Monthly Archives: January 2015

New Releases – January 2015

The Law of Loving Others by Kate Axelrod (Razorbill)

“Seventeen-year-old Emma returns home from boarding school for winter break to find that her mother is having a psychotic break—her parents never told her that her mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic years ago and has been taking medication for the condition since college. Emma’s mother’s subsequent institutionalization is like an earthquake in Emma’s life. … her actions never feel anything but realistic in this reflective and incisive exploration of the far-reaching effects of mental illness.” — Publishers Weekly

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

“Fairfold is a contemporary American town long beset by fairies. This isn’t a secret—rather it’s a tourist attraction that provides the citizens with a healthy source of income (although the visitors do occasionally get eaten by the more dangerous fairies). Hazel, a local high school student, is in love with the town’s biggest tourist attraction, a fairy prince who has slept for generations in a glass coffin in the forest. In this, she has a friendly rivalry going with her gay brother, Ben, who also loves the sleeping prince. … An enjoyable read with well-developed characters and genuine chills.” — Publishers Weekly

Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman (Henry Holt)

“Fifteen-year-old Alex Stringfellow has lived her entire life feeling like she’s two people, male and female. Though previously identified as male, Alex decides to begin living as a female. What Alex doesn’t know is that she was born intersex, and her parents had chosen not to tell her. To make her transition to living as a female easier, Alex enrolls in a new school where she quickly makes friends. While her adjustment is mostly smooth, Alex is concerned about how her friends will react if they find out she’s a lesbian or if they find out about her ”noodle.“ Her transition at home is less easy. … Brugman tackles a sensitive issue with grace and grit.” — School Library Journal

Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery by Winifred Conkling (Algonquin Young Readers)

“In her first work of nonfiction for young readers (Sylvia & Aki, 2011), Conkling presents the true story of Emily Edmonson and her five siblings who escaped from slavery only to be caught and sent further south. … Clearly written, well-documented, and chock full of maps, sidebars, and reproductions of photographs and engravings, the fascinating volume covers a lot of history in a short space. Conkling uses the tools of a novelist to immerse readers in Emily’s experiences. A fine and harrowing true story.” — Kirkus

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse)

“In this haunting tale of grief and recovery, 17-year-old Andrew Brawley lives like a ghost in the sprawling wings of Roanoke General Hospital, working in the cafeteria, visiting patients, and borrowing what he needs to get by. When he’s not trying to play matchmaker for his friends Lexi and Trevor—both battling cancer—he’s talking to nurses or working on his comic, Patient F, all while avoiding the tragic circumstances that took his family and left him behind. When Rusty, a boy badly burned by homophobic bullies, enters the hospital, Drew finds the courage to reach out, find love, and confront his deep-rooted guilt and confusion.” — Publishers Weekly

The Prey by Tom Isbell (HarperTeen)

“Teens uncover their post-apocalyptic, dystopian society’s secret program that segregates those deemed inferior to use as game in rich men’s hunts. An orphan nicknamed Book who’s grown up in an all-boys government-run camp discovers a strange new boy, near death, in the desert. Book befriends him and learns that after the boys graduate, they aren’t bussed away for leadership positions as promised—instead, they’re hunted by the rich as entertainment. Turns out they’re scapegoated Less Thans—a designation given to undesirable races, religious groups, political dissidents and a variety of other discriminatory categories.” — Kirkus

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley] (Dial)

“In 1965, Lynda Blackmon Lowery turned 15 during the three-day voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. In this vibrant memoir, Lowery’s conversational voice effectively relates her experiences in the civil rights movement on and before that march. The youngest person on the march, she’d already been jailed nine times as a protester. … Vivid details and the immediacy of Lowery’s voice make this a valuable primary document as well as a pleasure to read.” — Kirkus, starred review

X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (Candlewick)

“This fictionalized account of the boy who became Malcolm X maintains a suspenseful, poetic grip as it shifts among moments in his life between the years 1930 and 1948. … Shabazz (Growing Up X), one of Malcolm X’s daughters, and Magoon (How It Went Down) capture Malcolm’s passion for new experiences, the defeatism that plagued him, and the long-buried hope that eventually reclaimed him.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum)

“With his mother newly dead, a job in a funeral home somehow becomes the perfect way for Matthew to deal with his crushing grief. … Reynolds writes with a gritty realism that beautifully captures the challenges—and rewards—of growing up in the inner city. A vivid, satisfying and ultimately upbeat tale of grief, redemption and grace.” — Kirkus

The Way We Bared Our Souls by Willa Strayhorn (Razorbill)

Book Description: If you had the chance to shed your biggest burden and trade it for someone else’s, would you do it?

