded men. In her wonderfully irreverent tone, Lenore writes to her friend Beth of her village: “If you toss a pebble in Forest Row, you’re going to hit a one-armed boy.” Through her letters to Beth, Lenore tells a beautiful and morally complicated story of her friendship with James, a man whose face is so disfigured that most instinctively turn away.


This week, I heard a disturbing report about mounting evidence that the U.S. federal government is systematically removing, in scientific studies, any reference to human causes of climate change (you can listen here).  This, of course, followed weeks of reporting about Facebook, and the unintended (I hope!) consequences that this technology has had on our political systems and our networks of relationship. I think our natural instinct, when faced with these stories, is either denial or guilt. Both are counterproductive and crippling. Midnight at the Electric, by framing these issues both in real history and in imagined future, offers us a way to enter more productively into discussion of humans’ influence on climate change, and of how technology inevitably changes the ways we relate to each other.


Lenore and Catherine give readers a chance to live in times that, like ours, were so enamored with technologies of “progress” that it was almost impossible to imagine the negative effects they would have on our planet and on our relationships (until it was too late).  Adri discovers, through the course of this story, that she doesn’t want to leave the earth and the loving relationship she has formed on it. But will she have to?


I guess that depends on us.


“Leveraging what you’re good at and what you love to do”: A Conversation with Jodi Lynn Anderson


jodiMARIE: Tell us about the moment when you knew that this story had to be written, and that you needed to be the one to write it.


JODI: My son had recently been born and I was feeling a bit delirious and dreamy. I wanted to write about climate change but what was really digging into my imagination was the Dust Bowl. I kept picturing this girl standing in a decimated yard in Kansas, but I didn’t know what to say about her, and it was only when I started to nestle the two ideas together that the book flamed to life in this magical way. The more I wrote, the more I recognized the parallels between the Dust Bowl and our current climate crisis– the same upheaval, the same denial and anger, the same fear. And I saw these women navigating it — I just fell in love with writing that story.


MARIE: What are some of the things you’re doing to create the world that you want future generations to live in?


JODI: I try to write about our capacity for doing harm without meaning to, that’s a big thing for me as a writer. I try to be a good listener and to call myself out and put my ego aside as much as I can —  I feel like  defensiveness and not wanting to admit what we’re doing wrong is at the root of so much terrible stuff. I try to trust that just because I don’t see an obvious result, it doesn’t mean my efforts – volunteering or donating or marching or calling whatever — aren’t feeding a current that points the right way.


MARIE: What’s your message for readers wanting to take action on climate change?


JODI: I think focusing locally can be rewarding in that often you get to see results. Local groups need so many divergent things that I think you can offer the best of who you already are. So maybe that means you pick a few things that are draining, like phone calls or whatever, but you find a group where you can spend the rest of your energy leveraging what you’re good at and what you love to do. I guess I’d say also, the big thing I always struggle with is not to turn away because what you’re doing feels so tiny. I think we can’t lose faith because what we do doesn’t make some obvious splash.


“Feeding a current that points in the right way”


Ready to learn more? Jodi recommends that a great starting place is Grist a nonprofit environmental news outlet with this fabulous tagline: “A planet that doesn’t burn, a future that doesn’t suck.”


Here’s a link to two podcasts that Jodi loves:

no placeNo Place Like Home: This is a great, conversational podcast covering different angles of climate change and culture, and offering examples of people taking positive, achievable steps to create a better future.





warm regardsWarm Regards: This one has some fascinating stuff untangling how climate change has become so political.





Jody also recommends From the Ashes, a documentary about the coal industry that she describes as “beautifully empathetic and smart.”


 “We can’t lose faith because what we do doesn’t make some obvious splash”


Ready to take action? Here’s Jodi’s description of a few movements and organizations that really excite her:


350.org uses all sorts tools and pressure points to shift our fossil fuel economy to renewable energy.”


earthjusticeEarthjustice focuses on our legal rights to sensible legislation on climate, working legal channels to combat political inaction.”




