Novel (ages 8-12)
TRU & NELLE
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
LISTEN to audiobook sample
“Tru & Nelle is a gloriously realized return to the world of To Kill a Mockingbird. Neri's fictional take on the childhood friendship of Lee and Capote is both funny and deeply poignant—an utterly charming mystery-adventure that is part Huck Finn, part Anne of Green Gables and part Scooby Doo. It just might become a timeless classic itself.” - Margaret Stohl, #1 NY Times bestselling co-author of the Beautiful Creatures novels
(Starred) "In a bold but rewarding gambit, Neri imagines the childhood friendship of Harper Lee and Truman Capote—yet still making it entirely his own." - Booklist
(Starred) “Charming and elegantly written... an engaging portrait of two children's world before they became famous.” - Kirkus
(Starred) "In his terrific, often very funny middle-grade novel Tru & Nelle, Coretta Scott King Honor author G. Neri (Yummy) reimagines this heartwarming, close-knit friendship in a small Southern community that drips with heat and Spanish moss." - ShelfAwareness
"If you've ever wanted to run through the backyards of dusty old Maycomb, Alabama in search of high adventure and mystery, just like Scout, Dill, and Jem, then this is your chance. I hope you're up for some fun!" — Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
“Wonderfully imaginative... affirms the mysterious and glorious ways that friendship reaches across boundaries of all sorts to claim unexpected kinship.”—Gary D. Schmidt, author of Newbery Honor books Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars
"[Tru & Nelle] reads like a classic. Middle-grade readers will be touched by their resilience in the face of dark family and societal situations." — San Francisco Book Review
"A delightful tale...Tru & Nelle will enchant younger readers." - BookPage
"There is a gentle, azalea-scented goodness to Tru & Nelle that young readers may fall for, and which grants space to the racial ugliness of the past without dwelling exclusively on it." - USA Today
"A love letter to two cultural icons... Neri's homage envisions a deep, rewarding relationship between two children before the literary world knew their names." - Horn Book
"I think it's a valuable read for your kid, especially in today's climate... It's also a funny, sweet, and heartbreaking read wrapped in a detective story. This is a good one that works on a lot of levels. Read it with your kids." - Michael Buckley, author of The Sisters Grimm and N.E.R.D.S.
"Heartwarming, funny, and beautifully crafted; readers will be sucked in from the very first chapter." - School Library Journal
Awards and Honors:
- Junior Library Guild pick
- Capitol Choices - Best Audiobook nominee
- School Library Journal - Best Spine of the Year 2016
A Story Born from Real Life
As a child, Truman Capote lived for a several years in Monroeville, Alabama. With his fancy New Orleans clothes and eccentric ways, Tru had a hard time making friends in this small town of the Deep South—until he met Nelle Harper Lee. Nelle didn’t have many friends either. Her tomboy ways didn’t match with people’s views on how a young lady should act. But Tru didn’t care. Nelle was smart, imaginative and she loved detective books, just like he did. They were two misfits looking for adventure and struck up a friendship that would last for years.
In Tru & Nelle, G. Neri recasts their time together, rearranging events into a single small town mystery worthy of their active imaginations. The result is a flavorful bowl of Southern home-style yarns. Tru & Nelle may be fiction, but it captures the poetic truths of a brief moment between two writers before they became famous,
Truman Capote and (Nelle) Harper Lee went on to become two of the most heralded writers of the 20th century. Truman’s acclaimed works include Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Grass Harp, A Christmas Memory and In Cold Blood—a crime story that reunited him with Nelle in 1959. Until recently, Nelle had only published one book, but To Kill a Mockingbird has become an enduring classic that won the Pulitzer Prize and sold more than 40 million copies.
When Truman first spotted Nelle, he thought she was a boy. She was watching him like a cat, perched on a crooked stone wall that separated their rambling wood homes. Barefoot and dressed in overalls with a boyish haircut, Nelle looked to be about his age, but it was hard for Truman to tell — he was trying to avoid her stare by pretending to read his book.
"Hey, you,” she finally said.
Truman gazed up from the pages. He was sitting quietly on a wicker chair on the side porch of his cousins’ house, dressed in a little white sailor suit.
“Are you . . . talking to me?” he said in a high wispy voice.
“Come here,” she commanded.
He straightened his little white suit and wandered slowly past the trellises of wisteria vines and japonica flowers until he came upon the stone wall.
Truman was taken aback. He scrunched up his face; he’d been confused by Nelle’s short hair and overalls. “You’re a . . . girl?”
Nelle stared back at him even harder. Truman’s high voice, white-blond hair, and sailor outfit had thrown her for a loop too.
“You’re a boy?” she asked, incredulous.
“We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn't have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn't have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers, and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama. Did you never play Tarzan when you were a child? Did you never tramp through the jungle or refight the battle of Gettysburg in some form or fashion? We did. Did you never live in a tree house and find the whole world in the branches of a chinaberry tree? We did.” - Harper Lee
“I want to write about my own life, about what it meant to be a child in the South… about Jenny and Sook and Bud and the life we all lived together in that big house. About riding on those big steamboats where my father worked. About tap-dancing while Satchmo and his band played. About all that time.” – Truman Capote
Mini-documentary about my time in Monroeville.
Truman Capote at 8
Nelle Harper Lee and actress playing her younger self, on set of To Kill a Mockingbird
Nelle Harper, age 21
Nelle Harper and Truman in Kansas, 1960, during research of In Cold Blood
Tru and Sook
Harper Lee's father and model for Atticus
Truman's cousin Big Boy
Nelle Harper Lee, editor of school paper
Older Truman dressed as Sherlock Holmes
All that remains of Harper's home.
Nelle Harper Lee with her new novel, 2015
Novel (ages 10 and up)
GHETTO COWBOY by G. Neri
illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
from Candlewick Press - ISBN: 9780763649227
From the 2011 Coretta Scott King Author Award-winner comes a street-smart tale about a displaced teen who learns to defend what’s right— the Cowboy Way.
Suddenly, something big and white bumps up against the car and I jump. I think I must be dreamin’ ’cause I just saw a horse run by.
When Cole’s mom dumps him in mean streets of Philly to live with the dad he’s never met, the last thing Cole expects to see is a horse—let alone a stable full of them. He may not know much about cowboys, but what he knows for sure is that cowboys ain't black and they don’t live in the inner city! But on Chester Avenue, horses are a way of life, and soon Cole’s days of goofing off and skipping school in Detroit have been replaced by shoveling muck and trying not to get stomped on.
Crazy as it may seem, the lifestyle grows on Cole, and he starts to think that maybe life as a ghetto cowboy isn’t so bad. But when the City threatens to shut down the stables—and take away the horse that Cole has come to think of as his own—he knows that he has to fight back.
Inspired by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Ghetto Cowboy is an timeless urban western about learning to stand up for what’s right—the Cowboy Way.
Harper's place is full of horse stuff: a couple a old saddles, blankets, brushes, work boots, horse things like you see on TV. Instead of furniture, there’s even them square things of hay to sit on. This ain’t no house, it’s a barn. To top it off, there a big ol’ hole from floor to ceiling knocked into the side of the living room, leading into the place next door, like he just wanted to expand his crib and took over the abandoned one next to his.
I peek inside the hole, but it’s dark ‘cause all the windows is boarded up. But man, it really smells like animal in there. Suddenly, something big moves in the dark and I jump back. “That’s Lightning,” says Harper.
My eyes adjust to a pair of dark eyes staring back at me. It’s a horse. He got a horse in the house. No wonder Mama left him.
Harper must see my eyes buggin’ out, ‘cause he smirks, “Welcome to Philly, boy.”