When a mysterious young shaman tells Lo he knows an ancient ritual that will free her from the pain of her newly discovered illness, she’s just desperate enough to believe him. The catch? The ritual only works with five people. Now Lo must persuade four of her most troubled friends to make the biggest sacrifice of their lives.

There’s Thomas, a former child soldier; Kaya, a Native American girl who can’t feel pain; Ellen, a cheerleader with a meth addiction; and Zeke, the skateboarding star whose girlfriend’s sudden death has made him afraid to live. On the night of the ceremony, this unlikely group gathers around a fire deep in the New Mexico desert to share sorrows and swap totems. When the effects take hold the next morning, they embark on a week of terrifying, beautiful experiences that no one, not even Lo, could have imagined.

Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner (Amulet Books)

“In this formidable first novel, 15-year-old narrator Magdalie loses everything after the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and is forced to rebuild along with her country. … Wagner’s portrait of Haitian culture is particularly compelling, and her descriptions of the settings of the city and Tonton Élie’s country hometown are lush.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas

This month, Texas Tech University Press is publishing a special 25th anniversary edition of Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, a story rarely told in YA.

By Jay Neugeboren

neugeboren-poliWhen Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas was originally published in 1989, the Hispanic population of Texas numbered some four and a half million people and represented thirty-two percent of the state’s population. Now, a quarter of a century later, when a 25th anniversary edition of Poli is, happily, being issued, the Hispanic population numbers more than ten million and represents nearly forty percent of the state’s population.

Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas is based on the memoirs of José Policarpo Rodriguez, a Mexican-American—and Texas Téjano—who was central to Texas history during its formative years in the nineteenth century.  With his father, José Policarpo Rodriguez—the “Poli” of our story—came north from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas in 1839 when he was ten years old, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas.

He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—and often shown contempt both for his age and his Mexican origins, Poli struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions—which, among other elements in his life and character, inspired me to turn his memoirs into a book—showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days, and remains rare.

The memoirs were given to me by a teacher I worked with at the Saddle River Country Day School in New Jersey, Gladys Spann Matthews, who had taught Poli’s grandchildren in Austin, Texas. One of his grandchildren wrote a composition titled, “The Most Famous Guide in Texas History.” One day while Gladys Matthews and I were having lunch together in the kitchen of the estate that served as the school’s makeshift cafeteria—it was the school’s first year of existence—she plunked a fat brown envelope onto the table next to me. “I once tried to make a book out of this and couldn’t do it,” she said. Along with a copy of the memoirs, Gladys Matthews gave me drafts of the book she had tried to write, transcriptions of anecdotes she’d heard from his grandchildren, and a loving admonition: that I use the materials as the basis for a fictionalized biography of Poli.

And so I did, and I trust that Poli and his story will inform and enchant readers in the way I was when, once upon a time, I came to know this extraordinary Texas Téjano.

JayNeugeboren-125x125Jay Neugeboren is the author of 21 books, including award-winning books of fiction and non-fiction, along with four collections of prize-winning stories. A new novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, will be published in the fall of this year.

Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas is now available.

Fundamentally Screwed

In Playing by the Book, 17-year-old Jake Powell deals with coming out, falling in love, and his religious faith while spending a summer in New York City.

By S. Chris Shirley

shirley-playingbythebookWe often hear how “angst-ridden” the teenage years are,” but “angst” hardly begins to cover it when you keep hearing your preacher say from the pulpit that anyone who acts upon same-sex urges is going to hell. So what do you do if these are the only sexual urges you feel? And the preacher making these claims is your father?

At the very least, I’d say we have the premise for a novel, one that took me eight years to write.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household in a small Southern town, I was tortured by my same-sex attractions. There was such shame associated with these urges that I couldn’t discuss them with anyone—not my parents, not my preacher, not my best friend and not even my identical twin, who was having the time of his life in high school, having jumped headlong into the heterosexual dating pool.

