Jess Mowry was born to an African American father, and a
Caucasian mother. When he was only a few months old, his mother abandoned
him. His father took Jess to Oakland, California where he supported himself
and his son by working as a crane operator, truck driver, and scrap metal
salvager. Jess's father was a voracious reader who introduced his son to
books at a very early age. Jess attended public school but despite his love
of reading was not an above-average student. He dropped out of school at age
thirteen, part way through the eighth grade. After leaving school, Mowry
worked with his father in the scrap-iron business, and in his late teens
moved to Arizona to work as a truck driver and heavy equipment operator. He
also lived and worked in Alaska as an engineer aboard a tugboat and as an
aircraft mechanic on Douglas C-47 cargo planes.
Returning to Oakland in the early 1980s, Jess began working with kids at a youth center, reading to them and often making up stories because there were very few books that innercity youth could relate to. Later he began to write stories. In 1988, Jess sent one of his stories to Howard Junker, editor of Zyzzyva magazine in San Francisco. Junker rejected the tale but asked to see more work, and published the second story Jess sent. Mowry bought a 1923 Underwood typewriter for eight dollars and within a year his work was appearing in literary magazines in the United States and abroad.
In 1990, Mowry's first collection of stories, Rats in the Trees, won a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. Rats in the Trees was also published in the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. In 1991, Mowry's first novel, Children Of The Night, was published by Holloway House in Los Angeles. In 1992, his second novel, Way Past Cool, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux of New York. Way Past Cool was also published in the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Japan. Way Past Cool was optioned for a film, for which Mowry co-wrote the screenplay. The film, Way Past Cool, was produced by Redeemable Features in 2000 with director Adam Davidson and executive producers Norman Lear and Milos Forman. Other novels followed, including Six Out Seven, Babylon Boyz, Bones Become Flowers, Skeleton Key, Phat Acceptance and Voodu Dawgz.
Mowry's characters and settings range from gun-toting gang kids in Oakland to young Voodoo apprentices in New Orleans' French Quarter, to teenage airplane pilots and child-soldiers in Africa. As Mowry's puts it: "Almost all my stories and books are for and about black kids who are not always cute and cuddly. My characters often spit, sweat and swear, as well as occasionally smoke or drink. Just like their real-world counterparts, some are 'overweight,' may look 'too black,' or are otherwise unacceptable by superficial American values. Like on-the-real kids, they often live in dirty and violent environments, and are forced into sometimes unpleasant lifestyles."
Jess Mowry emerged during the mid- 1990s as one of America's most original and important--yet relatively unheralded black writers. His low profile is as much a matter of personal preference as of any lack of merit or of public interest in his writing. Mowry has declined to take the easy way, refusing to be seduced by fame or money into writing the kind of black ghetto fiction that mainstream publishers seem to want. Instead, Mowry remains socially committed and aware; he prefers doing things his way as he works to improve the lives and self-image of black street kids.
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Paperback: 310 pages
Publisher: Blue Works (March 1, 2007)
Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
It seems as if many writers have one book in their lives for which they are remembered more than for any others, even though these may not have been their best books -- at least in the authors' opinions -- or the books they might have wanted to be remembered for.
For Ralph Ellison that book is unquestionably Invisible Man. For John Steinbeck it's probably The Grapes Of Wrath, and for Herman Hesse probably Steppenwolf.
I would never claim to be in the same league with these three great writers, but it seems that for me the book I will probably remembered for writing (assuming I'm remembered at all) is Way Past Cool.
It seems ironic that a book I wrote in about three months should have been so universally well-received; but there's a saying that most writers aren't good judges of their own work.
Just as musicians or actors may have one song or film that becomes their trademark, and perhaps even their identity as far as the general public is concerned, there is often one book by which an author is judged... a work that may cast a living author into a role that he or she is expected to play for the rest of their lives.
This can be a blessing if a writer is happy with that role and doesn't wish to mature, experiment, and/or grow as an artist. Or, it can be a curse if the writer wants to expand his or her horizions.
For a black writer, being cast into a role, as well as his or her own willingness -- or unwillingness -- to play it, can often be the deciding factor in whether that writer will even continue to have a career.