The Poor People’s Campaign is something intriguing and inspiring I learned about a few months ago – it addresses the intersection of poverty, racism, and environmental devastation through the idea of a moral movement.”


“I get excited to hear about faith-based climate action groups. Young Evangelicals for Climate ActionNC Interfaith Power & Light, and Wisconsin Green Muslims are a few examples. Also, state action initiatives seem really powerful to me. In North Carolina we have NC Warn, among others.”


“The book flamed to life in this magical way”

I’m so grateful to Jodi for writing this beautiful and stirring story. Reading it also felt magical, and it sparked my memories, emotions, and passions for change in ways I hadn’t expected.

In our interview, Jodi also brought up the importance of working for change by using our own gifts and doing the things that we love.  Other authors I’ve interviewed for the feature have talked about this too. I think it’s so important to celebrate that working for change doesn’t mean doing something grueling or miserable – it means embracing our gifts and finding ways to do the things we love as a way to become change agents. This takes creativity and vision, and that’s all a part of the fun.

Thank you, Jodi, for this reminder!


Midnight at the Electric is sure to ignite your passion to #ReadForChange!

Can’t wait to get your hands on MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC? It just might be your lucky day!  Here’s a link to the giveaway.  U.S. only! We’ll be announcing the winner on Twitter @MarieFMarquardt and Instagram marie_marquardt May 1!


Meet Marie Marquardt

Women’s March, January 21, 2017

Women’s March, January 21, 2017

Marie Marquardt is the author of three YA novels: The Radius of UsDream Things True, and Flight Season (available 2/20/18). A Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Marie also has published several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She is chair of El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families. She lives with her spouse, four kids, a dog and a bearded dragon in the book-lover’s mecca of Decatur, Georgia.

Book Review: Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation by Anthony & Annmarie Young

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of School Library Journal


youngredstarROBINSON, Anthony & Annemarie Young . Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation. photos by Anthony Robinson. 144p. chron. filmog. further reading. maps. websites. Interlink. Jul. 2017. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781566560153.

Gr 7 Up –A number of Palestinian kids and teens discuss their hopes and dreams and what it is like living in an occupied country. An introductory chapter explains the Occupied Territories, provides an overview of the history of the Palestinian land, and explores the impact of occupation on subjects such as human rights, citizenship, education, housing, land ownership, and the economy. The authors visited or held video conferences with participants from nine Palestinian cities and villages. Their meetings took place in schools, community centers, libraries, and homes. Robinson and Young devote a chapter to each city or village. Each chapter briefly examines the area’s geographic makeup, history, and location, then provides a transcript of the conversation. The kids speak about school, aspirations, family life, safety, and the difficulties of living in the Occupied Territories. Many answers are typical of young people anywhere, but most touch on the experience of living under occupation. In addition, excerpts from some of the young people’s writing are included. Photographs, maps, and art are interspersed throughout, enhancing the text. Beyond the initial information in each chapter, there is very little commentary from Robinson and Young; the voices of the Palestinian youths are what drive and shape this work. A time line of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is appended, as are references for films, websites, and books. VERDICT A straightforward, compelling, and eye-opening look at life in Palestine for all nonfiction collections.

The Pressure to be Perfect: Emily Franklin interviews H.A. Swain about her YA novel Gifted

giftedEF: In Gifted, you write about a future in which genius can be purchased by wealthy parents for their children. What was the inspiration behind this?


HS: Two things happened simultaneously in my life to inspire this premise: 1) My daughter was applying to public middle schools in Brooklyn and 2) I was recovering from a concussion. Those might sound completely unrelated, but here’s the thing… where we live, kids have to apply, audition, submit report cards and test scores, go through interviews, and rank schools just to get a seat in PUBLIC middle school. It’s bonkersville.