So I turned to God, believing with all my heart that if I prayed and fasted and studied the Bible enough, He’d take these urges away. My heart aches for my younger self, who struggled in this way for nearly two decades without anyone to guide him.

And my heart aches for gay kids today who grow up in fundamentalist religious communities (of any faith) where homosexuals are lumped together with murders, adulterers, drunkards, fornicators, the greater populace of Sodom and Gomorra and everyone else who’s destined for hell.

Seeing so many well-adjusted gay high school students on Glee might convince these closeted gay fundamentalist teens that the secular world accepts homosexuality, but these kids are also taught that most of the secular world is going to hell. No amount of well-adjusted secular gay characters from Hollywood or elsewhere will persuade them that they aren’t going to hell too. Theirs is a spiritual journey, one that all too often ends in withdrawal, self-loathing, severe depression, self-destructive behavior, and, all too often, all of the above. They need a spiritual story or at least one that includes the spiritual aspect of this journey.

I wrote Playing by the Book so these kids might at the very least be entertained by the often-humorous story of Jake Powell, boy preacher, who successfully navigates this treacherous spiritual journey by the skin of his teeth and becomes a well-adjusted young man with a very bright future and an incredibly hot Jewish boyfriend in the process. My hope is that Jake will help these kids reconcile their faith and sexuality and come to realize that they are not fundamentally screwed.

schrisshirleyS. Chris Shirley is an award-winning writer/director and President of the Board of Lambda Literary, the world’s leading non-profit organization that nurtures, celebrates and preserves LGBTQ literature. He was born and raised in Greenville, Alabama, and now resides in Manhattan. Playing by the Book is his first novel. Visit Chris online at

Playing by the Book is now available.

New Releases – December 2014

After our holiday hiatus we forgot to post December’s diverse new releases, so here they are, a little late but still new!

Rebels by Accident by Patricia Dunn (Sourcebooks Fire)

“Editor and journalist Dunn debuts with a powerful coming-of-age story (originally self-published), set on the brink of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution in 2011. Egyptian-American Mariam struggles with the contradictions of being Muslim in post–9/11 New York City. When the 15-year-old and her best friend Deanna get arrested at their first high school party, Mariam’s strict parents send both girls to stay with Mariam’s sittu (grandmother) in Cairo. … Dunn allows Mariam’s voice its space—making it tentative, passionate, doubting, and utterly believable—while creating a cast of Cairo youth, rebels, and expatriates that upend Mariam’s preconceptions and will do the same for many readers.” — Publishers Weekly

After Us by Amber Hart (K-Teen) — Coming Dec. 30, 2014

Book Description: Melissa smiles, flirts, and jokes, never showing her scars. Eight months after tragedy ripped her from her closest friend, Melissa is broken. Javier has scars of his own: a bullet wound, and the memory of a cousin shot in the heart. Life in the States was supposed to be a new beginning, but a boy obsessed by vengeance has no time for the American dream. To honor his familia, Javier joins the gang who set up his cousin’s murder. The entrance price is blood. Death is the only escape. When fate decides to twist their paths, Melissa and Javier could make each other whole again, or be shattered forever…

Driving Lessons (A You Know Who Girls Novel) by Annameekee Hesik (Bold Strokes Books)

Abbey Brooks has recovered from her end-of-freshman-year heartbreak and has vowed that this year, her sophomore year at Gila High, will be different in every way. Her to-do list: get her driver’s license, come out to her mom, get (and keep) a girlfriend, and survive another year of basketball. As always, though, nothing goes according to plan. Who will be there for her as her plans start to unravel? Who will bring her back to life after another round of heartache and betrayal? These remain a mystery—even to Abbey. But one thing is for sure, she’s not confused about who she is. And that is going to make all the difference.