Blurbs and Reviews:
“Once again, G. Neri has done what he does best: taken a real-life scenario and turned it into compelling fiction. Cole's authentic voice will resonate with readers—it grabbed me right from the start and wouldn’t let me go. An outstanding book!” - Coe Booth, author of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner Tyrell
“The unique subject matter alone makes this a book worth picking up. Cole’s heartwarming, heartrending voice, his struggle, and his triumph, make this a book worth reading to the end.” - Sundee T. Frazier, author of the Coretta Scott King / John Steptoe New Talent Award Winner Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It
“Ghetto Cowboy is an exceptional and deeply moving story about a father and son finding their way to each other and a community daring to fight for what they believe in. G. Neri has created a story that ropes us in and saddles us up for a heartwarming ride.” - Hope Anita Smith, author of the Coretta Scott King Honor Winner Keeping the Night Watch
"Maybe part of the reason I like Greg Neri so much is that he’s not afraid to be as “urban” as “urban” can be. He writes in dialect, sets his stories in cities, talk about gangs and other contemporary issues, and produces stories that no one else is telling. That no one else is even attempting to tell. Because if there’s one thing Neri does well it’s tell a tale that needs to be told. Boys and their attachment horses haven’t garnered this much attention since the good old days of The Black Stallion. There’s an honesty to Neri’s writing that kids are going to respond to. They’ll discover a book that speaks to them. Inspiration comes from funny places sometimes. Wherever it comes from, though, it’s worth it in the end. Definitely recommended for everyone." - Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal
“A heartwarming story about inner-city kids who bond with a band of forgotten race horses. Jesse Joshua Watson’s realistic pencil and graphite wash illustrations combine with Neri's gritty street language to make a powerful story. The rhythm of the writing, the smells and sounds of the neighborhood, the developing relationship between a boy and his estranged father add up to an appealing novel, especially for an under-written-for segment of young male readers." -Christian Science Monitor
"The city cowboys of Philadelphia and elsewhere are a fascinating and little-documented topic, and this is an eye-opening glimpse into that world; readers will particularly appreciate the close male bonding of the group, with its multigenerational relationships and friendly racing rivalries. The book a likely sell to reluctant readers and possibility for older readalouds-- It’s got broad application and considerable appeal.” – Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"This well-crafted novel has both well-developed characters and an exciting plot. Moreover, the storyline is built around several economics themes, including the role of property rights in empowering productive activities and the power of incentives in influencing decisions. Ghetto Cowboy should not be missed." - Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children
Richie's Picks: “GHETTO COWBOY is the coming of age story of [a boy called] Coltrane and the fiery old racehorse he names Boo. It is a great story of community building and of the therapeutic effect of animals and of the history of black cowboys.” - RichiesPick
“This book was an excellent read. The story is extremely well written, with strong characters, and the plot has a great pace. The illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson are great; they give the book a feel; they help set you in the place of the story. This book is well worth reading both for youth and with them. Both Neri and Watson have crafted a first-rate read.” – Entertainment Today
"Based on the real-life, inner city black horsemen of Philadelphia and New York City, Neri’s story is original in theme and inspirational in tone and content." - Booklist
“It’s a fascinating glimpse of a culture most readers will not have heard of…Watson’s illustrations in pencil, ink and acrylic add a satisfying visual dimension.” -Kirkus Reviews
"This well-written book is based on a true story of urban cowboys in Philadelphia and New York. Cole’s spot-on emotional insight is conveyed through believable dialogue and the well-paced plot offers information about a little-known aspect of African-American history as well as a portrait of contemporary urban stable life. Watson’s illustrations punctuate the intriguing aspects of the story and make the novel more appealing." - School Library Journal
“[Ghetto Cowboy] is so good! And yes, that was me you heard cheering and crying at the end. If you are looking for an inspirational book for young readers (and yourselves!) you can add this book to your list. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!” - Rhapsody in Books
“One of the things I love about Neri, he knows how to tell a good story. Ghetto Cowboy moves at a great pace and everything fits together very well. I loved Watson's illustrations, they added a nice dimension to the story.” – Happy Nappy Bookseller
“Neri’s story is… a fascinating and unique tale with a diverse cast of characters and a real sense of community. This is a great book for a reluctant reader or a horselover like myself. It’s also a perfect book for reading aloud. Neri manages to address very serious issues, keeping kids off the street and fighting for what is right, while remaining entertaining. This book was a pleasure to read. As an added bonus the black and white illustrations are lovely.” - The Rogue Librarian
“A funny, sad, tragic, wry, and very real story. One of the BEST surprises of the book for me were the illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson, [they] really make the imagination sing.” - Finding Wonderland
“This compelling tale of latter-day cowboy justice champions a world where your friends always have your back, especially when the chips are down.” – Indigo
Awards and Honors:
· 2012 Horace Mann Upstanders Children's Book Award
· 2012 ALA Odyssey Award Honor
· 2011 Junior Library Guild pick
· 2013 Texas Bluebonnet Master List
· 2012 ALSC Notable Recording
· 2012 YALSA Amazing Audiobook pick
· 2011 Cybil Award finalist
· 2012 School Library Journal Best Audio for Middle School
· 2011 AudioFile Earphones Award
· 2011 NYPL's 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
· 2011 100 Magnificent Children's Books
· 2011 VOYA Top Shelf for Middle School Readers
· 2012 Pennsyvania Young Readers' Choice List
· 2012 Tennessee's Volunteer State Award Finalist
· 2014 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award finalist
· 2013 Maine Student Book Award finalist
· 2014 Evergreen Young Adult Book Award finalist
· 2014 South Carolina Book Award finalist
· 2014 Garden State Teen Book Award finalist
Though this story is fiction, it’s inspired by the real life urban black horsemen of North Philadelphia and the Brooklyn-Queens area. The picture here is from the LIFE magazine article that made me sit up and take notice, and led me to look deeper into the unique pocket of American life.
The Brooklyn guys run the Federation of Black Cowboys, while the folks on Fletcher Street in Philly continue their battles against the City. Both use horses to keep young men off the streets. Both fight to maintain a tradition that has gone on for generations. But they’re doing it their way. More power to ‘em.
Pictures and slideshows:
Graphic Novel (ages 11 and up)
YUMMY: THE LAST DAYS OF A SOUTHSIDE SHORTY
by G. Neri and illustrated by Randy duBurke
from Lee & Low Books
In August of 1994, 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer—nicknamed for his love of sweets—fired a gun at a group of rival gangmembers, accidentally killing a neighborhood girl, Shavon Dean. Police searched Chicago’s southside for three days before finding Yummy dead in a railway tunnel, killed by members of the drug gang he’d sought to impress. The story made such an impact that Yummy appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, drawing national attention to the problems of inner city youth in America.
YUMMY: THE LAST DAYS OF A SOUTHSIDE SHORTY relives the confusion of these traumatic days from the point of view of Roger, a neighborhood boy who struggles to understand the senseless violence swirling through the streets around him. Awakened by the tragedy, Roger seeks out answers to difficult questions—Was Yummy a killer or a victim? Was he responsible for his actions or are others to blame?
What Roger learns proves to be a puzzle of contradictions. Some say Yummy was a thug who deserved what he got. Others remember a sweet kid that liked candy and watching the Little Rascals. Neighbors blame his abusive parents for turning Yummy into a monster. The media blames the state system that turned him back out onto the streets time and time again. Politicians blame the laws that allowed gangs to use minors to commit felonies because they can’t be convicted as adults. Confronted with a blurry reality, Roger attempts to understand it all— including his own brother’s involvement in the very gang that killed Yummy.
At Yummy’s funeral, Roger feels the senseless weight of Yummy and Shavon’s deaths. As the minister looks out on the crowd, he bluntly implores them to “Cry if you will, but make up your mind that you will never let your life end like this.” In the end, Roger, like the reader, is left to decide for himself what truths can be learned from life and death of Yummy Sandifer.
Awards and Lists:
2011 Coretta Scott King Author Honor
2011 ALA Notable Book
2010 Cybil Award - Best YA Graphic Novel
2011 Once Upon a World Children's Book Award
2011 Eisner Award finalist - Best Teen Book
2012 Street Lit Book Award - Emerging Classic
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2010
Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2010
Booklist Editor's Choice Best Books of 2010
2011 YALSA Top 10 Quick Picks
2011 ALA Great Graphic Novels for Teens
2015 YALSA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults
Booklist's Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth
School Library Journal Best Comics for 2010
2011 CCBC Choices
2011 Storytelling World Honor Award
2011 IRA Notable Book for a Global Society
2011 Glyph Award finalist - Story of the Year
SLJ's Fuse #8: 100 Magnificent Children’s Books of 2010 List
PW Comic Weekly Fifth Annual Critics Poll List
Chicago Public Library - Best of the Best Book
2011 Virginia, Indiana, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Louisiana Readers' Choice List for High School
2012 Maverick Graphic Novel List from the Texas Library Association
2010 Best Books for Youths (Philadelphia Inquirer, Times Union)
Top 5 Graphic Novels of 2010 (Guys Lit Wire, Nexus Graphica)
Cynsational Books of 2010
Flavorwire's Top 25 Essential Graphic Novels (All-time)
"A haunting, ripped-from-the-headlines account of youth gang violence in Chicago provides the backdrop for a crucial mediation on right and wrong. A much-needed look at the terrifying perils of life on the margins that will have all readers pondering the heady question of moral responsibility." --KIRKUS
"A harrowing portrait...Yummy will earn both the reader’s livid rage and deep sympathy, even as the social structure that created him is cast, once again, as America’s undeniable shame. This is a graphic novel that pushes an unsightly but hard to ignore socio-political truth out into the open." --Booklist
"Yummy [is] something entirely new. Gritty, real, willing to ask tough questions, and willing to trust that young readers will be able to reach their own conclusions. This is a story that needs to be told and it needs to be told to kids. Believe me, you’ve nothing like this in your collection. Better get it while you can." -- School Library Journal
"Call it historical fiction to be technically correct, but for kids who still grow up believing that "you make it past 19 these days, you a senior citizen around here," it's heartbreakingly contemporary. Highly recommended." --Bulletin of the Center for Children's Book
"A stunning graphic novel... Teens who enjoy stand -alone graphic novels will be drawn to the compelling story and art, and moved by the tragic unfolding of events. This novel would also be an excellent resource for a classroom discussion on gang violence." --VOYA
"My favorite book of the year? Hands down, it's the graphic novel Yummy." --Amy Cheney, School Library Journal
"Neri's straightforward, unadorned prose is the perfect complement to DuBurke's stark black-and-white inks; great slabs of shadow and masterfully rendered faces breathe real, tragic life into the players. In the end readers are left with troubling questions and, perhaps, one powerful answer: that they can choose to do everything in their power to ensure that no one shares Yummy's terrible fate." --Publishers Weekly
"It's gritty, it's honest, and it's devastating. And it's also SO important. Kids need to read this book and see what can truly happen when certain choices are made." -- A Patchwork of Books
"This is a work that demands discussion. Prepare for a story that won’t easily let you go. Highly Recommended." --Linus's Blanket
"Yummy is a choice pick, not to be missed for graphic novel collections." - Midwest Book Review
"Every once in a while, a story comes along that simply must be told - even though it tears you apart. Yummy, by G. Neri, is that story." --YA Book Central
"I am recommending it to everyone, adults who teach middle-schoolers and the middle-schoolers themselves, because a book like this doesn't come along very often. So exceptional that an exception to our review policy had to be made-- it's a must-read."--What's good in the Library
"Neri and DuBurke's portrayal of this tragic young man is both compassionate and unflinching." --Gene Luen Yang, creator of American Born Chinese
"Yummy should be canonical middle school reading. Yummy should be the 21st century Anne Frank. Middle school children should read it as part of their discussions on humanity, morality, and the responsibilities of civil society." - Pink Me
"It's the sparse and effective text that truly broke my heart. YUMMY is one of the most difficult and beautiful graphic novels I've seen and will linger with me for a long time." --YA Highway
"A stunning and spectacular read...This is unlike any graphic novel I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ve never read anything quite like this." --BookDads
"So the other night I read YUMMY by G. Neri, a book that has been buzzed about in many of the reading communities I belong to. Lately, every time I turn around, someone is talking about this graphic novel. And now I know why: It’s brilliant." --The Hate-Mongering Tart
"An absolutely brilliant graphic novel that pulls the reader in from the very first panel." --Booktalk
How Yummy came about
“Sometimes stories get to you; this one left my stomach in knots. After three days of reporting, I still couldn't decide which was more appalling: the child's life or the child's death."
This quote from Jon Hull of TIME magazine pretty much summed up my feelings about Yummy. I remember when the story first broke. It was the September of 1994 and I was teaching in a classroom in South Central Los Angeles. I had been working with “problem” kids—some kids came from broken homes, some had siblings or parents in jail or some had family members who had been killed in the gangs wars that seemed everywhere at the time. More than a few of times, I heard an announcement come over the P.A. system for a memorial service of a student who had been killed.
I remember following Yummy’s story day-by-day. A couple of the students had heard about it and we argued about whether he was a victim or a bully. A few days later, when Yummy was found dead and all the facts came out, I wasn’t sure who the bad guy was. There were no winners in this story, only losers.