During that process, I bounced my head off a cement retaining wall in a snow tubing accident (yes, I did say snow tubing, so embarrassing). As I researched how to recover from a concussion, I came across stories of people with traumatic brain injuries that induce savant abilities. For example, one guy hit his head diving into a pool and woke from a coma as a musical genius.


With all the pressure and non-sense of the middle school process, I could imagine parents wanting to bonk their kids on the head to make them automatic geniuses and guarantee a good spot in middle school. That’s silly of course, but the idea was intriguing.


EF: Do you feel that you were addressing the mounting pressures facing today’s youth to be uber-talented and excel in a particular area?


HS: Absolutely! It’s so easy to fall into. Parents see so much potential we want to foster when our kids are small. Plus, as a culture we have a fascination with precociously talented children. (Think of all the reality TV talent shows about kids who can sing opera or play violin or bake cakes like talented adults.) That pressure can make regular kids feel like sad-sack losers if they aren’t stellar at something when they’re really young.


In our eagerness to find what’s “special” and “amazing” about each unique individual, we run the risk of creating anxiety in kids who are trying to live up to impossible expectations. I worry that we lose sight that it’s good for kids to try lots of things, fail at some, excel at others, but mostly learn to work hard in order to be proficient at something they truly enjoy.


EF: Orpheus’s mother is a former pop star and his father is a successful music executive who expect Orpheus to carry on the family legacy. By contrast, Zimri is a “plebe” warehouse worker and natural-born musical genius whose grandmother is deeply opposed to her making music. What commentary are you making in Gifted about parental figures trying to control the future of their teens?


HS: My favorite parenting advice came from the director of my children’s pre-school who says, “Your job as a parent is to allow your children to become who they are.” Orpheus’s parents and Zimri’s grandmother do not subscribe to this idea.


Orpheus is expected to have a musical Acquired Savant Ability surgery in order to carry on the family reputation and preserve their wealth. (This is the futuristic equivalent of a parent dictating what university a child should go to and which careers are acceptable.) But Orpheus sees how his friends’ induced savant abilities are commoditized for money and fame that don’t necessarily bring them happiness.


On the other hand, Zimri is from the “plebe” class who have little education or opportunity beyond warehouse work. Her grandmother’s fears about Zimri utilizing her musical abilities are not unfounded. The stakes are very high. If Zimri gets caught making illegal music in this world she could be put in prison, or worse, have her brain scrubbed for infringing on strict copyright laws. (This set up is an exaggerated version of discouraging children from pursuing a talent or dream for fear they won’t make a decent living.) For Zimri, being denied the right to make music means she has to suppress a fundamental part of who she is and that makes her deeply unhappy.


As parents, we should be along for the ride, offering support and advice, while letting kids find their own path in life, which is a vital (and exciting) part of becoming an adult.


EF: Beneath all the science and tech of this futuristic society, Gifted is an old-fashioned story of star-crossed lovers. Why was it important for Orpheus and Zimri to come together in this book?


HS: When I’m writing, I love thinking about that moment in life when young people are beginning to pull away from their families to create their own tribes based on common interests and experiences. It’s such an important part of development. As people rely more on social media to find one another, I think we forget that sometimes teens greatly benefit from crossing boundaries (physical or metaphorical) in order to find like-minded people.


Orpheus and Zimri have to overcome many obstacles (he’s a privy, she’s a plebe; he’s posing as someone he’s not, she’s in a relationship with someone else; plus Orpheus’s father will do anything to keep them apart), but somehow they find one another and discover commonality in their passion for music. They’re kindred spirits—just kindred spirits in a fantastical futuristic world with flying cars and delivery drones and brain scrub technology!


hungryEF: Grandmothers play significant roles in both your futuristic YA novels, Hungry and Gifted. Why is the older generation important to your work?