This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner (Disney-Hyperion) — Coming Dec. 23, 2014

“Kaufman and Spooner focus on new characters and a new world in this splendid return to the universe that they created in These Broken Stars (Hyperion, 2013). … Kaufman and Spooner prove that their first brilliant installment was no fluke with this strong second outing. They provide complex characters and a situation with no simple solution. There is action, a spark of romance, and a mystery, all set on a fully-realized planet.” — School Library Journal

Lights, Love & Lip Gloss by Ni-Ni Simone and Amir Abrams (K-Teen) — Coming Dec. 30, 2014

Book Description: Finally, London Phillips is defying her domineering mother and taking control of her life. But she’s striking back with a weapon that could destroy her future—and her last chance at real love… Two too many cuties have left Rich Montgomery desperate for the perfect cover-up—but when her house of lies comes tumbling down, things get pretty twisted and her fate is left in the hands of her most vengeful frenemy… Heather Cummings is more successful than ever thanks to an amazing comeback—and the ultimate Hollywood betrayal. But old habits die hard and threaten to turn her glittering success to sparkling ash…There’s no one better than Spencer Ellington when it comes to revenge. But stopping her inheritance-stealing mother and saving her crown turns into an all-access media battle. Now Hollywood High’s in-crowd is poised for oh-so-sweet payback…

We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, A True Story by Josh Sundquist (Little, Brown) — Coming Dec. 23, 2014

“[A] laugh-out-loud memoir…This is a unique, earnest, and funny coming-of-age story about Sundquist’s experiences as a cancer survivor, amputee, Paralympic ski racer, and motivational speaker. Readers will appreciate the humorous and often embarrassingly accurate tales depicted in the pages of this book.” — School Library Journal

Asher’s Shot by Elizabeth Wheeler (Bold Strokes Books)

Book Description: After uncovering the truth about his parents’ divorce and his brother’s death, fifteen-year-old Asher Price is ready for a shot at happiness. Armed with a Canon camera borrowed from his nutty neighbor, a date to homecoming, and revitalized relationships with family and friends, Asher’s on the right track. Even though Asher’s black-and-white view of the world has shifted to color, he still believes the only way to protect the people he loves is by keeping their secrets. His candid pictures capture the truth, but what if his success as a photographer requires exposing an enemy? In the end, Asher discovers protecting the people he loves can have devastating consequences, and his only shot at happiness involves revealing secrets of his own.

Diamond Boy by Michael Williams (Little, Brown)

“A riveting tale about 15-year-old Patson Moyo, who becomes a diamond farmer, working in the Marange diamond fields of 2006 Zimbabwe, to help provide for his family. … the story crosses over with Williams’s 2011 novel, Now Is the Time for Running, though readers need not be familiar with that book to be gripped and horrified by the troubles facing Patson and his nation.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Everyone Deserves To Be Loved

Shaun David Hutchinson’s new novel, The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, is about a boy struggling with grief and guilt, who finds hope through his love for another boy. 

By Shaun David Hutchinson

hutchinson-fivestagesI was 19 when I attempted suicide.  I took 60 Tylenol, chased them with a can of flat orange soda, put on my headphones, and prepared myself to die.

Coming out wasn’t particularly painful for me.  My mom’s best friend was gay, my brother is gay and had already come out, my friends had either already guessed or didn’t care when I told them.  But I still felt alone.  Unwanted, unloved, and undeserving of love.  I was petrified to live in a world that saw me as a freak.  I did my best to deal with those feelings.  I cut myself frequently and punched a lot of walls.  But eventually, I couldn’t see a path forward.  I was so lonely and filled with self-loathing, and I only saw one option.

Obviously, I didn’t die.  I survived….barely.  But surviving didn’t magically fix my problems.  I still didn’t believe myself worthy of being loved. Still felt desperately alone. I still believed I would spend the rest of my life living in a world filled with people who despised me.  Until something magical did happen.

A movie called Beautiful Thing was playing at my local movie theater.  I’d never heard of it, but it was based on a play of the same name by Jonathan Harvey.  All I knew about it at the time was that it was a movie about a couple of gay kids in South East London.  I dragged my best friend to go see it with me and sat mesmerized through the entire thing.  I watched as two boys from working class families fell in love—set to the music of Mama Cass—and I think in the 89 minutes I spent in the theater, I fell a little in love with them too.

I’m pretty sure I saw that movie a dozen times in the theater.  I bought the soundtrack and blasted Mama Cass in my car with the windows down.  It was the first movie featuring gay characters that I’d ever seen.  And they were in love and happy and hopeful.  I can still recall that last scene of Jamie and Ste dancing out in the open for everyone to see while Mama Cass sang “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and how it filled me with hope.