I couldn't get the story out of my mind, so I wrote about it. A few similar tragedies happened within a few months of this incident, all in the Southside of Chicago, all involving juvenile boys that ended in death. What came out of me was a movie script I wrote called Lil' Killers , which was a sprawling look at three of these incidents intertwined over a two month time period all within a few miles of each other. The script was a finalist for the Sundance Film Lab and was probably the best thing I had written to date. But everytime I thought about making it into a film, something stopped me. Film is such an immediate and visceral medium that would surely earn an R rating, cutting off the young people who needed to see this story.
The end result is I kept searching for a different way to tell the tale of Yummy, one that might have positive ramifications. After many years and many false starts in mediums that ranged from theater to art installations to short stories, Yummy (one of the stories from Lil' Killers) found it's way to being a graphic novel. It seemed like the perfect way to reach young males --reluctant readers might read comics and if I was lucky, I'd get them right at that prime age where they might be making these life decisions about whether to join a gang or not. I didn't want to hit the reader over the head with it (just say no to gangs!) but I felt in just telling Yummy's story simply and without a heavy-handed moral lesson, they could decide for themselves what lessons there were to be learned. I wanted to plant seeds, just enough to start an internal discussion when a young person was confronted with joining a gang. Maybe that seed of doubt might bloom into something positive.
My hope is that Yummy will find its way into classrooms, libraries and into the hands of reluctant readers. This is a story that needs to be talked about and I hope that Yummy is just the starting point for a deeper, more meaningful discussion with young people all over this country.
YA Novel (ages 14 and up)
KNOCKOUT GAMES by G. Neri
from Carolrhoda Labs
"The results are thrilling... the author’s meaty ideas and exciting action sequences blend together perfectly. Neri’s main concern is the “post-racial” urban landscape, raising many talking points while letting readers come to their own conclusions. Harsh and relentless, a tough but worthy read." - KIRKUS (STARRED REVIEW)
Part Oliver Twist, part Fight Club, set in urban St. Louis, the novel is about a newly transplanted white sophomore girl named Erica who finds herself alienated in an almost all-black school. Her only friend is a video camera-- a gift from her recently estranged father. She withdraws into a world only experienced through her lens, but the camera leads to a run-in with a girl named Destiny, who takes Erica under her wings as the mascot and videographer for the mysterious TKO Club. Erica soon finds out what the club wants her to record: the notorious knockout games where kids pick out a stranger at random and try to knock them out with one punch. At first, Erica is shocked, but any doubts are diminished when she falls for the TKO leader, a Junior everyone calls the Knockout King. She starts filming the club’s games, first as a kind of documentary, then as a way to make friends. But she sinks deeper and deeper into the world of the knockout game as she gains a following online and the respect of the club. Next things she knows, she’s up to her neck in trouble when one of the victims dies and suddenly, it’s murder. Now she has to come to terms with her actions and the wake of victims she and her crew has left behind.
"The indispensable Neri (Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty) delivers another strong shot to the chin with this bracing look at the initiations of sex and violence." - Daniel Kraus, Booklist
"Neri skillfully portrays the moral and emotional turmoil of a teen desperate for acceptance, and the repercussions of making hard decisions. Racial and social undercurrents further give this story an intense, thought-provoking edge." - Publisher's Weekly
"Rather than merely trading on the latest sensation, Neri crafts a hauntingly realistic story about the unintentional slides into moral uncertainty that can happen when a person feels lonely and unloved. Through Kalvin’s slick assurances, readers will half believe that knocking out a stranger is really no big deal compared to what you gain from it: a physical high from the exercise of power and violence, and the admiration of people who seem worth attracting. It’s only ever a half belief, however, as Neri manages to get readers to both share and disengage from Erica’s perspective through her positions on both sides of the camera. This is a hard yet important story to share, even when the novelty of this particular violent “game” fades into the next one." -BCCB
"Neri deftly handles various themes: being an outsider; the relationship between boredom and violence; doing what is right (and being labeled a snitch) versus keeping quiet and hanging onto her newfound friends. Particularly effective is the Gatsby-esque reference to eyes (or “eyez”) and watchers: disembodied eyes on neighborhood walls and t-shirts; the Watchers protecting neighborhoods; and Erica’s own all-seeing camera. Are they observing, or are they judging? This is Neri’s most powerful novel to date." - Horn Book
"Neri’s novel is not for the faint of heart. He deals with some extremely tough subjects including teen/gang violence, abuse, and teenage pregnancy, making the novel even more significant and powerful. This is a novel that needs to be read and discussed by both teens and adults. Get this one out there and start the discussion." - VOYA
- 2014 Silver Medalist - Florida Book Awards
- 2014 TAYSHAS Master Reading List
- 2014 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults finalist
- 2015 Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year
- Kirkus Reviews Most Overlooked Book of 2014
- 2015 CCBC Choice
WHERE THE STORY CAME FROM
In Spring of 2012, I visited St. Louis to do some school visits organized by the St. Louis Public Library. The librarian in charge wanted me to visit a specific school and branch of the library system. She kept saying there was a reason and finally, as we drove there, she asked me: "Have you ever heard of the Knockout Game?"
I had not. I had worked with gangs, been to all kinds of urban inner cities throughout America, but I had not heard of the phenomena she was about to tell me. The middle school we were visiting had been recently raided, SWAT-style, by the cops and several arrests had been made regarding this “game.” And right outside the library where we were going that night, a Knockout Game ended in the death of an elderly man.
The rules of the game were simple. A group of kids, mostly middle graders, gathered in some random spot and picked a random passer-by. One of the teens was given the task to approach the stranger and knock them out with one punch. They did not steal their money. It was simply something they found to be funny; perhaps a way to escape their boring lives and prove their manhood.
There were several high profile cases, one of which was thrown out when a 13-year-old failed to testify at the last minute. Because of the mistrial, the real TKO Club was back out on the streets. Citizens were up in arms but the police were helpless. There was no pattern, no rhyme or reason. People were getting seriously hurt, both physically and emotionally. These kids had the run of the streets.
I was immediately drawn to this unknown world. But what also grabbed my attention was that it was not a gang affiliated activity. It was more like a social club-- Fight Club for teens, if you will. And there were girls in these groups. Who were these kids and why were they doing this? How could they make videos of their conquests? I started Googling and the attacks went back years. It was one of these closed off worlds we rarely get a glimpse into. And the kicker was: the one real lead that tied these assaults together was a person of interest called the Knockout King. This was crazy stuff, part Lord of the Flies, part Oliver Twist, only set in St. Louis.
The librarian wanted me to talk to these kids at this school because they had responded to my book Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty. She wanted me to reach out to them because, frankly, the staff was having a hard time reaching them. Afterwards, I quickly decided that the best way to have an impact was to make this story my next project. I went home and began writing.
Knockout King trial
YA Novel (ages 14 and up)
SURF MULES by G. Neri
from G.P.Putnam's Sons (2009)/ Carolrhoda Labs (2014)
TWO CALIFORNIA SURFERS FIND THEMSELVES EMBROILED IN A WORLD OF DISORGANIZED CRIME.
When Logan Tom goes searching for the Perfect Monster Wave, he doesn’t expect his former best friend, Fin Hamilton, to be killed by it. With everything else going wrong in his life—including a deadbeat dad who bankrupted his family, a mom on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the possibility of college going down the drain—Logan is suddenly in a tailspin. So when small-time drug dealer Broza offers Logan and his dropout pal, Z-boy, a summer job that could make them rich, it seems like all his problems are solved. But between Z-boy’s constant screw-ups, a band of Nazi surfers out for blood, and a mysterious stranger on their tail, Logan is starting to have serious doubts about hauling contraband across country. What started off as a summer job adventure in disorganized crime, quickly turns into a dangerous quest, where the boys find their friendship and loyalty pushed to the limits. Now all these young surf mules have to do is survive.
"Like a monster wave, Neri's story rockets you through the pipeline of teenage angst, delivering a rousing and unforgettable ride." - Paul Volponi, author of Hurricane Song and Black & White.
"Neri's novel catches readers' interest on the very first page and propels them to the end in this intense, funny, and exciting read. Reluctant readers will be hooked on this fast-paced, interesting adventure... it is a definite buy." -School Library Journal
"Harrowing... Neri delivers a powerful story that doesn't flinch... Sometimes brutal, but always realistic, this will find an audience among teens looking for gritty contemporary fiction." - Booklist
"The tortured but loving friendship between Logan and Z-boy proves poignant and heartbreaking. Logan's agonized wrestling with morally ambiguous choices and his flawed yet appealing family and friends should find a wide audience." - Publisher's Weekly
"Neri sandwiches his story between a crackling opening and a whipsaw climactic scene... older boys who say they’ve never read anything will be attracted to the novel’s... [view of a] friendship on the brink of disaster." - Kirkus Review
"Fraught with danger... many will be caught up in the page-turning action of the story. Neri does a great job of creating sympathy for the two hapless surfers." - VOYA
"With a splash of surfer vernacular and a flood of genuine emotional struggle, Neri's book reflects the complexity of young adult life while offering options and hope." - The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literature
"I loved it-- I was totally hooked... a gripping and meaningful tale with some beautifully literary moments." -Literacy for Teens
"There’s a new YA novelist in town by the name of G. Neri... His first YA novel Surf Mules is sure to be a hit." - ALAN News of Note
"All you have to do is read the opening chapter and you will be hooked on reading this fast-paced, interesting tale. Intense, funny and exciting. This is a must read." - Winters' Wonderland
How the story came about:
The story was inspired by an accidental encounter I had one morning in Hermosa Beach. I was going for a walk and way down the shore, I noticed a big commotion. There were about 50 surfers in the water, with two coast guard boats, their water canons shooting high into the sky. On the beach, a large crowd had gathered with several lifeguard trucks, their lights blazing. My first thought was: beached whale. They must be trying to lure a whale back out to sea.
But when I got up close, I saw it was some kind of ceremony. A young surfer in his teens had died a few days earlier in a surfing accident. I looked around and saw surfers from age 7 to 70 and many others from the community. They were spreading his ashes out to sea, and I thought, who was this kid to inspire such a turnout?
When I got home, I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I started writing a scene, which eventually became chapter 4. I was just trying to capture the moment and what these people were feeling about this young surfer. It was just supposed to be a short story, but my writing group liked it a lot and wanted more. How did this kid die? What was his story up till that moment? I wrote more. And the more I wrote, the more they wanted.
I never thought I could write a novel, but they tricked me. Before long, it became too lengthy to be a short story, or even a novella. I was in too deep and couldn’t turn back. Luckily, I had seen folks in my group write their novels. They were just like me and watching their stories evolve week by week made me think that maybe I could do it too.