I write about the future in order to see the present more clearly; but in order to contextualize the future, you have to dig into the past. This is true when writing about society and also when thinking about our personal lives. Understanding where you come from helps you figure out where you’re going. As parents, we need to help our teens see themselves as part of concentric circles of communities (family, school, neighborhood, cultural groups, etc.) that have meaningful histories. Grandparents are in a unique position to offer perspective about the past while being an additional source of support as teens forge ahead into their futures.


In our world, where young people feel pressure to be super stars, supporting teens to take their time to find a passion (and the people who share it) goes a long way toward fostering a healthy, happy transition into adulthood.


About Gifted (Feiwel & Friends, 2016)

An entitled boy whose talents are bought meets a girl whose gifts are natural in this futuristic thriller from H.A. Swain, the author of Hungry. In Orpheus Chanson’s world, geniuses and prodigies are no longer born or honed through hard work. Instead, procedures to induce Acquired Savant Abilities (ASAs) are now purchased by the privileged. And Orpheus’s father holds the copyright to the ASA procedure. Zimri Robinson, a natural musical prodigy, is a”plebe”—a worker at the enormous warehouse that supplies an on-line marketplace that has supplanted all commerce. However, her grueling schedule and her grandmother’s illness can’t keep her from making music—even if it is illegal. Orpheus and Zimri are not supposed to meet. He is meant for greatness; she is not. But sometimes, rules are meant to be broken.Gifted by H.A. Swain is a thriller, love story, and social experiment that readers will find gripping—and terrifying.


autor-close-upH.A. Swain writes books for children and teens. She is the author of the young adult novels Gifted and Hungry. Her illustrated children’s book, All Kinds of Kisses and How Many Hugs will be published in 2016 and 2017. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her@HeatherASwain or stop by her Facebook fan page to say Hi!


Credit: Lou Rouse

Credit: Lou Rouse

Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac. She is also the author of sixteen young adult books including Last Night at the Circle Cinema, selected by the American Association of Jewish Libraries as a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for 2016, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and an ALAN Pick. Her work has been featured on National Public Radio and in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and in numerous literary magazines. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and four children and is at work completing a new novel and another story collection.

An Interview with Patrick Jones by guest blogger Jessi Schulte-Honstad

Written by Jessi Schulte-Honstad, Young Adult Services Supervisor for Skokie Public Library, Skokie IL.


patrick jonesIn Patrick Jones’ current book series, Locked Out and Support and Defend he looks at the effects of losing a parent to the justice system and military service. Written specifically with reluctant readers in mind, Jones works hard to portray the lives of underrepresented youth in ways that are easily accessible and appealing to all readers. This is important stuff; with an estimated 2.7 million children in the United States who have an incarcerated parent, and 900,000 children who have at least one active duty or deployed parent, the issue of missing a parent in adolescence is a huge one.


Patrick and I go way back, we used to booktalk at county correctional facilities for incarcerated youth- some of the highlights of my library career! The kids in the juvenile detention system are eager for outside entertainment, and librarians are treated as celebrities presenting in front of a group of remarkably passionate readers. However, you couldn’t help but be haunted by the things you learned there, and challenged by the dearth of relatable material for them. Jones tackles these stories from firsthand experience; during his time as a librarian serving patrons in detention centers and speaking with military families, he has learned much about the effects that these kinds of losses have on teens- whose futures are on the line.


returning to normalReturning To Normal

Xavier’s father is finally coming home from prison, after ten long years. The timing couldn’t be worse- he’s doing great on his baseball team and there is talk of him going pro someday. His Catholic school girlfriend Jennie is amazing. He’s squeaking by in his classes and excited for the future.  When his father comes home, and starts back into the business that landed him in jail in the first place, tempers flare. Xavier has to control himself if he wants to succeed, but with his history, is that possible? Jones tells a heartbreaking tale of anger and resentment that rings all too true for the kids whose parents have been locked up. They are locked out.