The doctors and nurses and my mom may have saved my life, but that movie saved my soul.  I didn’t just see myself in the story of those boys, I saw my possible future.  A future where I was loved and where I deserved to be loved.

And so here I am 16 years later.  I’ve written a book about two boys, both of whom believe they don’t deserve to be loved, but who somehow find a way to love each other anyway.  I wrote this story because it’s a story I was desperate to tell, but I also think I wrote it because maybe there’s a kid out there who feels the way I felt when I was 19—lonely and hopeless and unloved.  And maybe that kid will find my book the way I found Beautiful Thing and see themselves in Drew or Rusty or Trevor or Lexi and realize that they’re not alone.  That’s what I hope anyway.  Because everyone deserves to be happy.  Everyone deserves to be loved.

shaunhutchinson-125x125Shaun David Hutchinson loves superheroes, underdogs, and bad disaster movies. He’s the author of The Deathday Letter, fml, and The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley.  He currently lives with his partner and chubby dog Chewie in South Florida where you can sometimes catch him driving the back roads, windows down, singing along to Mama Cass.

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley is now available.

Another Story to Tell

Shannon Freeman’s Port City High series is Sweet Valley High in an urban community, and reaches out to girls of color who aspire for greatness.

By Shannon Freeman

Growing up the ’80s, I never really searched for books about little girls that looked like me. It never crossed my mind to wonder why teen fiction didn’t include characters that were African American. If they did, I had never come across a copy of them in my library.

I can remember sitting in the library of Woodrow Wilson Middle School. Red-and-white Coca-Cola sweatshirt, acid-washed blue jean skirt, scrunched down red leg warmers, and British Knight tennis shoes decorated my seventh-grade frame complete with spiked bangs and side ponytail-framed face. I sat on a bean bag engrossed in a book by an author who was not new, but new to me. It was Judy Blume. I had never before read one of her books and my friends told me that it was a “must read.” That day, my love for reading was reignited by fresh fiction that I could relate to in my life. Books like Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Superfudge, and Blubber were my favorites. I loved these books and would read them over and over again.

My next love affair with literature began with Sweet Valley High. I felt my whole world shift as I began to read about twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. I had found my reading home. For a whole year, I tried to read every Sweet Valley High book that I could get my hands on. My mom wasn’t big on purchasing books, so I borrowed from friends, checked them out in the library, and reread my favorites like The New Jessica, Deception, and Kidnapped! (which inspired my own book Taken). I dreamed of wearing the clothes that the Wakefield sisters wore, having a twin sister to plot and plan with and against, living in a home as immaculate as theirs, and having a life worthy of print.

Don’t get me wrong…it was important to me at an early age that my baby dolls’ skin was reminiscent of my own, but that was easy because they were available. Right there on the shelves of Toys”R”Us, as I was just starting to notice the lack of brown-colored baby dolls, were Cabbage Patch dolls with brown skin, just like mine. That was a sign that things were changing, but literature was slower to catch up. After all, the books that I was reading were still based on teenagers navigating through the drama of high school. I was just happy to be reading, so I devoured every word and didn’t focus on the lack of African American characters. Now, the lives of the Wakefield twins were much different from mine. I grew up in a small Texas town, and they were in the beautiful city of Sweet Valley right smack in what sounded like the Promised Land to me. At that point, I could only dream of living in a place like California (which would become my home nearly a decade later).

I became a teacher shortly after graduating from college and taught for two years before moving to Southern California to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. At that time, I left the classroom and did not return until I moved back to Texas eight years later. Young adult literature had definitely changed while I was away. I was surprised and impressed that there were actually books that depicted girls of color. That was the first time I realized the coming-of-age tales that I had grown up reading never really represented me. Yes, they had taken me into different worlds and allowed me to experience a different lifestyle, but I was not the target audience.