Eventually, I remembered a script I had written with a friend of mine, back in my filmmaking days. It was a comedy about drug smugglers who were surfers and somehow, that idea entered into this world I was creating. It happened organically and by accident, but soon, the two threads were off and running. The second half of the novel sailed quickly by and suddenly, 310 pages in, I realized I no longer needed what I thought was the third act. This is where the story ended. I had somehow written my first novel!
Some will ask, is this story autobiographical in any way? Only in a sense of capturing the southern California surf scene of my teen years. All the smuggling elements came from research on the film project and from hearing the crazy true-life stories these surf mules had. But no, I am not Logan, I had great parents, and I went away to college. My best friend was not Z-boy and I didn't have a friend die in a surfing accident. It's called fiction.
But I hope you get something real out of Logan's fictional journey from adolesence to adulthood. The choices we make in that transition are choices that can sometimes effect the rest of our lives. Those decisions are very real. The key is to learn from them and to keep moving forward.
2014 paperback reissue
2009 Hardcover version
Free-verse Novella (ages 10 and up)
CHESS RUMBLE by G. Neri and illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
from Lee and Low Books
is all it takes
to change the outcome
of the game.
In Marcus's world, battles are fought everyday -- on the street, at home, and in school. Angered by his sister's death and his father's absence, and pushed to the brink by a bullying classmate, Marcus fights back with his fists.
One punch away from being kicked out of school and his home, Marcus encounters CM, an unlikely chess master who challenges him to fight his battles on the chess board. Now, he is in for the match of his life as he struggles to regain control.
Inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs, Chess Rumble explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate their moves through the game of life.
Reading and Interest Level: Grades 4 through 8
Themes: chess, family, school, bullying, conflict resolution, coping with death, mentors, urban life, African American interest
Awards and Honors
· 2010 Lee Bennett Hopkins/ International Reading Association Promising Poet Award
· 2008 American Library Association Notable Book
· 2008 NCTE/ IRA Notable Children's Book in the EnglishLanguage Arts
· 2009 ALA Quick pick for Reluctant YA Readers
· 2009 International Reading Association's Young Adults' Choices list
· 2008 Bank Street Awards Best Children's Books List
· 2008 Society of School Librarians International Best Book in the Language Arts
· 2008 Skipping Stones Honor Award
· 2009 N.Y. State Reading Association Charlotte Award Reading List
· Top Pick for Reluctant Readers - BoysRead.org
“‘In my ’hood, battles is fought every day,’ quips Marcus, an angry middle schooler on the brink of big trouble. His words, rife with frustration, tumble across page after page in free-flowing verse as he paints a picture of his quickly fading innocence. Chess Rumble works, and works well. Neri expertly captures Marcus’s voice and delicately teases out his alternating vulnerability and rage. The cadence and emotion of the verse are masterfully echoed through Watson’s expressive acrylic illustrations. This book will become a standby pick for reluctant readers, who will be pulled in before they know it by the story’s quick pace and the authenticity of Marcus’s voice and experience.” - SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL
“In this strong debut, Marcus’ authentic voice narrates in potent, free-verse poetry. With minimal, direct words, Neri makes clear, without overstating, how Marcus’ sense of being misunderstood amplifies his frustrations and how, through chess, he learns to take responsibility for his feelings and actions. Readers of all backgrounds will find themselves here, but this will have particular appeal among reluctant readers and young, inner-city teens.” —BOOKLIST
“Chess Rumble provides a gripping and moving account of an eleven-year old boy’s struggles with living in poverty in a single-parent household after the death of his sister. Based on real inner-city enrichment programs that teach kids how to play chess, this book shows how a unique social program can help children to develop new skills, meet new people, and begin to overcome disadvantaged economic circumstances. This fast-paced and intriguing book is bound to hold the attention of most young readers as they get a good dose of important lessons in economics, sociology, and social policy.”— Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children
“The best part of this short, illustrated, verse novel is the voice of the main character's first person narration. As I read, I could actually hear Marcus's voice saying the words in my head. . . . Chess Rumble is touching and real.” — Miss Erin
G. Neri's CHESS RUMBLE is appealing to reluctant readers, especially boys, on a number of levels. Neri nails the voice of a boy growing up in the inner city in a way that's reminiscent of Walter Dean Myers. This novella in verse is full of language that's vivid and accessible, and Jesse Joshua Watson's illustrations in shades of black, brown, and gray help to set the mood. This one has serious kid-appeal -- not just for the kids who already love to read but for those who don't often find books on the library shelves that seem to be written for them. This one is. —Kate's Book Blog
“Jesse Joshua Watson has created captivating and realistic images that propel Chess Rumble's pages to come alive.” — BoysRead.org
“I wish there were books like this when I was a kid. And I gotta give G. Neri his props for so successfully capturing the voice of a troubled 11-year-old, African American male from the hood. Marcus’ language is street, conversational and real. He talks just like I did at 11-years-old, and often still do. Watson’s acrylic illustrations are strong and bold, full of emotion, and have a graphic art quality about them.”—The Brown Bookshelf
"I love genre benders, and this gripping, dark look at an urban African-American kid's anger and confusion defies pigeonholing. The 11-year-old narrator, who goes by Hulk or Fattie, depending on whether you're friend or foe, wields free verse like a blunt stick, now tapping out a rhythm, now beating us freely with rapid images, impressions and raw action from his damaged life. This is one kid on the edge, and the abyss is a single misstep away. Where it leads and how we get there is for you to discover. It reads quickly, but this is one story that lingers long after the covers are closed. Rating: **** (four stars) — BookBuds.com
A remarkable, upbeat young adult treatise on anger and loss, Neri’s work treads carefully into a child’s heart to locate and eradicate the roots of violence. The text describes in words and lifelike poses the pressures of school, street, and home on a troubled fatherless boy. Carefully paced with realistic confrontations, the story concludes with inductive logic that illuminates for the protagonist his need for self-control. Highly recommended for a gift book and for public, elementary, middle school, and high school libraries and on reading lists for coursework in creative writing, education, illustration, linguistics, psychology, religion, and social services. —Counterpoise
G. Neri’s free-verse novella, richly illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson, takes us into the young man’s world of hurt, pain – and ultimately of promise. Neri’s storytelling is close and warm. He has a great ear for dialogue, and he knows how people can say and not-say something with the very same words. His characters are very real. Watson captures the emotions of each page, and pours them into his art work. The author says he writes for “reluctant readers” (targeting grades 4 through 8) with the hope that his stories will “open minds to reading.” Average and avid readers – chess players and non-players alike – will enjoys Chess Rumble, as well. While everyone’s minds are “open” they will have much to learn, too, from Neri, CM, and even Marcus. —Chessville
How Chess Rumble came about
I was just putting the finishing touches on my first book, Yummy, when I talked to my editor Jennifer Fox about future projects. She mentioned that she had been wanting to do a book about the urban chess scene for a few years, but hadn't found the right people for it. So she asked me if that might be something I'd like to explore.
She gave no parameters for it. It could be a picture book or a YA novel. She had a few articles about chess programs in the schools she gave me, but had no directives about what the story had to be. I was immediately interested, not because I knew anything about chess (not much anyways), but because I wanted to return the favor of having her pick me out of the slush pile. And I wanted another book published.
What happened though, took me by surprise. The end result is nothing like I could have imagined-- a completely organic story that grew entirely out of a freeflowing process of discovery. At first, I was trying to write a picture book. But I found myself writing two stories: one about a tough chess mentor and the other about a troubled teen who was always getting into fights.
At some point, I realized the two stories could work together and I made two columns, lining up the stories side by side. Then I started swapping in paragraphs from one story to the other until, miraculously, the two merged seemlessly. I ended up keeping the first column, thus it became a long free-verse looking poem, something I had not really done before.
From there it grew in leaps and bounds as I discovered the wonderful possibilities of this form. We had no guide for this format, but we looked at The Way a Door Closes and could see how it might come together in the end. The slang became an issue at one point, but, spurred on by Coe Booth's Tyrell, we went for it and it finally gelled. When Jesse Joshua Watson joined the team, it all felt right.
Hopefully you'll think so too.
Short Stories (all ages)
TRAVELING THE BLUE ROAD: Poems of the Sea
Read never-before-published poetry about the magic, beauty, and promise of sea voyages, compiled by award-winning poet Lee Bennett Hopkins.
Gorgeous illustrations surround a collection of poetry written for children about the magic, beauty, and promise of sea voyages. Compiled and edited by award-winning poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, the poems describe how the sea has historically shone as a metaphor for hope and despair and served as a pathway for people searching for new life, including poems about the pilgrims coming to the New World, the Mariel boatlift, the Vietnamese boat people, a Dutch slave ship, the current migration situation in the Mediterranean, and the voyage of the St. Louis.
Contributing poets include Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Paul Janeczko, J. Patrick Lewis, Allan Wolf, Marilyn Nelson, Denver Butson, Georgia Heard, Jane Yolen, Margarita Engle, Naomi Shihab Nye, and G. Neri
OPEN MIC - Anthology by Candlewick Press
Listen in as ten YA authors -- some familiar, some new -- use their own brand of humor to share their stories about growing up between cultures. Featuring G. Neri's Under Berlin, where a biracial girl is amused when her dad clears seats for his family on a crowded subway in under a minute, simply by sitting quietly between two uptight women. Edited by acclaimed author and speaker Mitali Perkins, this collection of fiction and nonfiction uses a mix of styles as diverse as their authors, from laugh-out-loud funny to wry, ironic, or poignant, in prose, poetry, and comic form.
"G. Neri's "Under Berlin" - a riff on the not entirely comfortable sensation of being the only brown family on a subway in Germany - is one of the most delightful and subversive pieces in the book." - Philadelphia Inquirer
Me: Under Berlin is one of my favorite short stories that I've done, based on experiences I had when I lived in Berlin back in 2010.
Read excerpt here.
THE HUNT FOR THE LEATHER APRON - Nightmare Magazine
On August 4th, 2014, a researcher at the British National Archives came across a sealed envelope entitled “The Leather Apron.” It had not been opened in over 125 years. The envelope contained many elements of a closed investigation into the famous Jack the Ripper case. Among the items was the written testimony of the twenty-one-year-old son of Mary Ann "Polly”Nichols, the woman considered by many to be the first official victim of Jack the Ripper.