When I first began writing to be published, it was my hope to write many different kinds of Black books. You have only to check out the shelves of any black bookstore -- or the African-American Section of other stores -- to see that the largest category of black books are non-fiction. If I had only one word to describe the selection of black books in most stores, I would say "dry".
Most of these works deal with black history, slavery, apartheid, the Black Diaspora, modern-day racial issues, and things of this type. Such books are good and necessary, of course, but there seems to be far too many of these kinds of books that basically say the same things.
Over and over again.
As to black fiction, you will see that black women writers easily outnumber black male writers at least ten-to-one; and the most-used themes are either of the young girl growing up in the South, or in some poor Northern neighborhood, or that of the intelligent and loving black woman who can't find a "decent" black man... often clones of Terry McMillian's first books.
However, one will find relatively few works of fiction written by or for black males -- especially for young black males -- and almost none that I would describe as being "just stories"... few books about black men being ship captains, airplane pilots, or even truck drivers. The genre often described as "adventure fiction" today or "adventure stories for boys" in the past, is almost totally absent from black literature. As a result, what sort of people do young black males have for role-models? What kind of male figures do they have to nurture their dreams and imaginations? Mostly sports and music figures. And, of course, gangstuhs, thugs and hustlers.
If there's a black Harry Potter or Indiana Jones, I have yet to meet him in a book.
Anyone who denies this obviously has either not researched the subject, or is seeing the world through white-colored glasses.
There are several reasons for this gap in Black Literature -- this dearth of "just stories" that young black males might relate to on other levels besides sports, music, innercity and gang-life -- and the fault cannot be entirely attributed to the greed, ignorance, and racism of the mainstream publishing industry. In fact, I would lay more of the blame upon black publishers for producing mostly "scholarly works" and non-fiction to "uplift the race", while ignoring the simple fact that no one will read scholarly works unless he or she develops an interest in reading in the first place! And usually at a very young age.
In my experience, many black publishers, as well as members of the so-called Black Intelligensia (which sometimes seems like a contridiction in terms) appear to feel that reading fiction, even black fiction, is a waste of time for young black people. The attitude seems to be that young black people should read only black history and "essential literature".
This is nonsense. In fact, it is far worse than nonsense. It amounts to turning one's back on the needs of black youth, and especially the needs of young black males.
Of course our young people should know their history and be aware of racism on all levels, as well as having a knowledge of social issues in the world around them: but they must also be entertained in positive ways, offered something to read that is not (at least not obviously) a lesson or a textbook, and be offered role-models and dreams beyond the sports arena, recording studio, innercity... and yes, even beyond the hallowed halls of black academia.
I think it's accurate to say that there are many young black males who don't even realize that they could be ship captains, airplane pilots, or truck drivers for the simple reason that they've never been shown -- either in movies, on TV, or in books -- that they could indeed be any of these things, and a lot more besides. But, again, most black publishers, no doubt with the best of intentions, are not publishing much fiction for and about black males... and almost none that is "just stories."
Compounding this problem is the fact that white mainstream publishers will not publish black books that don't fit into their preconceived notions and stereotypical images of how young black people -- especially young black males -- "should" act, aspire to, or even dream about. And too many white publishers feel that white people don't want to read books in which the characters just happen to be black but who are not drug-dealers, pimps, prisoners, or gangstuhs.
This is also nonsense -- most people of any color like reading good stories about interesting characters -- but this racist misconception is glaringly apparent in the genre of young-adult literature; and is probably a very good reason why so many young black people don't want to read. There is simply nothing to read... unless they wish to read about sports or innercity life.
I suggest that instead of listening to white publishers (as well as more than a few publishers of color) pat themselves on the backs and point out how many "black books" they publish every year, one should take a good hard look at what kinds of books those actually are.
As with all my books and stories, Way Past Cool was written about a certain group of people -- in this case West Oakland kids in the early 1990s. Way Past Cool was only one story and was never intended to to be an example of how all black kids -- or even all black innercity kids -- live and behave. The story is about two groups of 11 to 14-year-old boys who are tricked into fighting one another by a local drug-dealer who wants to move into their neighborhood. It was first published in the U.S. in 1992, in hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and hit the shelves about two weeks before the Rodney King rebellion... and I would be the first to admit that didn't hurt its sales.