When I began to read the Bluford series in my classroom, I was happy with the direction literature was taking. The Bluford Series is a collection of contemporary young adult novels set in the fictional inner-city high school of Bluford High. It was exciting that there was a group of writers who found it important to represent black and brown students alike. I knew that if I had grown up reading this type of literature, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it; however, I still felt like something was missing. I wanted that Sweet Valley High feel in an urban community, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. My friends and I had grown up as girls of color who knew they were destined for greatness. We weren’t ducking gunfire and being abused by our boyfriends. We were living in the suburbs as beautiful ethnic girls who had dreams and aspirations. That is who we were, and I knew that there were other girls out there living the same way. When I began to write, I wrote for them.

I found there was another story to tell. There was a story of girls who aspired to be surgeons, lawyers, social workers, nurses, authors, teachers, television personalities, and CEOs. I wrote for the girls growing up with those dreams and who were destined to see them come to fruition. That was how my series set at Port City High was birthed. When it was completed, I felt the need to diversify even more. There was a still small voice in me that said, “More.” I wanted my next series to represent even more of the cultures that I had grown up with. One of my best friends from middle school is Vietnamese. She is beautiful, smart, talented, funny, and definitely underrepresented in teen literature and the books that came across my desk. I felt bad for leaving out that whole community that had been so significant to my story. So when I starting writing my second series, Summit Middle School, I was determined for young adults growing up in the Vietnamese community to be able to relate to the characters in my book, and that is how the character of Mai Pham was created.

Every time I complete a book, I ask myself, “Who did I miss?” I try to figure out a way to reach them, not in a cheesy, forced type of way, but in a way that they can relate to. I want them to walk away from my book and be surprised that I get them. When they look at the back of the book to see if we are of the same race, I want them to say, “How did she know?” I am not under the assumption that I will be able to cover everything for everybody, but I believe that I can write and inspire minds that can reach places that I may not be able to reach.

My goal is to write books that are diverse enough to reach across racial lines and stereotypes and build bridges in communities. I want us, as a people, to be able to identify with different cultures in a real way that makes them less of an anomaly.

Growing up in the ’80s taught me so much. I had to navigate through cultures and stereotypes on my own. Through writing, I want to change the mindsets of young adults because they are the future of this country. I want students from multiple backgrounds to open my books and find themselves. But not only that, they need to be exposed to new worlds, new views, and a new way to appreciate and love each other’s differences. Exposure changes who you are and how you think. Writers have a unique platform that allows us to change the world one story at a time. How blessed I am to be a part of that change.

shannonfreeman125x125Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, Shannon Freeman works full time as an English teacher in her hometown. Freeman’s debut series, Port City High, was geared to readers on the high school level. Summit Middle School is the author’s second series and she looks forward to it reaching students from a multitude of backgrounds. “It is definitely a series where students can find characters that relate to them and what they are going through. Middle school can be a challenge, and if I can help students navigate through that world, then I have met my goal.” Freeman looks forward to writing a series that her children and numerous nephews and nieces can enjoy at an early age.

The Port City High series is now available.

Three Funerals That Shaped My Life

Jason Reynolds’s latest novel, The Boy in the Black Suit, is about a 17-year-old boy who works in a funeral home in Brooklyn.

By Jason Reynolds

reynolds-boyinblackYou know what sucks? Death. Straight up. And what blows about it even more than the inconceivable pain of loss, is the fact that it’s one of the few things in life that’s actually inescapable. It’s an all encompassing fact. The ultimate bummer. And as a person who has been force-fed this bummer far more than I would like, I have to admit that the only thing more fascinating than the end of life, is the banquet we throw to commemorate that finale. Yes, funerals. They suck too. But only sometimes. Actually, most times. But there are moments when funerals go from a stew pot of grief, to a well of inspiration, and when we’re really, really, lucky, a haven for a hearty, hearty laugh.

Here are three funerals that shaped my life.


I was ten years old, and, for me, Daisy’s funeral would be my introduction to the mystery of death and the tradition of the southern black homegoing. She was my grandmother, and I loved her dearly, like a grandson does, but admittedly, I had never known her as an image of health. By the time I came along, Daisy had already had her share of issues, her mind already failing and a severe stroke had left her bedridden. So most of my time with her consisted of sitting with my grandfather at the kitchen table as Daisy was being fed, or watching my mother warm the hot-comb on the stove so that she could straighten and braid Daisy’s thick white hair.