Read excerpt here
Listen to audio version here
WHO DONE IT? - Anthology by Soho Teen for 829
This quirky mystery anthology is jam-packed with some of the most celebrated, award-winningest YA and children’s authors ever to be accused of . . . murder. The victim is boss/superior/editor Herman Q. Mildew, a man so despised, the list of suspects includes 83 authors. With the alibis curated (in alphabetical order, naturally) by Scieszka, the finger-pointing and self-incrimination begin in every form imaginable: some are illustrated, others use text/Twitter/IM-speak, and David Levithan even offers his alibi in verse and questions the benefits of bloodily murdering someone while the pen is mightier than the sword. The short bursts of writing create a sizable sampler for readers to choose from, gleaning from each entry the style and voice of everyone from Lemony Snicket and Libba Bray to G. Neri and Rita Williams-Garcia. Indeed, the pen is being used mightily to drum up support for creative writing; proceeds from sales will benefit Dave Eggers’ (another among the accused) 826 writing program in New York. Grades 8-12.
Me: Who could resist this dastardly attempt to cover up murder. Am I guilty? Perhaps. But with this cast of writers, nobody is really innocent!
Read excerpt here.
These are various stories or poems from me posted online.
Horses in the 'Hood (2012) Free-verse poem I wrote when I started thinking about Ghetto Cowboy.
The Run (2010) Early scene that was cut in the free writing stages of Surf Mules. Now stands alone as a short story.
Wahoo: the Incredible True Tales of Chief Wahoo McDaniel (2009) Tall tale about the amazing true story of this bigger than life wrestler.
June Bug Bash - I always wondered where June bugs go after June. So I wrote a poem about it.
Articles by me
Walking in the Footsteps of Johnny Cash Researching the book
School Library Journal: How G. Neri changed a life Working with librarians to change lives
On Saying No to Rejection How to survive rejection and keep revising
Memories of Mr. Myers When I met WDM
Dear Teen Me Letter to my teenage self.
Beginning the Journey to a Finished Novel About my writing process.
How to Hook Urban Non-Readers What I think about when writing for urban teen readers.
Beginning the Journey to a Finished Novel
Sometimes, the battle to conquer a book is so long and arduous, you feel like throwing in the towel and saying, never again. So how (and more importantly why) do we even bother to do it over and over?
The why is easy. You do it because you can’t not do it. A director once wisely said of acting: if you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead. But if someone tells you you’ll never be in the movies and you still pursue acting because you can’t live without it, then you’re an actor. God help you.
I say the same thing about writing. I write because that’s how I express myself. Even if they told me I’d never publish again, I’d still do it. So the real question then is, how do I find the magic to write a new book?
I believe writing is a lot like having a baby: the human brain deliberately blacks out all the pain--the endless sleepless nights, the diaper changing, the spit up, and the emergency visits to the ER. Otherwise, you’d never have another kid! My mom says she can’t remember the six years she spent when she had and diapered her three boys in successive years.
And I can’t really remember the pain certain books have caused me.
I am an accidental novelist. It was never a dream of mine, nor did I think I ever would (or even could) write a novel. It was only because my writer’s group literally tricked me into writing my first novel Surf Mules that I even tried.
It had started off as a short story. But my group liked it so much, they kept asking for more. So I kept writing and they kept pushing, until it was too late to turn back. Like it or not, my short story was now becoming a long story. It was on its way to being a novel.
But it was only because I’d had seen fellow writers make it through their novels, chapter by chapter, that I thought, maybe…
Later, when I was on vacation with my family on an island in the Baltic Sea, I suddenly had to cut 70 pages at the eleventh hour to finish the book. It was my Barton Fink moment, and I literally lost it. The story, the main character, the whole reason I was even a writer.
This in the midst of the long-delayed battle to complete Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, which took almost 15 years to see the light of day. Things were looking bad, but somehow, I was talked down from the ledge and the book was miraculously finished in time and I lived to see another day.
Barely. The incredible praise Yummy has received helps to damper the pain we endured to see that book through. But had I not already written a draft of my next potential novel during the happy breaks between versions of Surf Mules, I might not have done it again in the aftermath of those battles.
But those experiences lead to my book Ghetto Cowboy, which, surprise, was also an accidental novel. Originally written in free-verse, my editor casually pondered perhaps this could be straight up prose instead? She was right, but this time, after all that heartache (and a few more not worth mentioning), transcribing it into a novel became a pleasure. Green lights all the way, everything going my way and suddenly, I began to think, Hmm, this isn’t so bad.
Here below are some of the things I am taking into consideration as I begin this epic journey once again. And it is a big step because now I find myself actually trying to write a novel…on purpose! (What a novel idea.)
I mean, just the notion of writing the Great American Novel prevents many would-be authors from tackling this daunting format. How does one compete with Faulkner or Hemingway, Frazen or Roth, Anderson (L.H.) or Anderson (M.T.)? Especially since my agent thinks this one is the one.
It’s a lot to take in.
So I find myself resorting to all the advice I constantly give kids when they ask for advice on writing. But here, I am giving it back to myself:
1. Give yourself permission to write badly. That’s right. Even the greatest writers I know admit their first drafts suck. So forget even trying. The first draft is all about getting it out of your head and onto paper (or hard-drive or cloud or iPhone). It’s the number one obstacle that keeps would-be writers from ever finishing a novel. They get stuck trying to make every page, every sentence and every word perfect just right. Forget it.
Just find a word, throw together a sentence that communicates the basic idea and move on. Know that it will suck. Embrace its suckage.
As a former animator I learned, never stop to make fixes. Keep moving forward until you reach the end, then go back and fix. Otherwise, you’ll never get done.
2. Thinking is writing. A lot of people talk about how writing everyday is important, but I think thinking is way undervalued. Many of my books have spent months and years clanging around in my brain. And then, one day—boom! The answer (and it is often a simple one) hits like a lightening bolt, and suddenly, the stories, even the ones that I had struggled with through many versions, become clear.
Often in one go, I write it and it’s essentially done. It happened with Ghetto Cowboy (It’s a fish out of water story!), Yummy (it’s a graphic novel!), Chess Rumble (the whole book is a chess match!) and Surf Mules (the road trip is like the shark in Jaws: if you wait too long to see it, people will leave!). Thinking is good.
3. The story knows what it wants to be. This is the main lesson I learned from making my latest book, Yummy. Sometimes we force the story into places it doesn’t want to go, and, surprise, it ends up not working. I was a filmmaker when I first thought of telling the true story of an 11-year-old gangbanger who made the cover of TIME magazine in 1994.
But movies turned out to be the wrong medium when it came to asking myself why I should tell this story. It turned out Yummy really wanted to be a graphic novel.
Young teens needed to experience this story, kids who might be drawn to gangs. But ten-year-olds would not get into an R-rated movie version of Yummy, nor could schools show it. But as a middle-grade story in a comic format? Bingo. That would appeal to urban boys who don’t read. The book wrote itself after that.
4. Follow your characters down the rabbit hole. I often think of myself as a kind of documentary filmmaker in writer’s clothing. I create the world and its inhabitants, but then I let them go and follow them around to see what they do or how they get out of the situations I create for them. I literally don’t know what will happen. They become living, breathing people and they end up leading me. Actor Christopher Walken once said: “If you can’t surprise yourself, how do you expect to surprise anyone else?” Listen to your characters. Be surprised.
5. Become a child, and see the world for the first time. I’ve spent years learning the craft of storytelling, mostly as a filmmaker, where structure is everything.
So now when I approach a story, I deliberately try to forget everything I know and approach it as naively as possible. I usually don’t outline or plot. I know where I am starting and basically where I am trying to go, but I don’t worry at all about hitting certain plot points by certain pages. Like in real life, I like to wander and explore.
The excitement of the unknown is like being a child experiencing something for the first time. It's why I write YA.
I once saw singer Michael Stipe on TV draw a circle on a window and say, we all start a new project in the same spot and as we make our way around the circle, we learn and grow and work until we become masters of our craft. But the act of creating every new project must start the circle over, every time: naive and fresh like a newborn baby.
The story must be a real experience, not a calculated venture.
6. Pace yourself: the three page rule. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I used to write by inspiration, and when it would hit, I would write until I had nothing left. I’d write myself out. Problem was, it might take days or weeks to refuel and have another go.
So now I pace myself. I limit myself to say, three pages a day, even if I have six-to-eight in me. What happens by forcing myself to stop, is that those extra pages ferment in my brain until the next morning and boom, it comes rushing out, already pre-written.
The more days that pass like this, the more the reserve builds, and by the end, I am writing my pages in 20 minutes as opposed to eight hours of struggle.
It is also important to then give yourself the rest of the day off as a reward. Don’t worry, your brain is thinking for you (see above).
7. When an unexpected door opens, step on through to the other side. I have a list on my wall of about 25 stories that will be my next book, in the order in which they will come.
But usually (always), they rarely make it off the list as planned. It’s usually the eleventh-hour surprise that takes over and becomes my next book.
And it happens while I am playing around with my top three or four ideas on the list. It sneaks up on me from out of nowhere.
A project I handed in a few months ago was a perfect example. There I was, minding my own business, when out of the blue, someone sent me a link to a YouTube video. When I watched it, it made me sit up and go, wow! But it was only when I started Google-ing the subject matter to find out more that I discovered the real story.
And then it was really like, WOW! It quickly consumed me. For two weeks, I researched it like crazy. And then in a mad fit, I wrote the whole thing in another few weeks or so, and there it was. One minute, it wasn’t even a kernel of an idea, the next, it was a finished book. Completely unexpected. This has happened many times with me.
So don’t be afraid to walk through those unanticipated doors when they pop open and invite you in. You never know what you’ll find.
I’ll admit I’ve had my doubts as I’ve spent the last few months thinking about writing my current work-in-progress novel.
How did I ever do this before? How in God’s name did I ever write six books? How am I ever going to do it again? But as I look at this list, I am oddly comforted. I remember what I’ve learned and that the final step to beginning a new novel is this:
Barton Fink was right: There's no road map for the life of the mind.
So don’t over-think it. Just let go. Get in the car, turn on the engine, and drive.
You will find your way.
READ MORE: On Saying No to Rejection
Interviewed by Kristen Schroer
Greg Neri writes poetry, prose, and graphic novels for young adults under the pen name G. Neri. He’s said, “I write provocative, edgy stories for reluctant readers, especially urban boys, in hopes that these kinds of books—immediate, compelling and told through the eyes of young males—will open minds to reading.” They’re not the only ones taking note of his work. He was a 2011 Coretta Scott King honoree for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a middle-grade graphic novel, and Ghetto Cowboy, his latest middle-grade novel, received the 2012 Horace Mann Upstanders Children’s Book Award. He’s also a two-time American Library Association Notable Book Honoree.