The book went into several hardcover reprints with FSG, and was also published in France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Holland and Japan.
It was also optioned three times for a film, and was finally produced in the Fall of 1997, a production for which I co-wrote the screenplay. Check the Way Past Cool film page on this site.
There has also been a stage version of Way Past Cool written and musically-scored, but which has not yet been produced.
Way Past Cool, then, has been both a blessing and a curse to me -- a blessing in that I was able to tell the truth and to show the world a view of how the U.S. treats these children -- but a curse in that I seem to be expected by mainstream publishers to write this kind of ghetto fiction for the rest of my life. And they don't want to publish anything of mine that doesn't deal with "guns, gangs, drugs and violence".
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Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 218 pages
Publisher: Blue Works; 1st edition (August 1, 2007)
Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 5.2 x 0.4 inches
Thirteen-year-old Jarett Ross has been no more than a ghost for months, crying alone in the darkness where no one can hear him. A drug-dealer put the moves on his mom, got her addicted to heroin, and now rules their small apartment in a rotting Victorian house. Jarett's only refuge from the man's brutality has been his tiny room, its door locked by a skeleton key, Then, late one rainy night, even that protection fails him.
After a nightmare of cause-and-effect, Jarett is battered, near death, and running from the police. He finds himself at the iron gates of an ancient graveyard where he waits to die, to be delivered from this world without hope. That's when Robbie, a homeless boy who lives in a crypt, arrives.
Hounded by the police that have never helped him, but driven by his desire to save his mother, Jarett is exhausted by life. Robbie encourages him to try to build a future from the bones of his past. But wouldn't it be easier to just stay in this peaceful place of the dead forever?
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Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Aladdin (June 1, 1999)
Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
My sixth book (fifth novel) Babylon Boyz, is somewhat of an enigma, and some might call it a regression into the "guns, gangs, drugs and violence" of my earlier (and apparently more "popular") work. This "regression" was neither intentional nor a sell-out, but rather the result of a good story idea that was what it was.
Babylon Boyz is about Dante, a 13-year-old boy, and his two homies, 14-year-old Pook and 13-year-old Wyatt, who stumble upon a pack full of pure cocaine abandoned in a major drug-deal gone bad, and must decide whether to use the money it could bring them to get out of the ghetto (Pook wants to go to medical school and become a doctor, and Dante, born to a crack-addicted mother, needs a heart operation) even though selling it will only bring more pain and suffering to their Brothers and Sisters.
Unlike Six Out Seven, Babylon Boyz does have a "real" gay character, who was based upon the friend of one of my sons. Babylon Boyz was published in the U.S. as a hardcover "young-adult" book by Simon & Schuster in 1997, and seems to have done fairly well-- it is currently being reprinted in trade-paper format.
But, once again, I came up against the fact that the white, mainstream publishing industry is not about to publish "just stories" black books, or books in which black characters-- especially young black males-- do not behave as they are (apparently) expected to.
Despite the fact that Babylon Boyz is doing well, Simon & Schuster rejected my next manuscript, titled Skeleton Key (a book that is still looking for a publisher) on the grounds that it would "feed stereotypes" (of black kids).
I find this fascinating because S&S was "delighted" to publish Babylon Boyz, a novel about young black males that contains three murders, a brutal beating (by cops), a rape, and a gritty sex-scene (with no love between the participants) as well as (duh!) "guns, gangs, drugs, and violence". This, obviously to their way of thinking, does not "feed stereotypes", while a novel such as Skeleton Key, portraying a young (13) black male working out his problems... not exactly "peacefully" or within the letter of the law, but without packing a gun or killing anyone-- AND with the help of a ghost!!!... does "feed stereotypes"!!!
Additional rejections Skeleton Key has gotten from other publishers mention things like the "tenderness between the young black characters is not realistic", or that "black kids don't want to read ghost stories".
It was also interesting to me that following the rejection of Skeleton Key I was invited by S&S to submit a story for an anthology against "censorship in Young-Adult literature"! I declined.
