Sharon M. Draper is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary Awards, whose books for young readers include Out of My Mind, Copper Sun, and Stella by Starlight. In 2015, Draper received the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime literary achievement. Draper’s new book, Blended, tells the story of 11-year-old Isabella, a biracial girl struggling to define her identity after her parents’ divorce. Jason Reynolds is the author of several books for young readers, including When I Was the Greatest, for which he earned the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent; and the Coretta Scott King Honor books All American Boys (co-written with Brendan Kiely), and The Boy in the Black Suit. This month, Reynolds wraps up his bestselling and award-winning Track series with Lu, about an outwardly confident yet inwardly insecure young track athlete who was born albino. We asked Draper and Reynolds to interview each other about their latest works and the similarities between their two characters.
Draper: First question—an easy one. If you had to draw a picture of Lu, how would he look? Facial features, hair, arms and legs, etc. The fact that he’s albino is simply how he looks, not who he is (and it’s cool that that’s only mentioned occasionally). So who is Lu and how did you go about creating him?
Reynolds: That’s a good question. I guess when I imagine him, he looks like Caleb McLaughlin, the black kid from the show Stranger Things. Except... albino. He’d be dressed in the coolest, most current style, and would walk with an overconfident bop to mask his insecurity. He’s the kind of young man who sneaks a spritz of his father’s cologne, is constantly fidgeting with the hemline of his shirt and the bottom of his jeans to make sure they fall onto his sneakers just right, and probably even practices clever things to say in the shower every morning.
I have some friends who are albino (and are nothing like Lu) and I’ve always been interested in the complexity of being black, but without melanin, which is often the very thing we use to qualify “varying degrees of blackness.” We use our outsides to attempt to qualify our insides—or at least we pretend to—but that’s just not the way culture and identity works. So I wanted to figure out how to address insecurity and how most times... most times we use outside elements like skin and clothing to actually hide what’s happening inside.
I see some of this same motif in Blended. So I’ll ask you the same question. Where does Izzy come from? Furthermore, how and why did you choose to have her be so attached to playing piano?
Draper: Izzy is biracial. Dad is black and mom is white, which makes Izzy, uh, what? She spends most of the book trying to figure that out.
Physically, she’s a peanut-butter colored girl who’s probably way too thin. Kids with lots of internal issues often manifest their confusions through their body image, often by overeating or undereating. She hasn’t hit her adolescent growth spurt yet, so she’s still “little girl skinny.” Her hair is a big issue to her because it’s got that wild thing going on—never smooth, never straight, often bunched up and confused just like she is. I think her efforts to control her hair are probably subliminal efforts to make her life smooth and easy, which it isn’t and never will be.
It’s interesting that both Lu and Izzy are seeking ways to address their insecurities while maintaining an outer, often shaky, sense of control.
The piano playing came from me. I guess I started playing when I was six or seven. My mother (who is one day going to be the subject of an unbelievable book) insisted her children be “cultured” and “proper.” So we took piano lessons. Classical only (BTW, I can still sort of play that sonatina—badly!). I liked playing the piano, and got to be pretty good at it, but I always yearned to learn boogie and rock. But my mother gasped at the impropriety (she also had the most amazing vocabulary). So after I finished Blended, Isabella inspired me to go back to my music. I bought myself a keyboard—a Casio just like Izzy’s! It’s been a real pleasure to go back to the old pieces (I kept all my old sheet music) and I bought some new pieces as well. The music has been hidden in a very deep part of me for a very long time. I am very rusty, but I’m really enjoying digging back in my brain and finding lost music. Truly a joy.
Okay, next question for you—I like Lu’s family, and his extended track family, especially Coach. None of them is perfect, but all of them are supportive of the young people. The hospital scene at the end is really cool. Write a description of your definition of “family,” however that’s defined, and why it’s important to include family in novels for young adults.
Also, since I’m in an airport and have lots of time before my flight, here’s another question... Lu seems to have a very good self-image, but he doubts his abilities as a hurdler. He second-guesses himself, pulls up short, and disappoints himself and his team and his coach. Talk a little about how this is so very typical of adolescents, and how every single one of them thinks they are the only one who has doubts or fears or uncertainties.
Reynolds: Yes! I should’ve mentioned Izzy existing in two worlds, but I have to say that I’m surprised you didn’t mention the metaphor of the black and white keys of the piano also being in relationship to her identity. Or am I reaching? Because it definitely seemed like the piano, an inanimate object that serves as a confidant, this black and white thing that makes beauty when tended to, is representative of—or at least an appendage of—her. Sort of how Lu’s hurdles are.
Those hurdles serve as not just “hurdles” and also not just insecurities. They also represent, quite simply, something new. He’s been living his life a certain way for a long time and has figured out how to posture and position himself as untouchable. His excellence as a sprinter matched with his fancy clothes has created a kind of force field, but this new race has put him in a vulnerable situation. So does his new sibling. So do his new discoveries about his family. Suddenly everything feels new, and his normal defense mechanisms are being challenged. I went through this as a kid, and sometimes still go through it now. We crave consistency because it helps us manage, and sometimes mask, our insecurities. But when our level ground tilts, our insecurities are often exposed.
As far as writing family in novels for young adults, I think it’s imperative. You know, there’s this whole thing about killing off parents, or somehow separating them from the young people so that the story can be “more theirs.” But I actually think it’s far more important to write complex but loving families into books to remind young people that there can be a family member—biological and chosen—who can love and support them while still allowing them to be fully themselves. And if for some reason they truly have no one, well, then at least they’ll know they have me.
Family is just as important in your novel, in all your novels, but in Blended, Izzy’s family is also, just that—blended. I personally think it’s great to see the world reflected, and lots of kids grow up in households where their parents aren’t together, but usually people write blended families as objects of resentment on behalf of the child. Why write Izzy as a girl who happens to actually like the new loves of her parents’ lives? Does this intentionally say anything about her personality, perhaps her ability to accept a certain change that, say, someone like Lu might not be so comfortable with?
Draper: Izzy didn’t plan to like her parents’ new romances. I think she’s thankful that the fighting is over. Maybe now they can focus on her instead of each other. She’s actually happier in a divorced situation. Her “blendedness,” if that’s a word, has made her stand out in ways that make her feel very uncomfortable. But she ultimately claims who she is with pride. And she learns to accept her blended family—at least it comes with love. Lots of kids only see the hatred in families of divorce, never the love. So Izzy perhaps can give them hope.
I see so many kids who live in unconventional households. Actually, there’s no such thing as conventional any more. Adults make decisions and kids simply have to abide by those decisions. In most states, children have no say in custody decrees. It varies by state at what age a child can decide who to live with. But in most states they have to be at least 12. By that time their lives and attitudes about life have been sealed. Many children are unhappy, even mistreated, but the law favors the parents in most cases. Lu has a notably strong family—a mom and dad who love each other and love him. That’s not true for so many kids. I hurt for those who have no voice and no choice.
About the black/white piano keys, I think I pretty subtly mentioned several times, but also show that the blending of separate individual notes can create a symphony of possibilities in her life. But whether it’s one chord or a whole sonatina, the beauty and power of the black and white keys help her to heal from the black and white conflicts that will arise in her life. It’s the Blending of all the elements, both musical and social, that hopefully make her life work.
I think Lu and Izzy would like each other. They’ve got different problems but strong personalities to persevere, and both have supportive families. I think readers will find enough similarities to see a connectivity between the two.
Lu (Track #4) by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $16.99, Oct. 23 ISBN 978-1-4814-5024-9
Blended by Sharon M. Draper. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $16.99 Oct. 30 ISBN 978-1-4424-9500-5