Neri, who lives on the Gulf coast of Florida with his wife and daughter, recently spoke with Lunch Ticket about his writing process, his upcoming projects, and where he finds inspiration.
Kristen Schroer: Your books address an incredibly wide range of themes— surfer mules, chess, urban cowboys, the short life of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, Johnny Cash. Can you tell me about your research process and what it involves?
Greg Neri: All my fiction books are inspired by real life. It’s not that I sit down and say, Oh I’d like to write a book about black cowboys. It’s that I come across a real world situation or subculture that I’ve never heard of, and it stops me in my tracks.. For instance, with Ghetto Cowboy, somebody had sent me an article in Life magazine about this neighborhood in Philadelphia, and it was filled with these amazing photographs of these kids in basically what is the worst neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and there’s this whole subculture of black urban horseman. It was almost like discovering some sort of modern-day Western was going on. I’d never seen or heard about it. In fact a lot of people who live in Philadelphia have never heard about it either. It just floored me.
I immediately dive in once that thing grabs me and won’t let me go. Of course the first thing I do is start Googling. I’m just throwing phrases up and seeing what comes back at me. I’m not interested so much yet in the nitty-gritty little details, but I’m trying to capture the emotional truth of the place and the time. As soon as I have the essence of the place and its people, the characters kind of present themselves—the story presents itself—then I immediately start writing. I don’t even plot it out necessarily. I’m following the characters and seeing where they take me.
After I’ve done a draft or two, I will do a second round of research in which I’m verifying the things that I’ve written. I start with reality, and it takes me off on a fictional spin, and then I have to come back and verify that that fictional spin could exist in this world as I’ve portrayed it. Oftentimes I will end up going to the place near the end [of the writing process] as a reality check. With Ghetto Cowboy, I didn’t go to that specific neighborhood until after I’d already written a couple of drafts. I had talked to a lot people, I had done a lot of research, but when I actually went there, I had the strange sensation of walking into my book. These people had become my characters and the place had become a fictional thing, but here was a reminder that no—this is reality, this is a real world. And you have a responsibility to portray the poetic truth, even if it’s fiction. That’s happened on several books, where I go there at the end, and then I know it’s good and it’s right and it’s true.
KS: So for your upcoming picture book about Johnny Cash’s childhood, was that your experience when you went to Arkansas for what would have been his 80th birthday?
Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind.
GN: I heard that the Cash family was going to celebrate what would have been Johnny’s 80th birthday in this tiny, tiny hometown of his in Arkansas. The whole family was going to be there. So I just decided, well, I have to go.
It was like driving back in time. You left the city, and within 40 minutes of Memphis you’re in this total outback where you can stop on this dirt road and see horizon 360 degrees around you, and not a single person in sight. And that was his home. I would stand in what was his backyard, where they grew the crops, and just to feel the wind howling off those empty plains…and the mud. It’s this thick mud that your feet got stuck in. They called it gumbo and you could see why. You could feel it. I knew, this is where he found out his brother had just died, and this is where he first learned to swim and this is where he first learned to play guitar. Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind. Then you go there and it’s a real thing. And then the next thing you know, you’re talking to Rosanne Cash.
KS: Speaking of the worlds of your stories, have you had feedback from the cowboys in North Philly since the publication of Ghetto Cowboy?
GN: Yeah, and I’ve found all these other pockets of black urban horsemen around the United States. New York—in Queens, Brooklyn; in DC; Philadelphia; down in Louisiana. And in California where I’m from, South Central and in Oakland. I travel a lot around the United States and almost everywhere I go it seems someone comes out to me and says, “Oh, we have these guys.” When I was in LA for the Upstanders Award, a group of kids came from South Central. They were all young black horseman and girls. And I’m going to a school in Houston in a couple weeks and there’s a whole crew there and they’re actually going to come to my talk with their horses (laughs). They’re totally into it.
KS: To be able to find that book, where you see yourself in it, must be a really incredible experience for someone that age.
GN: Yeah. And it was kind of like this dying world and I wanted to capture it before it disappeared. It is worth remembering and worth valuing—it had value to it. And no one else was writing about it. I thought, This has to be told.
KS: Speaking of your travels, it does seem like you spend a lot of time on the road and doing school visits. Me, I love just being by myself in my house at my desk and I know a lot of writers feel similarly. But how does travel feed your process? What’s the significance for you of that community engagement?
GN: Well, I certainly have that side where I would rather not go anywhere (laughs) and just sit here. But I know that once I’m out there it’ll be great and I’m going to get a lot out of spending time with my readers or spark new readers. One, you are reminded that your books have made an impact on people. You see it, you feel it, they tell you things. My books kind of cater to this underground audience. They won’t be on the New York Times bestseller list, because they sell directly to schools and libraries for the most part, and a lot of my readers can’t necessarily afford to buy these books. They need the teachers and librarians to get these books so that they can have access to them. One book will be read by hundreds of kids. And that doesn’t show up in the stats. Then the other scenario is that a lot of schools I go to will actually buy the books for the kids. I don’t know where the money comes from. I’m going to this school in Houston, they bought 1500 copies of Ghetto Cowboy, one for every single kid in the school, plus the staff. That happens a lot with my books. The library might buy 400, 500 copies, and then give them out. They know these kids have one, never bought a book, and two, maybe never even read or finished a book.
One of the things I hear back is that my books are amongst the most stolen books from the library, which means that it means something to someone—so much so that they have to hold on to it. That’s a cool thing to know that somebody so desperately wants it. I met this kid in St Louis recently—he had never read a book and then he read my book Yummy. Ever since then, the only book he’ll read is Yummy. Every time they assign a book or he has to go to the library, he’ll read Yummy. So he’s read it like 15 times.
Then they [the kids] ask, When’s your next book coming? So you know there are people waiting for your next book and that these books mean something to them in a real way. It’s not just casual entertainment but it has real meaning and it affects their life, sometimes even changes their life, especially with a book like Yummy. I hear from a lot of kids who kind of recognize themselves in Yummy, and it’s like a wake up call. That feeds you and keeps you going. Plus, if you’re writing about this age group or these kinds of kids, the more contact you have, the more real they are. If you haven’t been around kids for a long time, then you lose that reality. The way they speak, the way they handle themselves, what they’re into and all of that. It’s good from a writer’s perspective on voice and place and how characters handle themselves, but also to know that your books are worth doing.
KS: Did you have a similarly transformative experience with an author or a book when you were younger?
GN: I wasn’t a huge reader in my early days. I was a very visual person and if I looked at a book it just looked like a big block of text. It didn’t hold my interest. Then a teacher gave me a copy of the Phantom Tollbooth. Just scanning the pictures it was apparent this was a crazy book. I had a pretty crazy imagination but here—like, someone printed this crazy thing! It opened my eyes to what a book could be, what a book could do. It could be kind of this wildly imaginative crazy experience that totally surprised you. Shortly after that I started reading a lot, so I went from reading not very much to reading The Lord of the Rings. I see that a lot. All it takes is that one book to open the door.
GN: I grew up in Los Angeles around the film world, and my first real job was working for a trailer company, a post-production house, that made previews for upcoming movies. That was a great training ground: how to tell a whole story in a minute twenty seconds, or sixty seconds, or thirty seconds. That’s a whole art in itself, capturing that tension—to show them and hook them in that amount of time. It’s a powerful tool to learn early on. I just love trailers and watching them for the movies, so when I started writing books it was a natural for me, because when I write I see it in my head like a movie. And the kids who read them, I think, see them like movies too. That’s the first question they always ask: When is this going to be a movie? The kids love the trailers. I don’t need to pitch the book, I just show them [the trailer] and they’re like, “Ohhhh.”
KS: It’s a nice element and different way for people to hear about the books if they’re not browsing at the bookstore or on Amazon.
GN: Right. And some kids are just more visual. Once they see it like a movie, they get it.
KS: You have three short stories coming up in anthologies and your Johnny Cash project. Anything else you’re working on?
GN: Yes, I’m about to turn in the second draft of a novel in the next couple of days, and I have a couple of graphic novels that I’m kind of working on, on the side. As soon as I finish this novel I’ll jump on those too. Knockout Games is the one I’m doing right now. I’d been working on another book for about a year and a half, kind of struggling with it. Then I went to St Louis in April, and my contact took me to certain places and told me about this thing that was going on there that I had never heard about. It was kind of like Oliver Twist and Fight Club and Lord of the Flies all rolled into one and it was real. Very quickly it became apparent that it was a book. As soon as I got to the hotel that night and started Googling it, a ton of stuff started coming out. I just started writing it and it wrote itself very quickly, in like two and a half weeks.
As opposed to having spent the previous year and a half struggling with this other novel. Stories know which one you’re supposed to be writing. I have no control over it. It becomes apparent because one hits so deep and the other’s like a battle. You have to give into the muse and let her take you where she will, even if it’s not logical. You can’t fight it. If you fight it, you’ll lose.
KS: You sound prolific, with all these active ideas just fermenting in your mind. Is there stuff that you do outside of your writing that contributes to this?
There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do.
GN: I’m always reading, I’m always watching, I’m always looking. I’m just interested in real life stories in general, without the purpose of looking for something to write about. I’m just interested in and of itself. I think that fills your head with all kinds of unexpected possibilities, of things that can happen in real life or the way that people behave that is totally outside of your own life. There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do. What I don’t know, that thing I never heard of, like Oh my god, that’s real? It just takes over me and it fills a book.
KS: And it’s more freeing in a way, relying on your imagination rather than being an expert.
GN: Yeah, to immerse yourself in a whole other world. What connects me to that world, even if the characters you’re writing about are completely different than me, living in a totally different existence than I ever lived in is that we’re all human. We all know what it means to feel loss or anger or happiness or sadness or frustration. We have all that to different degrees, depending on our situation, but we all know what that feels like. You just have to put yourself in their shoes in that situation, and the story becomes you. You are in the story, not physically in the story, but you’re in the story, the story comes from you, comes through you, so when other readers who have no connection to that world read it, they can relate to it. I get asked all the time how come I don’t write about my own life, and I say, I do. Not literally about my life, but I am in every character, in every scene. We all are.