Yet another interesting thing about Babylon Boyz is that while most reviewers applaud Pook as a "strong, gay, basketball-playing black male", not one of them seems to have picked up on the obvious fact that "Pook" hates basketball!
This is a classic example of black kids -- even fictional black kids -- being forced into roles that white American society wants and expects them to play.
in the Trees
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Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (May 1, 1993)
Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5 x 0.6 inches
Rats In The Trees was my first book, published by John Daniel & Co. of Santa Barbara, California in 1990. It's a collection of interrelated stories about 13-year-old Robby, a boy from Fresno, California who runs away to keep from being put in a foster home. Robby arrives in Oakland on a Greyhound bus, then, lost and alone in the city, he's befriended by a "gang" of 12 and 13-year-olds who call themselves The Animals.
The stories were originally written to entertain and offer positive but on-the-real messages to kids at a West Oakland youth center where I worked at the time. Rats In The Trees portrays the conditions for inner city kids during the late 1980's... around the end of Ronald Regan's "trickle-down theory" and the beginning of George Bush's "kinder, gentler America"... which was when crack-cocaine was starting to flood into U.S. "ghettoes".
The times of "happy" black music were ending. So was the social-awareness and the kinship of Brotherhood which had bonded, strengthened and sustained us during the '60's and 70's. The break-dance era was over, and the brutal and desperate years of "gangstuh rap", of self-hatred fostering black-on-black crime, and "guns, gangs, drugs and violence" were beginning with a vengenace that has only gotten worse as time passed and we entered a new century.
Robby and The Animals were old enough to remember the happier days when black people seemed united in the common cause of freedom and social justice: and like most black kids at the time they knew they were losing something-- being cheated somehow -- even if they might not have known exactly what that "something" was, or were able to give it a name.
Sadly, all the predictions made in Rats In The Trees have come true -- the ever-increasing and senseless black-on-black crime, the "guns, gangs, drugs and violence" in U.S. inner-cities, the kids killing kids, and the shameful decline in the quality of public education. (California, for all of its wealth, is now at the very bottom of the list-- 50th place of all the U.S. states-- in the quality of its public schools, although it has many expensive new prisons).
It was also predicted in Rats that "guns, gangs, drugs and violence" would move into "white suburbia", too-- as Chuck (an older white teenager in Rats) said: "Coming soon to a neighborhood near YOU!"-- and they have -- such as the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado. Does it seem as if a America has gotten "kinder and gentler" during the last thirteen years?
Now America is ruled by "King George II" and a new generation of war has been spawned... wars like Vietnam of the Nixon era that cost billions and billions of dollars yet can never be won, while public services and education continue to decline and our cities become even more like war zones in which children die.
Do I have the power of prediction? I don't think so: but what I do have are two good eyes and simple, God-given common-sense.
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Paperback: 392 pages
Publisher: Windstorm Creative (June 1, 2001)
Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
Bones Become Flowers is a story about Tracy Carter, a 33-year-old African-American woman who comes to Haiti to "save" children... or maybe to save herself. It's a story about Voodu, responsibllty and love. It's also about the subjugation and exploitation of "lesser nations and races" by the more powerful. But ultimately it's a story about hope.
One of my (way too many) future projects will be posting this novel on this site.
Bones Become Flowers may be ordered through your local book store, directly from ORCHARD HOUSE PRESS, or from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc. Unless you're a book collector, be sure to get the Third Edition with the cover shown above as it is far better in quality and readability than the previous two.