Always Faithful always faithful

Rosie has perfect grades, the perfect boyfriend, and in the years since her military father has come home, she has had a complete family that cares for her. But trouble brews between her father and brother, who is also home from the military. Her father doesn’t want to drift through life as the manager of a fast food chain or retail store, so instead he re-enlists and shakes Rosie’s perfect life apart. Seething with anger, Rosie sabotages herself in every way possible. She puts her own future at risk, because she can’t accept her father’s. A truthful portrayal of the bad choices we make when stressed and scared, Always Faithful is the story of one military family and the struggle to succeed when your parents choose to leave you behind.


How did your library career inform your work as writer?

Other than publishing in a pro wrestling newsletter when I was 8, my first “real” publishing was because of my library career, starting with an article in RQ magazine in 1986 through my last one (so far) in VOYA in 2009 (interview with Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.) So I learned first by writing articles, then professional books a great deal about the business of writing/working with editors, as well as gaining confidence.  I never would’ve read a YA book if I hadn’t done YA work in a library.  Many of the teen characters in my first six novels from Bloomsbury were inspired by teens I meet working in libraries, in particular while visiting school doing booktalks and other YA work. Also, and I’ll talk more about this later, the idea of youth involvement stems from my YA work. Simply, if I was working in a factory in Flint, I wouldn’t have written these books.  Finally, being active in the YA professional world helps me understand what books kids want, don’t want, what is missing from the market and what stories are likely to succeed.


head kickWhy reluctant readers?

To begin with, I am one and except for a brief “spurt” in my 20’s when I didn’t have a TV, I’m a reluctant reader except about those topics which really interest me in non-fiction.   So when there is a new pro wrestling biography, I will read it over the weekend. Or if I get fascinated with something, then I’ll read everything on that topic: but that is more reading for purpose than pleasure. When I booktalked, I did do lots of reading, but a great deal of that was on audio.  Also I served on YALSA’s Quick Picks for four years and loved it, so it was very cool when my first novel Things Change made that list, and then later when all four titles from my first reluctant reader series (The Dojo) made the list as well.  Finally, in my old day work I worked with kids in custody and so many of them were struggling readers for so many reasons, but in part because they didn’t see themselves in books and/or they’d failed so many times trying to read in past that they associated any book with failure.  I wanted to write books that let these kids succeed.


Why these topics? target

I did my first series about Mixed Martial Arts because there wasn’t any YA novel out there about the topic, plus it contains a lot of scenes of people punching each other in the face, which seems a theme in my work. The Alternative comes from my great experiences first as a librarian then as an author visiting schools in this type of environment.  Students in an alternative school had some major influence on that series.  First I put together a list of 20 possible books and they voted what topics they were most interested in, and then small groups of students volunteered (though they did get extra credit and I bought them lunch) to read the books in manuscript. Mostly they said I got it right – both the experience of being in an alternative school but also some of their experiences being kids of color/in the minority.   One of the books in that series (Target) was about parental incarceration, so that inspired along with the Strengthening. Families Affected by Incarceration project this new series Locked Out.  Also many of the kids in custody and in alternative schools are more likely to have a parent who is/or has been locked up, so again, it was writing about topics for the audience that I want to appeal to: young men of color who need books they can succeed in reading.


How can you – a white guy – dare write in first person as an African American female?

I started a blog called Monday Night RAWing (Reading Advocating/Writing) and I just posted an interview with Paul Volponi and another with Paul Langan who writes Bluford High answering this very question. I also ask this question to writers of color, like Greg Neri, giving me their take.  The female part I’ve done before in my Bloomsbury books, but writing about somewhat from a different ethnic background is challenging and I admit to bracing for the blows and there have been several. Like the one blog “review” that begins “Jones, who is white” while another told me I wasn’t aware of my white privilege. Thanks for the info. I was serving all these kids in corrections, 80% kids of color (I actually have a nonfiction book spring 2016 about the big changes in youth in custody, so while we’re locking up a lot less kids than ever before, the DMC disproportionate minority contact remains appalling) and so few books. I add an extra layer of protection in that I have kids of color at various alternative schools where I visit read the books in manuscript, but again, to bloggers that doesn’t matter because – it comes down to a core belief – I shouldn’t be writing a book in 1st person about a black girl in poverty.  And of all the things wrong with that, the worst is this: you’re saying to Coe Booth, you can’t write about anyone BUT black kids in Brooklyn.  Write, research, and respect, rinse, repeat.


barrierWhile you’re no longer the “YA guru” guy, what is your opinion of YA?