But when Daisy died, I had no idea what to feel. I hadn’t had the same relationship with her as the older members of my family, so as we sat in the church, listening to the senior choir trudge and wheeze through hymn after hymn, I watched my mother and aunts and cousins sniffle with emotion while I struggled to peel the crackly film from a strawberry candy. I kept looking at Grandpop. He wasn’t crying and he was sitting right in front of the casket. He seemed strong. Unbothered. Until we made it to the gravesite. And once they began to lower Daisy’s casket into the ground, my grandfather exploded. He belted the strangest, guttural sound from somewhere deep, deep like the memory of their first date, or their wedding day, or the birth of their three daughters. The sound was like a siren of sadness, and it pierced my ten year old psyche melting me on the spot. The tears came. And though I still didn’t have a close enough connection to Daisy to feel the pain that everyone else felt, I could feel the pain of their pain. I could be broken by their brokenness. I was being taught empathy, in a devastating and ultimately brilliant way.


The phone call came just after midnight. My friend, Darrell, was on the other end. His voice shaky and weak. “Randell is dead,” he said. I was eighteen, Randell, twenty.

We still don’t know what happened that night. All we know is that the police found his body in a cemetery, burned from the inside out. I had been with him a week before. I had been with him everyday in high school, laughing and joking in the hallway, and even after school, begging him for rides to girls’ houses in his beat up car that couldn’t go in reverse. I remember he had his own beeper code, 7730, which when flipped upside down, says, DELL, his nickname. His laugh. His strange but endearing, spaced-out disposition. He was embedded into the fabric of my life, like family, and just like that, he was gone.

Because of how badly Randell was burned, his mother opted to have him cremated but still wanted to have a casket at his funeral for symbolic purposes. She asked me to be a pallbearer — to help carry the empty casket. Of course, I agreed to do it. I helped carry it in to the church. And I helped carry it out. And everything in between, the actual funeral, was the most painful blur, a futile demonstration, impossible to spin into a celebration of life. Randell was snatched from us, and though it’s been over a decade, the pain still sits like a marble at the base of my throat, far too big to swallow.


A woman that everyone called Bud had to be awesome. No other option. She was my mother’s youngest sister, the handful. Rambunctious and gregarious. Extremely loving but careless in the best way. Nothing was a big deal except having big fun. But what was most fascinating about her was that she was legally blind and diabetic for most of her life. She had brushed against death several times, but bounced back unafraid, unrattled, refusing to let her somatic issues penetrate even a smidgen of her personality. She loved to party, and joke, and shop, and travel, constantly redecorating her house or reworking her chic and always trendy wardrobe. Simply put, Bud insisted on having the time of her life until her time was up.

Her funeral, despite the obvious fact that everyone who ever met her would miss her, was pleasant. I wouldn’t dare say it was easy, but the sentiment seemed to be that she literally rode her life until the wheels fell off, and therefore was victorious. Not that life could actually be a thing that can be won, but if that is at all a possibility, I think Bud showed us that perhaps one way to win at life is to choose joy daily. To choose to laugh, especially at yourself. To choose to love everyone around you. To choose to avoid self-pity, and instead engage in self-party. So we celebrated Bud’s life with jokes and her favorite songs, and the best crazy Bud stories we could think of. We honored her for bringing such light to our lives, and we continue to honor her by honoring ourselves simply by choosing happiness every single day.

There have been tens of funerals between these three, each one unique in its own way, each one giving me a different nugget, even if sometimes it’s only a new kind of pain. Often the gift of funerals aren’t clear until much later. Sometimes the lesson may never be illuminated. But for me, it’s important to think that the funeral is the welcomed soapbox for mankind to deliver a final reminder to the remaining, that love is powerful and real, that we are often tethered to each other by our pain, and most importantly, that life is precious and happening.

jasonreynolds125x125Jason Reynolds is crazy. About stories. After earning a BA in English from The University of Maryland, College Park, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where you can often find him walking the four blocks from the train to his apartment talking to himself. Well, not really talking to himself, but just repeating character names and plot lines he thought of on the train, over and over again, because he’s afraid he’ll forget it all before he gets home. He is the author of the critically acclaimed When I Was the Greatest and The Boy in the Black Suit. You can find his ramblings at

The Boy in the Black Suit is now available.