Greg talks about Yummy on NPR - 11/30/10
Print/ Online Interviews and articles:
YALSA Teen Reads Week 10/11
Fuse 8 on Ghetto Cowboy 10/11
Book Talk 8/10
A Patchwork of Books 8/10
Betsy Bird 7/10
Claudsy Interview - 2/2/10
Murdoch's Musings - 12/15
KidBuzz - 10/20
G. talks with Heidi K. - 8/25
TeachingBooks.net - 7/18
St. Pete Times review - 6/29/09
Book Talk - 12/08
School Library Journal Video Sunday - 3/10/08
Fuse #8 with Betsy Bird - 2/17/08
The Brown Bookshelf - 2/5/08
Interview by ACE Bauer 10/28/07
Interview by Heidi Kling 10/18/07
Articles by me
Visit with author G. Neri from his home in Tampa where he discusses his books "Ghetto Cowboy" and "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
Usually adults ask me what I do for a living (I'm a writer) and do I really get paid for that (yes). But here are some actual questions that I get asked a lot from students I've encountered! (In no particular order).
1. Where do you get your ideas? Ideas are like driving at night across Alligator Alley in Florida. A lot of bugs will hit your windshield, but every once in a while a real whopper will smash into you and you have to stop because you can’t see clearly anymore. A great idea will literally make you stop in your tracks. They come from all around; my ideas are based on real events, people and places that I come across on the internet, radio, TV, reading, or in conversation.
2. Did you always want to be a writer? No. I came to writing late in my life, quite by accident. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist. Most of my life I was a visual storyteller (film, artist, illustrator). The only connection is that, as a language artist, I now paint with words.
3. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? At the end of the day, writers write. Period. You’re either going to find the time and the means to do it, or you’re not. I always say that if you can live your life without writing, do it. If you can’t and you write even if you’re told you’ll never be published, then you’re a writer. It doesn't matter how good you are.
4. Are you rich? No. Do you have a limo? Um, what did I just say?
5. How old are you? Old enough.
6. Did you grow up like Marcus in Chess Rumble? No. But I did know kids like him. I was introverted, had brothers and I’ve spent time in those schools. Plus, I once lost a chess match in six moves.
7. Are you a chess master? The way I see it, you don’t have to know how to slay a dragon write a fantasy novel. I can play the game, but I don’t pretend to be very good at it. I think like CM and play like Marcus. That’s why I understood both characters. Or at least that’s what I say when some little kid beats me.
8. If I was to read one interview with you that would really help me with my report, which one should I read? This one.
9. How do you write? One word at a time. Five days a week. Between the hours of 9am and 3pm. I work and work, then let it go. I don't think about it overnight. I don't overthink the story, I just let the words come out unfiltered. You have to give yourself permission to write badly and not worry if it makes sense or not. All that can be fixed later. But you have to keep regular hours at your computer, otherwise how is your muse gonna find you?
10. What is your favorite part of the writing process? Probably the second half of the first draft when I’ve finally figured some things out and it’s just pouring from my brain unfiltered. At that point the characters are leading me and I have no idea what they will do or where the story will take me. My job is to get out of the way and report it as it happens.
11. What were you like as a kid? Shy, quiet, liked to draw a lot, liked to shoot hoops a lot, liked to body surf a lot. I was a skateboarder and liked to explore underground and build skate ramps.
12. Who are your favorite Authors / books? (Teen books): Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Jerry Spinelli -Milkweed, Norman Juster - Phantom Tollbooth. John Green – Looking for Alaska, Melvin Burgess - Smack. (Graphic Novels): Marjane Satrapi- Persepolis, Craig Thompson – Blankets. (Kids) R.O. Blechman – The Juggler of our Lady, Tomi Ungerer – The Hat, Mark Alan Stamaty- Who Needs Donuts. (Adult stuff): John Fante - Ask the Dust, Joseph Heller - Catch-22, J.D.Salinger – Nine Stories, Richard Bach- Illusions, Chester Himes – If He Hollers.
13. Do you read a lot? I go in spurts, though I always seem to have 9 or 10 books vying for my attention.
14. What does your office look like? This. It's the reason I bought this house.
15. When will they make Chess Rumble/Ghetto Cowboy/ Yummy into a movie? Can I star in it? Ghetto Cowboy has been optioned by a bigtime Hollywood producer and hopes to film in 2018. But we'll see. Any movie that gets made is a bit of a miracle. I wouldn't get my hopes up about the starring in it part.
16. Do you do school visits? Yes! See my School Visit page for details.
17. Will you sign my book? Yes! Email me and I’ll tell you how.
18. Did you like going to school? Where I came to love learning was in college. But you have to make it through high school to get there. Just do your best, it’ll pay off.
19. How long does it take you to write a book? It varies. Knockout Games was the quickest from idea to coming out: about a year (I wrote the first draft in 3 weeks). Surf Mules took three years to write and two years to get to the shelves. Yummy took about 12 years to make it from an idea to book but mostly because it started as a movie project first. When I finally figured out it needed to be a graphic novel, the writing was extremely quick, maybe a couple of months.
20. Is there a G. Neri archives? Yes!
21. What do you do when you are not writing? Mostly spend time with my family. I watch a lot of movies and basketball games, go to the beach, canoe the rivers looking for gators, and yes, read.
22. Are you happy? Yes. Mos def.
Picture Book (ages 7 and up)
HELLO, I'M JOHNNY CASH
a free-verse illustrated biography by G. Neri and AG Ford
from Candlewick Press
Coming September, 2014
Before he became
he was simply called
a name that stood for
was all he had
coming into this world.
There’s never been anyone like music legend Johnny Cash — his deep voice is instantly recognizable, and his heartfelt songs ring true to listeners of all ages and backgrounds.
Here, G. Neri captures Johnny’s story in beautiful free verse, introducing readers to an ordinary boy with an extraordinary talent who grew up in extreme poverty, faced incredible challenges, and ultimately found his calling by always being true to the gift of his voice.
A. G. Ford’s luscious paintings of the dramatic southern landscape of Johnny Cash’s childhood round out this portrait of a legend, taking readers from his humble beginnings as J.R. to his enormous success on the world stage.
"This illustrated biography of the "Man in Black" uses poetry to chronicle pivotal moments in his life, from boyhood to stardom. Each poem borrows its title from one of Cash's songs. The narrative is well-researched, age-appropriate and beautifully expressive. The exquisite oil illustrations capture the setting and the emotion of each poem, allowing readers to feel as if they are there with J.R. as he works the harsh Arkansas fields or in the audience as Johnny whips the crowd into a frenzy plucking out his tunes on the guitar. An exceptional portrait of one of the most recognizable musicians of all time." - Kirkus Reviews (STARRED)
"Even those who aren’t fans of musician Johnny Cash will appreciate the beauty of this biographical picture book. Written in free verse, with colorful, realistic illustrations done in oil, this title poignantly portrays the powerful influences of poverty, religion, family, and music on Cash’s life. This is a real tribute to the Man in Black, written in an easily accessible, engaging manner that demonstrates the qualities he possessed that make him a hero to so many." - School Library Journal (STARRED)
"Neri and Ford do an impressive job of painting a portrait of the Man in Black that emphasizes his hardscrabble beginnings and lifelong love of music. On each oversize, two-page spread, Neri’s straightforward free-verse lines describe a pivotal moment in Cash’s life that contributed to his love of music. Working in perfect concert with the words are Ford’s full-bleed, soulful oil paintings, which lovingly capture emotion. In a smart cross-platform move, each spread is titled with the name of a Cash recording that matches the mood of the moment, adding a meaningful musical complement to the already moving story." -Booklist (STARRED)
"In free-verse poetry and images that recall the emotional directness of WPA murals and photography, Neri (Ghetto Cowboy) and Ford (Under the Same Sun) follow Cash from the grinding poverty and tragedy of his early years to the invention of his signature “boom-chicka-boom sound” and his breakthrough hit, “I Walk the Line.” The images consistently strike a haunting chord. Readers will best appreciate this biography after hearing some of Cash’s music—and they won’t want to stop after hearing his story." - Publishers Weekly
"This biography of the quintessential “a boy, a dream, and a cheap guitar” success story—country musician Johnny Cash—focuses on the rise of the singer/songwriter from his impoverished family life in the Great Depression, through to his big break at Sun Records. Multiple columns of prose, rich in lyricism and boasting a driving cadence, deftly develop an intricate and detailed look at different moments and themes. Kids unenthusiastically facing a biography report may find this to be a perfect balance of engaging reading and teacher-satisfying substance." -BCCB
Honors and Awards:
· 2014 Virginia Library Association's Jefferson Cup Award
· 2014 Silver Medalist - Florida Book Awards
· 2015 ALSC Notable Children’s Books list
· 2014 Junior Library Guild pick
· Best Books of 2014 - School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist
· 2015 Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year
· 2014 LBH/Penn State Poetry Award Master List
· 2015 NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
· 2015 CCBC Choice
· 2015 Magnolia Book Award finalist
· Society of Illustrators NY The Original Art 2014 Selection
by G. Neri for the Memphis Flyer 8/7/14
It’s a well-known fact that Johnny Cash walked the line—and he had the size 13 boots to do it. That may not be the reason he wrote a song called Big Foot, but under any circumstances, Johnny Cash left some pretty large shoes to fill.
In order to finish writing the first picture book for young people about the Man in Black, I knew I had walk in his footsteps. I needed to put myself in those big boots of his, to feel the soil under my feet and the howling winds coming off the plains. I needed to head back to the beginning, to a place called Dyess, Arkansas-- a town so small, it wasn’t on any map I saw. Even a good friend who lived about 45 minutes away in Memphis never heard of it. So when the “highway” on my GPS turned into a dirt road, I knew I was on the right track. Johnny Cash was the salt of the earth and dirt felt like the right way to begin his story.
My first impression of the road leading into Dyess was a perfect Johnny Cash image: lonesome. It was so desolate, I could park my car in the middle of the highway and sit by a trickle of a river that weaved its way through the mud and burnt grasses of the Deltalands and never feel the urge to move the car. The land was so flat I could look in any direction as far as the eye could see and not spot a single living soul.
This was where Johnny Cash came from. An extreme landscape where there was room enough for dreams to form and tough enough to where he’d have to fight to attain them. When I found his childhood home, a dilapidated house with a couple of bare trees, it was no Graceland. I stepped out onto the gravel and the first thing that hit me was the wind sweeping off of the endless horizon. It actually howled.
The home seemed old and uncared for. There was a metal sign which made this monument to the man official, but the place itself was far from being worthy of his name (though that would soon be rectified). I walked around the property, alone. It seemed odd that on this day, the day of his birth 80 years ago, nobody would be here. Where was the parade, the ribbon cutting for this giant of a man? It seemed far away at the moment.