I mainly know what I see on YALSA-BK and the coolest things non technology-related are the growth of the Teen Book Festivals.   I’ve done three this year, just recently one in the Twin Cities, and it is just amazing to see that many teens in one place excited about reading.  Second, is the growth of programming around Cos Play:  not what is not true of even most of these kids, I think, this attracts outsider kids (I have my outsider character in The Barrier attend a Manga convention.) Finally, I still see lots of YA librarian jobs posted, so it seems the field is doing fine with tons of great stuff coming from YALSA.



What do you think are some of the challenges facing young adults today and how do you think your books can help resolve them?

It is such a cliché but as connected as teens are via social media, I wonder if it all isn’t very anti-social.   When I hear from teens, not as much as I used to since kids who read reluctant reader books are not the kind to reach out to authors, that’s the big theme: feeling alone.  One of the other inspirations for the Locked Out series was a nonfiction title about children of incarcerated parents called All Alone in The World.  In my soon to be published novel Clicked, the main character is in front of his computer on homecoming night and he comments about watching all these other people post – and to him brag – about how much fun they are having which makes him feel worse.  But the main thing most of my books are about is second chances:  kids in The Alternative go to Rondo because they’ve failed in a regular school.  In Locked Out, these teens feel such a complex web of emotions and because of it most of them make mistakes.  And I guess the big thing, like a teen who read Target, is he said something like “how do you know so much about me” because his Dad just went to prison and told me that I (pun intended) Nailed it.  I have always said and probably wrote someplace, the best YA lit isn’t that which paints the prettiest pictures, but displays the best mirrors.  I hope teens reading my books see themselves in the story and know they’re not alone in the world.


things changeDo you hear from your readers much? What do they have to say?

Not as much as before, as mentioned, and most of my interaction tends to be in small groups during school visits.  One of my favorite things during school visits is to ask the teacher librarian to organize a lunch with the kids who want to be writers so we can talk craft.   Also as mentioned, I hear from readers as I’m writing.  A teen I met in Keller, TX, just finished reading three books in spring 2016 series and her comments were very helpful.   For about five years after Things Change came out it was rare that a month would pass without an “I am Johanna” or “I think my friend needs to read this because her boyfriend is hitting her” email. That’s so powerful to know that something I’ve written sitting in my house or in a hotel airplane made a difference in people’s lives.  With my reluctant reader fiction, I actually hear more from parents and teachers thanking me for writing something their child (always a son) actually enjoyed reading.


Other than collection, what other ways can libraries better serve your readers?

Three things:  get every kid a library card.  I wrote a whole book on this and I still believe it.  And also waive fines from over x number of years.  We got cards for kids getting out of custody and I’d say 75% hadn’t checked out a book in years because of fines when they are eight.  Two, get out of the building: the teens who NEED libraries are, for the most part, not in libraries.  I talked about this recently on a YALSA podcast, but it is not just teens in custody: it is teens in alternative schools, charter schools, homeless shelters, halfway houses, Boys Clubs, juvenile justice diversion programs: all these high risk kids libraries librarians could help but instead (major rant) we’re sitting at a reference desk like it was 1975 waiting for teens to come ask us questions. Finally, buy library materials these kids can read.  My fear is again our collections over-represent the teens who USED to use libraries, not those we want to and need to get libraries in their lives.  End rant.


Find Patrick Jones online on his website, blog (Monday Night RAWing), and Twitter