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Paperback: 227 pages
Publisher: Windstorm Creative (August 1, 2007)
Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
Evil always lingers in a land where men have enslaved other men. Such evil is discovered by Kodi Carver, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy from Cleveland, Ohio who spends his summers in the Old French Quarter of New Orleans. There, with the help of Raney Douglas, his alligator-wrestling, bayou cousin, he assists his magical Aunt Simone with Voodoo ceremonies for tourists in the courtyard of his aunt's haunted house. By day, Kodi and Raney roam the steamy streets of the Quarter, where other kids sell Voodoo charms and vampire teeth, or dance and sweat for money. By night, Kodi and Raney become Voodoo-boys in loincloths and bones. The audience thinks it's all showtime, though much of the magic is on the real. Kodi himself is his aunt's apprentice, though he often doesn't do his homework or carefully study his Voodu lessons, which sometimes gets him in trouble. He once called up a zombie with very nasty results! On the earthly level, Kodi's father believes that his son is safer in New Orleans than the violent neighborhoods of Cleveland. Ironically, Kodi is almost gunned-down on his aunt's doorstep by an eight-year-old banger named Newton, who was sent out to kill to prove himself worthy of membership in a youth gang called The Skeleton Crew. Kodi and Raney capture the little hitman and eventually discover that the real power behind the Skeleton Crew is the hateful ghost of a slave-trader whose bones lie in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. In order to save the gang members from self-destruction, death -- or worse -- and free them from their long-dead master, Kodi and his own gang of Voodoo Dawgz, including a young street dancer, a girl who sells ice-cream, and a pale, mysterious Vampire-boy, must fight the ghost on his own turf... the storm-lashed midnight graveyard.
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Paperback: 232 pages
Publisher: Windstorm Creative; 1st edition (September 1, 2007)
Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 5.2 x 0.6 inches
Kids run away for many reasons; abusive parents, a bad environment, poverty, lack of love or respect at home. A few run away for adventure. Others hope for a better life, maybe the rich and glamorous life of a rapper, rocker, or movie star. But most discover that life on the street is cold, hungry, and lonely. It's also a jungle of predators. The smarter -- or luckier -- kids often find that no matter how bad things were at home, at least they had a bed at night and a chance to really escape by going to school and preparing themselves to win life's battles. Most runaways are heard from again, days, weeks, even months later. But a few kids just disappear, and only their faces on milk cartons, or images on "missing" websites prove they once existed.
Collin Thatcher, thirteen-years-old in Oakland, California, has a reason for running away: his self-righteous Aunt Libby, a part-time social worker and full-time fool, wants to put him in a boot camp for being "lazy and obese," take him away from his "dreamer" father, who was wounded in the Army, given a wheelchair along with a medal, and survives by writing books for kids. With the help of his best friend Ralpa, whose family fled political oppression in Tibet, Collin hopes to defeat his aunt's schemes. He and Ralpa are unexpectedly aided by a homeless boy named Tyger who survives by fishing in a battered old boat. Tyger introduces Collin to the Asian inner-city, a vastly different 'hood from Collin's, yet also plagued by gangs and violence. Collin's plan seems to be working. But then, he and his friends are captured by men who use kids for actors in "films about kids, but not for kids." The boys are also forced to model for strange comic books and VR games. Collin, Ralpa and Tyger must fight their way out of a dirty little cartoon prison, and also free the other kids.
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Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 360 pages
Publisher: Windstorm Creative; 1 edition (August 1, 2007)
Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
What's eating Brandon Williams? At age fourteen he seems to have everything American teens are entitled to: he's blond, blued-eyed, with a surfer pose. Although a bit chubby around the waist, he has muscles in all the right places, and lives a Rocket Power life in a million-dollar house that overlooks the ocean in Santa Cruz, California. Like his high-school senior brother Chad, he gets a generous allowance from his liberal-minded parents; and there's even a maid to clean up his room, which is stuffed with the latest high-tech gear. So, why isn't Brandon happy? What's missing from his perfect life of sun, surf and skateboards? He's gone to a private all-white school from kindergarten through eighth grade, but has wasted a year in a fog of dope dreams; and the only friend who hasn't abandoned him is Tommy Turner, a fat twelve-year-old who lives next door.
Brandon hopes to be a writer and fight against injustice, but pot gave him no inspiration. A fantasy warrior in cyberspace, he's a crusader without a real time cause, a fighter with nothing to fight for. Although he knows these things exist, he's never experienced prejudice, discrimination or hate. After all, what is there to hate about Brandon? He's not handsome or muscular enough to be envied for his looks, he's open-minded in an innocent way, and he's not chubby enough to be dissed as a fat kid. The only problem he has is not knowing he's part of a problem.
