By Coe Booth
Two years ago, I visited a class at a school not too far from where I live in the Bronx. The students had read my novel Tyrell, and it was nice to be invited to speak to them about it. The kids were great, and we had a lively discussion. But what makes this visit so memorable was the age of the kids.
This was a sixth-grade class.
Needless to say, Tyrell was not written with sixth graders in mind, and anyone who has even read the first sentence would know why. But this teacher had read Tyrell aloud to her class, editing it as she read, trying to make what is clearly a book for teenagers something that could be appropriate for 11 and 12 year olds.
When I spoke to the teacher after the visit, she said she had run out of books she thought her students would like, books they could relate to. She knew they would connect with my character, Tyrell, because he looked like them and lived the way they did. She just had to adapt the book for their age.
The truth is, I was just like those kids when I was growing up. I went to a Bronx middle school just like theirs, and I had a hard time finding books about kids like me, too. Things have gotten better since I was their age, but not that much better.
When my brother was in fifth or sixth grade, he stopped reading altogether, and he never started again, not for fun. Not unless he had to read something for school. His son is at that age now, and like father, like son.
My nephew and that sixth-grade class are what motivated me to write Kinda Like Brothers. I had always wanted to write a middle-grade novel, and I didn’t want to wait any longer. There are so many inner-city kids, especially boys, who don’t have a whole lot of options when they walk through a library or bookstore. Books appear to be about — and for — other people. Not them.
I recently visited another sixth-grade class, this time for Kinda Like Brothers. The students were primarily African American, and they lived in a community much like my main character, Jarrett. It felt good being able to write a book that could be a mirror for these kids, one where they knew I had them in mind when I wrote it.
Middle-grade books are so important. This is the age where kids can begin to excel at reading and start to explore more and more genres, more and more interests. This is the age where they can become real readers. Or they can begin to think of themselves as non-readers, see books as boring, and then turn away from them. And then it’s so hard to get them back.
Diverse books increase the odds. They give all kids that chance to fall into the habit of reading — and hopefully fall in love with reading — before it’s too late.
Coe Booth was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology, and she has worked as a counselor for teenagers and families in crisis situations. She also has an MFA in creative writing from The New School in New York City. Coe’s first novel Tyrell was published in 2006, and it won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. Her novels Kendra and Bronxwood followed, and both were selected by the American Library Association as Best Books for Young Adults. Her first novel for middle-school readers, Kinda Like Brothers, was released earlier this fall. For more information, visit www.coebooth.com.
You can purchase a copy of Kinda Like Brothers here.