What's in a Page: Newbery honoree Derrick Barnes started writing thanks to Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July
Derrick Barnes has won a Coretta Scott King honor, a Newbery honor, and is a New York Times best-seller — but, while he's writing, he's someone who can't stop eating cheese and crackers or chugging Mountain Dew like the rest of us. The author, whose previous accolades came with his children's book Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut and The King of Kindergarten, has teamed back up with his illustrator Gordon C. James for the upcoming I Am Every Good Thing.
The tome, which hits shelves Sept. 1 but is available for pre-order now, is an empowering ode to confident, smart, funny, adventurous (and everything else) Black boys. Barnes wrote it to "remind the world that Black boys are worthy of every good thing, including love, that every other human being is deserved." Here, he talks to EW about the frustration in still having to echo that refrain, as well as getting his start in writing and how he gets it all done.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
DERRICK BARNES: Well... the first thing that I ever wrote wasn’t mine. My Uncle Manny had a huge record collection. In the third grade, I guess I was around 8 years old, I took the liner notes out of Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July LP and studied every single lyric. I copied the words from “Rocket Love,” moved them around a little, and then took them to school and told everyone that it was my first poem. The teacher knew that it was Stevie, but those 8-year-olds didn't have a clue. I was a child prodigy!
You took me riding in your rocket, gave me a star
But at a half a mile from heaven, you dropped me back down to this cold, cold world...
What is the last book that made you cry?
I don't think I’ve ever cried after reading a novel. But the last documentary that got me a little misty-eyed (just a little) was We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest. The brilliance, fire, and focus of these children, of all different nationalities, was very inspirational.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
Currently, and finally, I’m reading We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly. Next up will probably be Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward or All the Things We Never Knew by Liara Tamani.
Where do you write?
In my office. I incorporated myself about a year and a half ago. I named my business and my office after the dorm room that I lived in when I began my professional writing career in college: Suite 116. I wrote for my school’s newspaper; an advice column entitled Brown Sugar in Jackson State University’s Blue and White Flash.
Which book made you a forever reader?
Once I learned about the writers from the Harlem Renaissance in the fifth grade, such as Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, and my "homeboy" Langston Hughes (we are both from Missouri), I began to recognize how regal the lineage was. I never thought that I’d be a part of that lineage, but here I am, trying to make them proud with every offering. Hughes’ short story collection, The Best of Simple, created a curiosity that I had never felt before. I wanted to create settings the way he did, making Harlem so tangible. I wanted to see if I could create characters that would have such rich and rhythmic dialogue. I wanted the same superpowers that Langston Hughes had.
What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Sharp, expensive Wisconsin cheddar, Ritz crackers, juicy Moon Drop grapes, and a bottomless mason jar of Diet Mountain Dew.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
I’m a firm believer in leaving things "as is." If there is anything missing from any one of my prior works, my hope is that I’ll make up for it in each subsequent book. I am constantly trying to improve my "voice." You know, become a better writer. God willing.
What is your favorite part of I Am Every Good Thing?
The authenticity. The varied parts of the boy’s personality as an intellectual, a jokester, a ruffian, a gentleman, and a scholar. He, like most children, is just a living embodiment of fascination, contradictions, wonderment, curiosity. Those things should not make him any more of a threat than any other boy in America. I do my best to display the beauty that I see every day in my four sons.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
The hardest line to write, or the one that sticks with me the most, is the last one. It’s a refrain to remind the world that Black boys are worthy of every good thing, including love, that every other human being is deserved. The fact that in 2020, I have to write a book to remind this country, this world, of that is a little disheartening, but I am hopeful.
Write a movie poster tagline for your book:
Black boys all over the world redefine who and what they are... and own it.