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‘Black Boy Joy’ brings together 17 messages of positivity

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 26, 2021

Kwame Mbalia came up with the idea for the book “Black Boy Joy” during the protests during the summer of 2020. He said he wanted to show that Black boys’ lives aren’t only about the “bad stuff, the trauma” often shown in the media.  (Washington Post)
Kwame Mbalia came up with the idea for the book “Black Boy Joy” during the protests during the summer of 2020. He said he wanted to show that Black boys’ lives aren’t only about the “bad stuff, the trauma” often shown in the media. (Washington Post)
By Mary Quattlebaum Special to the Washington Post

Picking out a fresh outfit for the first day of school, skateboarding, baking a peach cobbler – these are just some of the fun things that kids do in the 17 short stories of “Black Boy Joy.”

“Every story moves toward a place of joy,” said Kwame Mbalia, who edited the new middle-grade anthology, or story collection.

Though they might start with the main character feeling sad, afraid or angry, all the stories end in a positive, often playful, way, with the character in a better situation.

“We need that right now,” said Mbalia by phone from his home in Rolesville, N.C.

He told the Washington Post that the idea for the anthology came to him in summer 2020, a particularly difficult time for the whole world. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, there were protests about the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people.

Mbalia wanted the stories to center on joy because the news media can often highlight only the “bad stuff, the trauma” in the lives of Black boys, he said. That portrayal, he said, doesn’t offer a complete and authentic picture of the Black experience.

Mbalia approached Black writers, many of whom are his friends. Those eager to contribute included Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; Varian Johnson, author of “The Parker Inheritance” and “Twins”; and Jerry Craft, winner of the Newbery Medal, the top prize in children’s literature.

The stories are a kaleidoscope of types and forms – fantasy, science fiction, verse, contemporary and graphic.

Mbalia uses a three-part form for his featured story, “The Griot of Grover Street.” The tale appears in three sections of the book and helps set up the other stories. Like his Tristan Strong series, this magical story features figures from West African and African American folklore and culture such as the griot (storyteller) who whisks young Fortitude Jones to a strange galaxy.

Fortitude does something the author likes to do with his wife and four kids: blow bubbles.

“I challenge anyone not to have a good time blowing bubbles,” Mbalia said with a laugh.

He also had fun dressing his fictional griot in the same silver pants and colorful hat that he often wears when he writes at home.

The anthology was finished rather quickly, taking about a year from idea to publication in August. But the tight deadline paled before another challenge: choosing the two best tales from a contest for writers who hadn’t published for kids.

“It was super-difficult because we received so many brilliant submissions,” Mbalia said.

Ultimately, they selected Don Hooper’s lively work of science fiction, “Got Me a Jet Pack,” and DaVaun Sanders’s plot-twisty time-traveling tale, “Kassius’s Foolproof Guide to Losing the Turkey Bowl.”

As for readers’ reaction to the anthology, Mbalia has been touched by how “they vibe with this book.”

“So many photos sent to my phone,” he said. “Photos from parents of their Black sons holding up the book and smiling, of kids reading it to younger kids.”

Real-life cases of spreading joy.

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