X: A Conversation

Ilyasah Shabazz’s X: A Novel, written with Kekla Magoon, is the story of young Malcolm X. Before he became the legendary leader the world remembers, Malcolm was a young teen trying to find his way.

 By Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

x-bookcoverWhat it is like to work on a book project collaboratively? A collaboration starts as a conversation. One that might go a little something like this…

ILYASAH: I’ve always thought of this book as telling the story of my father before becoming Malcolm X — about his foundation, who he was at his core and the challenges he faced like any other young person depending on their circumstances.

KEKLA: Malcolm, before the X.

ILYASAH: Right. The struggles that he went through as a young man, which parallel the struggles many young people experience and the journey he went through to overcome them. My father was an exceptionally introspective and brilliant man, which helped him rise above his circumstances. He deeply believed that everyone has great potential, and the capability to do whatever one chooses. He spent his life learning, sharing, teaching, and motivating other people.

KEKLA: We tend to remember Malcolm as an adult, for his speeches and his leadership. But you wanted people to understand the depth of where his passion for social justice really came from.

ILYASAH: I thought it was important to showcase who Malcolm was, starting from his roots. All of us start off as an innocent child influenced by the adults around us.

KEKLA: His parents were activists. He had that legacy within his family, but he was pulled from them by the forces of the world. His father was murdered, and his mother was institutionalized, essentially, for being a proud black woman who confronted authority.

ILYASAH: When my father’s parents were no longer in his life, he struggled. But he was able to find his own individual power. I want teens to understand that if they find obstacles in their path, they must persevere through them much like our ancestors, upon whose shoulders we all stand today. Which, again, speaks to the importance of history — knowing what we can and must accomplish. They should listen to the little voice inside that encourages them to keep going.

KEKLA: Malcolm spent his teen years running from that history, but he eventually found his way back. He finally became the person he was raised to be. This book explores the time during which he was running, and it’s such a crucial piece of his story.

ILYASAH: People tend to gloss over it. They like to say he “miraculously” transformed while he was in prison. Rather, he regained a conscious connection to the strong foundation provided by his parents. A lot of emotion, pain, education, and effort went into that transformation, and it was really a return to being the person he was always supposed to be. The person he was at his core, and would have always been, had not he met the man-made challenges experienced in his youth after the assassination of his dad, the institutionalizations of his mom, and separation from his siblings.

KEKLA: For me, it was really fascinating to spend time with the individual behind the legacy. Before working on X with you, I reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X and your own autobiography (Growing Up X), and some other titles you recommended to me. Personally, I would consider it a process of doing research about Malcolm, but for you, I know that “research” isn’t exactly the right word. You have a much deeper connection.

ILYASAH: This story has been inside of me for such a long time, and I’m so honored to have had the privilege to work with you on it. This book came from the stories shared by my mother throughout my childhood, and information I collected from my aunts and uncles.I spoke to a lot of people who worked with my father. Listening to the impact that he left on so many people was overwhelming, emotional, and very informative.

KEKLA: It’s such a huge and personal thing, learning about your father. It’s inspiring to me that you are able to put so much energy into sharing Malcolm’s story with others.

ILYASAH: Most people don’t understand who Malcolm really was. As one of his six daughters, it is important to me to continue working to keep his true message alive in the world.

KEKLA: I’ve heard you talk about that a lot, for you and your sisters — the honor and the privilege and the challenge of carrying your father’s legacy forward. You’ve spoken, written and taught about him all your life.

ILYASAH:  My father’s life served as a source of inspiration. Most people don’t realize he was so young. When the world first heard of him he was only in his 20s, which is remarkable. He was only 39 when he was assassinated. He accomplished so much in such a short life. I thought it was important to focus on his teen years in this book, because Malcolm has had an impact on so many young people all over the world. Teens think he made these significant contributions as an old man, but they don’t realize that he was just like them. He was able to turn the challenges that he endured into a purpose-driven life of significance.

x-IlyasahShabazz175Ilyasah Shabazz, third daughter of Malcolm X, is an activist, producer, motivational speaker, and author of the critically acclaimed Growing Up X and the picture book Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X. She lives in Westchester County, New York.

x-Kekla_Magoon175Kekla Magoon is an award-winning author of many young adult novels, including The Rock and the River, for which she received the 2010 Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Kekla Magoon lives in New York City.