But, this year is different: against his parents' wishes he decides to attend a public high school. It's a whole new world for Brandon, and scary because no one knows him. Not surprisingly, he finds himself among the outcasts. His first new friends are an enormous fat boy named Travis, one of the few black kids in Santa Cruz and maybe the fattest dude on the planet. Brandon's other first-day friends include a fat Native-American boy named Danny Little-Wing, a chubby Latino gang member named Carlos, and Rex Watson, the school's smallest kid who skipped a grade to find himself in high school a year too soon. There is also Bosco Donatello, a chubby world-class surfer-dude, but strangely lost in space. Bosco is also oddly out of date, like a ghost boy from 1963, a time when surf music ruled the airwaves, before the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, and protest marches by kids with long hair who knew the System was lying to them.
In the months that follow, Brandon discovers the fat-kid world and all its different inhabitants, from kids forced on diets by health-nazi parents and made to feel guilty about everything they eat as if food were some sort of dangerous drug and eating a schizophrenic ritual of control, to other kids who love being fat and even try to get fatter. It's a secret and often cyber-world of "gainers, feeders, admirers and encouragers."
Brandon also discovers hate... hate for fat kids that is made "okay" by American society. It might not be politically-correct to dis a kid for being black, Latino, Jewish, or gay, but it's totally acceptable to make a kid's life an endless hell just because they're "overweight." Like any form of ignorant hate, some kids can handle it while others can't... sometimes with fatal results. And, the constant pressure to be movie-star thin makes normal kids suffer and healthy kids sick, while feeding a billion-dollar industry of mostly bogus health drugs and diets.
In this first year of public school, and through a mild yet turbulent Santa Cruz winter, Brandon discovers his real self and strength. While society rants that inside every fat kid is a thin kid crying to be free, Brandon finds that he's always been a happy, healthy, chubby warrior with the power to fight injustice and hate.
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Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 128 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR); 1st edition (September 15, 1996)
Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
"The sound of the train woke him . . . rhythmic panting putts like the
breath of some huge jungle beast."
Oakland, California, is a tough place to grow up: kids pack guns at school; crackheads loiter in doorways; even the wrong-colored clothes can get you "a dirt nap." But for thirteen-year-old Remi, who has just arrived from Haiti, the first night brings something even more terrifying: a monstrous, out-of-control train lurches toward his bedroom window--and only Remi can see it.
With the help of his downstairs neighbor, the fast-talking, street-smart Niya, Remi is drawn ever deeper into the mystery of the ghostly night train. Their search leads them back to wartime Oakland, to a shipyard filled with African-American dockworkers and sailors, and, ultimately, to the scene of a murder. Can Remi and Niya find the murderer without becoming trapped in Oakland's past? Or, have they entered a supernatural realm from which there is no escape?
"Remi could hear it gaiing on them. The shriek of its whistle rang in his ears. But there just ahead was the switch. Niya was now a few paces in front of him. Then she was passing the switch. Remi started to believe they would make it home! For all its power, its great pounding pistons, its roaring of fire and spewing of steam, the train could not catch them!
And then Niya fell."
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Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: Anchor (September 1, 1994)
Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.2 x 1.2 inches
My fourth book (third novel) Six Out Seven was actually written before Way Past Cool, though it's doubtful if it would have been published without the hype and "success" of Cool.
Six Out Seven was first published in the U.S. in hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (first image above) and also in the U.K. in trade-paper format.
Unlike Way Past Cool, which presented a view of black kids trapped in the innercity -- knowing there was probably a way out but too caught up in day-to-day survival to try to find it -- Six Out Seven dug deeper in to the reasons WHY these kids have to live as they do -- the "self-cleaning oven" theory, the fact that gang-violence and kids killing kids is actually encouraged by certain segments of white U.S. society -- and that drugs are seldom if ever brought into the U.S. and poured into the ghettoes by black people.
This, of course, is not what the white world in general wants to hear. So it isn't surprising that Six hasn't done as well as Cool in terms of sales, or that it's more popular with black readers than white.
The story is about Corbitt Wainwright, a 13-year-old boy from rural Mississippi, who lives a dirt-poor but relatively peaceful and happy life until forced by circumstance to flee to Oakland, California. It's basically a country-mouse/city-mouse kind of tale; and Corbitt hooks up with his Oakland counterpart, a boy named Lactameon. The story is told mostly through Corbitt, who is constantly questioning why black people are fighting and killing each other instead of coming together against their real oppressors.