When I stepped onto the fields surrounding his house, I felt an immediate connection to young J.R. (as he was known in those days). My boot sank ankle deep into the mud and when I attempted to extract it, only my bare foot emerged. The shoe and sock remained stuck in this gunk he’d called gumbo. Now I knew why. Right then, I realized why his father had to stop the truck far from the house when they first arrived back in 1935: it would go no farther in this gumbo. I couldn’t imagine what it took to clear this land of thickets and boulders and scrub oak to turn it into cotton. Impossible came to mind.
Little details like that ground a story. I imagined young JR sitting on the porch at 5 years old as his family picked cotton in the fields , listening to a classic train song, Hobo Bill’s Last Ride, on his small battery powered radio. One of his earliest memories was of his father jumping off a train in front of their old home in southern Arkansas. Unlike Hobo Bill, they’d survived the Great Depression—barely—and were now eking out a meager life on a New Deal farming community that was opened by Eleanor Roosevelt herself. But being a cotton farmer was hard work, and as I stood there in the harsh winter sun, stuck in the mud with my face sandblasted by the wind, I could see why JR might spend so much time escaping this harsh reality for one filled with music from faraway places.
I slowly ambled down a long empty road that lead to the town of Dyess. It took a good hour. Empty fields lined both sides of the road and a dead creek sat alongside, dark like the mud. A vulture or hawk circled high overhead waiting to see if I was going to make it to town.
I paused at various spots from JR’s story. --This was the road he’d walk along in the pitch black of night singing to himself to ward off the growling wildcats in the darkness. --This was the fishing hole where he heard the news from his father that his closest brother Jack had been sucked into a circular saw and was close to death. --This was the shack where he’d first heard a crippled boy playing guitar as good as Jimmy Rodgers on the radio and where he asked the boy if he could teach him how to play. Walking in his tracks brought every detail to life.
The community of 402 townsfolk consisted of a small circle with a flagpole planted in the middle. Surrounding that was a partially destroyed theater, an old community center, a gas station/ café and a high school. His school. And just as when he had seen his radio heroes, the Louvin Brothers, perform for the first time at his school auditorium, something very special was happening this day in the same building: the extended Cash family was gathering from all over to celebrate what would have been Johnny’s 80th birthday.
The event wasn’t advertised or Twittered. You couldn’t buy tickets because it wasn’t for sale. I’d seen a small personal mention of it through my research and knew I had to go. Rosanne Cash was going to be there, and by coincidence, a friend of a friend knew her manager and I had an in. It was a family reunion: Johnny’s brother Tommy, sister Joanne and his other children John Carter, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara were all coming. But as I sat in the parking lot waiting for everyone to arrive, I slowly became aware that I was an outsider. My first clue was from an Arkansas State Trooper wearing a big hat, mustache and mirrored sunglasses who leaned over me and said: “You ain’t from ‘round here, are you?” (I don’t think he said boy). I played friendly though, and as soon as he heard I was from Tampa, stories of his cousin came bubbling up and all was good.
People started arriving-- nephews, nieces, cousins, second cousins, friends from back in the day, about 100 Cashes from the extended clan, some local Dyessians…and me. A smattering of local small town media and a few folks from ASU milled about recording and helping with the event. Family mingled, most looking country, one-- a niece-- looking lost like she’d wandered off the pages of teen Vogue—black mini dress, hoop earrings and navigating the gravel in high heels. Johnny’s surviving sister, Joanne, spotted the original family piano that her mother played back in the old house and started tinkering on it. I gazed at old family photos blown up and framed for the gathering. Rosanne’s manager saw me and took me to a back room where Rosanne and John Carter were busily going over last minute notes. A show was about to begin--
It was thrilling to see the immediate family take the stage. This could have been a big media event but it was reminiscent of an old Carter family barn stomp. It felt homey and right and I was honored just to witness it. The family traded licks on folk and gospels songs from that era and then joined together to sing some of Johnny’s songs about cotton and mud and the Flood of ‘37. There was much talk of the restoration efforts being made to save Johnny’s boyhood home. If done right, it would save the town as well.
When Rosanne introduced me to her sisters by saying “he’s writing a book about daddy growing up here,” and seeing their eyes light up, that alone was worth the trip.
I left that gathering floating on air, much as JR did when he saw his radio heroes come to life. But I quickly came back to earth. I was heading out for a more remote and heartbreaking location: the grave of Johnny’s beloved brother, Jack. The death of Jack Dempsey Cash probably haunted the rest of Johnny’s life. Not a day went by where he didn’t think of his brother or ask himself ‘what would Jack do?’ His tragic death and how it changed Johnny’s life became the spine of my story. It was a necessary stop. I assumed the family would probably go and pay their respects but I wasn’t prepared for how isolated and lonely the place felt. There was no one there, no signage that there was even a cemetary. Tombstones just appeared along the side of the road and I wandered for a while until I stumbled across his small tombstone. I imaged Johnny digging the grave on a warm spring day back in 1944. Not only was he heartbroken and dirty during the service but his foot swelled up from having stepped on a rusty nail. Still, he sang Jack’s favorite gospel songs before they had to return to the fields to work the next day. I righted some old plastic flowers that seemed like they’d been there forever and quietly walked away.
When Johnny left Dyess at 18, he joined the air force and was stationed in Landsberg, Germany (where I passed through on the way to Munich once upon a time). But when he returned home, with a new bride in tow, he settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was heading next.
I’m going to Memphis, Johnny Cash famously sang. Memphis, Tennessee, birthplace of rock n’ roll and the city where Johnny Cash became a star. These roads were paved, not with gold, but with cement and asphalt.
The first place I stopped was the first stop Johnny made when he arrived: his brother Roy’s workplace, the Automobile Sales Co. on Union Avenue. It too seemed deserted. There was no placard marking the historic meeting that occurred on that day back in 1953. This was the spot where Johnny’s music career really began because it was here that his brother introduced him to two mechanic friends who would later help create that famous boom-chicka-boom sound: Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. On this day, all I would hear was the traffic passing by, drivers having no clue to the significance of this closed up building.
My next stop was close by and turned out to be an empty parking lot with an arrow pointing over a vacant sign frame, as if to say this spot was important. The first job Johnny had out of the Air Force was at the Home Equipment Co. on Summer Avenue. He made for a lousy door-to-door salesman, preferring to listen to his car radio instead. But it was his boss who knew he had talent for singing, not for selling, and loaned him money to pursue his dream, even sponsoring a small-time radio show featuring Johnny and the Tennessee Two. Without that support, Johnny might’ve high tailed it back to Dyess or signed up for another round of active duty. Wandering around this industrial area of town seemed far from the honkytonks and blues clubs on Beale Street. I could feel his frustration on this stretch of used car lots.
My next stop was in a hipster neighborhood on Cooper Avenue. A brick church sat there looking like any other. But what happened in its basement was a major event in music history. After playing around at Marshall or Luther’s house for months, the boys decided it was time to perform in public. The only problem was they couldn’t convince any club that they were good enough, especially with their hillbilly music. But a friend asked them to perform some gospel music in a basement at the Galloway United Methodist Church. Johnny loved the gospels so it seemed like the right place to start. Having no proper clothes for a band, they decided to wear the only matching color they had: black. Thus, the Man in Black was born. Funny how accidents can change the face of music.
I then made my way over to another parking lot behind a Save A lot store. It was mostly empty, except for a man washing his car. He probably had no idea that on this very spot at the Lamar Airways shopping center, 21 year old Johnny Cash first met a country boy named Elvis Presley who woke him up to a new sound that would take the world by storm. It was supposed to be just a drug store opening with a band on a flatbed truck. But with a 19-year-old Elvis singing, Johnny witnessed a hoard of screaming girls and the pulsating music that drove them into a frenzy. He knew that’s where his future lay and they became friends. The next day, Elvis told him about his producer, a guy named Sam Phillips over at Sun Records.
If there’s one spot people know about Johnny and Memphis, its Sun Records. It was here that Johnny ambushed Sam Phillips in the parking lot and convinced him to listen to his music. He played gospel and folk, any song he knew from the radio. But when Sam asked him to play something he wrote, Johnny sang Hey, Porter and history was made. Within months, the birthplace of rock n’ roll would produce Elvis, Johnny, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. To stand on the spot in the studio and hold the very mic Johnny sang I Walk the Line into, made his whole story seem real. It’s easy to mythologize these seismic events, but to see how humble a place really is, brings it back to earth.
It was a do or die moment for Johnny because he had run out of money and had a daughter, Rosanne, on the way. Right before he cut his first record, his wife Vivian gave birth and they would move into this duplex on Tutweiler Avenue. To drive by it now is to see how much Memphis has changed. The house remains very much as it was. You can imagine Johnny sitting on the porch, strumming his guitar as he wrote the B-side to his first record, Cry Cry Cry. But today, it’s a poor, all-black neighborhood, and by the looks of it, far from the white suburban block it used to be.
Back to Union Avenue I went, to see where the first Johnny Cash song was ever played on the air. Sam asked Johnny to run the first pressing of his single over to WMPS radio where it would be played live. He watched that golden Sun label spin around as his song Hey Porter went out over the airwaves. When the DJ flipped the record, it slipped and broke on the floor. Johnny thought that was the only copy and was devastated that his career was over. Until Sam pulled out a box of them and told him to take a new one back to the DJ. Hearing that story and imagining him standing outside on the sidewalk wondering how he was going to tell his wife it was all for nothing, reminded me how green he really was in the beginning.
My final stop at sunset seemed frozen in time. I stood on the stage of the Overton Shell amphitheater and gazed out at the grassy slope surrounding it, picturing it filled with Memphis teens in their 50s best, plus all of Johnny’s family and friends who’d turned out to see him open for Elvis. It was the first time anyone saw the true power and magnetism he had as a performer, even giving the future King a run for his money. He sang his only two songs, electrifying the crowd so much, they kept calling him back for more. After singing those songs twice more, he pulled out a new one. It was the first time he’d perform the classic that would define his music personality: Folsom Prison Blues. I stood there for a long time, marveling at the journey this 23-year-old man had taken from son of a cotton farmer to music legend. Only 55 miles separated the world of cotton and mud he grew up in and the heyday of Sun Records and Rock n Roll, but it might as well been two different planets. As the sun set and the stars came out, I couldn’t help but wonder at the marvel he surely felt when the crowds wouldn’t let him leave. Standing in his shoes, I could feel the country boy grinning at his good fortune and a wide open future.
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