Again, not exactly what the white world wants to hear.
Six Out Seven was trashed by a reviewer at The Washington Post, who "exposed" the fact that my first novel (second book) Children Of The Night was published by a "Black-exploitation publisher," Holloway House. (Actually, and other than the sloppy mess they made during printing, I'm happy that Holloway published the book in low-cost format and got it into the 'hood.)
Among other sins I apparently committed by writing Six Out Seven I stand accused (by this reviewer) of writing "literature of degradation." In his opinion I also "see blacks as noble savages, victims of white oppression with no responsibility for their own condition."
In addition to these charges, he also suggests that black people aren't qualified to write about their own condition and themselves -- this is better left to whitefolk, such as (again in his opinion) the author of Clockers, who have "more knowledge about (us) and a more accurate and less emotional point of view."
All this condemnation and expertise came from a self-described white "middle-aged reviewer who has never hung with the homeboys."
Anyway, despite the glowing enthusiasm at Farrar, Straus & Giroux after Way Past Cool -- "we will be doing many books together" -- I was promptly dumped because Six Out Seven didn't live up to their sales expectations... and probably because I didn't want to continue what would have amounted to re-writing Way Past Cool ("gangs, guns, drugs and violence" -- "literature of degradation") in various incarnations for evermore.
This was when I first began to realize that black books which are "just stories" don't get published.
This was also when I became aware that many reviewers not only don't read the books they review, but they also review the books they don't read with their own agenda, only trying to find things that reinforce or confirm their preconceived notions or opinions. Rather like junk science.
An example of this sort of agenda (or possibly just sloppy reading habits) was when a reviewer at a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper accused me of being "homophobic," both for using the term of speech, "homo" -- which as most people know is commonly used by adolescents, straight or not -- in Six Out Seven. Not only that, but according to this careful reviewer my most unforgivable sin was making the "gay character" a villain.
Setting aside the fact that gay people have just as much right to be villains as anyone else, the real problem with this accusation is that, had this (I assume, white) reviewer actually read the book, he might have seen that there is NO gay character in it. The reviwer seemed unable to comprehend that the character, Sebastian (the "homo"), half-white, is confused by his racial, not his sexual identity.
Think about things like this next time you read a book review.
of the Night
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Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux; Stated First Edition edition (January 1, 1993)
Children Of The Night is my "real" first-novel (a lot of people seem to think Way Past Cool was my first). It's a story about Ryo, a 13-year-old West Oakland boy, and his homey, Chipmunk, who are sick of being poor and having nothing, and who make the decision to go to work for a young crack dealer named Big Bird.
Like my story collection, Rats In The Trees, Children Of The Night portrays innercity kids in the late 1980's and early '90's. This was a time when it was common for some crack-dealing 12-year-olds to have thousands of dollars in their pockets, a time when younger and younger kids were buying guns and using them on each other, a time when (just as now) a large segment of the U.S. white population were applauding (though usually not openly) the "self-cleaning ovens" of the inner cities.
It's interesting that a self-proclaimed "white, middle-aged reviewer" for The Washington Post, who had "never hung with the homeboys" (why, then, was he reviewing one of my books?) chose to dis me and my work by "exposing" the fact that Children Of The Night was published by Holloway House, a "Black-exploitation publisher," as if this book was something I should be ashamed of.
For the record, I am not in the least ashamed of this book. I am very disgusted with the sloppy printing, proofing and editing done by Holloway House, but what does it matter who published the book as long as its positive messages got out there on the shelves?
To me, the statements made by this self-described "white, middle-aged reviewer, who had never hung with the homeboys," are typical of a book reviewer with his own agenda. And I assume his agenda is that black kids are not supposed to know the truth about the odds stacked against their survival, and that anyone who tries to tell this truth is to be disrespected, discredited -- and possibly disposed of -- by any means necessary.
But, despite all the poorly-done printing I'm proud of this book. As far as I'm aware it's still in print and may be ordered through your local book store or from Amazon.com. It also seems to be widely available at many "ghetto liquor stores" and I'm certainly not ashamed of that either. Here at least is one of my books in an affordable format that can be easily accessed by the kids I wrote it for.