Kwame Mbalia (l.) is the author of the middle grade fantasy Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, and its sequel, Tristan Strong Destroys the World, inspired by West African mythology and African American folktales. The final book in the trilogy, Tristan Strong Keeps Punching, is due October 5. Lamar Giles (r.) is an author and a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. His most recent novels for young readers include Not So Pure and Simple and The Last Mirror on the Left, the sequel to his 2019 book The Last Last-Day-of-Summer. He is also the editor of the 2018 WNDB YA short story anthology Fresh Ink. We asked Mbalia and Giles to interview each other about their work on Mbalia’s new middle grade anthology, Black Boy Joy, a collection of 17 stories, comics, and poems that celebrate the wonders of Black boyhood.
Lamar Giles: I’m so excited to have this conversation, but I don't even have my copy of Black Boy Joy anymore because my nephew took it.
Kwame Mbalia: Your nephew jacked your joy? Is that what you’re saying?
Giles: I’m taking that to be a sign of the anticipation people are going to have for Black Boy Joy. I don't mind that he took it when we were all at the beach. I know when the book comes out, I’m going to purchase copies for additional family.
Mbalia: We want everybody else to celebrate this joy with us, not just family. My mantra for this book, and for all of 2021 and beyond, has been that centering does not mean excluding. Just because we are highlighting or celebrating a particular group of people from around the world doesn't mean we're excluding everyone else.
The perfect example I give is when I’m talking to my kids about birthday parties: you know you go to somebody else's birthday party; you can’t be mad that you're not the one getting presents. Your day will come. Today is a day to celebrate them and we're having fun, everybody's having fun! We got the bounce house, we got the cookout happening, everybody's eating, everybody's taking home a cupcake in a goodie bag, with some bubbles in it, and maybe some slime, and they'll get yelled at about it later.
Everybody's enjoying themselves because we've celebrated someone else and that's what Black Boy Joy is: we are celebrating the joy that we find in navigating Black boyhood and everybody is welcome to celebrate that as well.
Giles: Something you said there struck me—we got the bounce house, maybe we don't have the ball pit, but we have the barbecue. To me, that's a great metaphor for the variety of stories that are going on in this anthology.
I’m curious about a couple of things; how did you go about recruiting all of us and was it daunting to see the variety of stories and decide how to organize them? On the editorial side, what was that work like?
Mbalia: I knew right from the start there were several authors who I had to include. You, Lamar, were right at the top. You have this unique ability to inject humor into these everyday but not mundane activities and circumstances. Your story in the anthology Black Enough, edited by Ibi Zoboi, is hilarious; that’s why your story Black Boy Joy is one of the first ones to appear in the book—because we wanted to lead off with laughter. We wanted to hit readers over the head right away with an impactful and hilarious story.
I also knew which immediate authors I wanted to get involved. After that, it was like: who could we find to complement, to round out with voice and style? That was a little challenging, but the hardest part of this process was picking only two winners from the short story contest, for the unpublished authors to get published. The submissions we got were absolutely brilliant. I had to have my arm twisted a couple of times to make sure that we actually selected two and didn’t include them all. Because that’s how good they were.
So it was challenging. But the work is necessary. When you're doing necessary, challenging work that you feel good about—at the end of the day, it's almost like a salve for your soul.
Giles: Let me say, thank you for letting me come along for the ride. I don't know that anybody else would know this, but I had been DMing you because I loved Tristan Strong and we’ve known each other for a while—like, from the road.
I’ve wanted to work with you, even before you came to me and said, “Hey, would you be interested in being part of the anthology?” It's really nice to get the invite.
To your point about humor, I always find short stories to be the place where I can try to do things I may not necessarily get a chance to do with my novels. I was pretty happy that it's supposed to be an anthology that features joy and I got to get into the quirky, mundane things that are funny to me. I also remember being the age of the characters we’re writing here and feeling there were limitations on what was considered acceptable joy.
When I was growing up and I was the age of the readers we’re focusing on, the things that were most acceptable were sports and music. Neither of those were things I was good at. I remember the most exciting day of the week to me was Wednesdays because that was New Comic Book Day. I would save lunch money to go to the local comic book store, and I think anyone who sees my story in the anthology will see those influences.
Mbalia: It’s interesting because you mentioned acceptable joy and that plays into my story. It's a framing story that ties this Black Boy Joy universe together. I've always been interested in interrogating this idea of the emotions that we are allowed to show, as Black people and then as Black boys.
What emotions are we allowed to show? What's approved? This idea of joy and grief have to go hand-in-hand. I can think of several situations in which we cry about something and then we start laughing in the midst of these tears. Yet when I was growing up, I felt that it was so hard to show or to see those emotions in real life.
You mentioned the acceptable joy like when my favorite team won. But there's more individual, localized joy that's integral to our own individuality: things that make us specifically happy. [I was drawn to] the idea of writing a story in which we find those individualized instances of joy and then recognize how we can move from grief to joy intentionally, rather than accidentally. It's opening up a whole new path to follow and finding as well as showing 17 instances in which you can navigate your own path to your own individual joy. That's super important to me and I’m glad that every contributor to Black Boy Joy really came out. It's a beautiful thing.
Giles: One thing I’m excited about with the anthology is that we'll have all these instances where you're going to come across readers who are thinking the same things and feeling the same things and maybe didn't feel safe enough to express them until they see it in one of these stories.
That’s one of the greatest joys of creating these stories, to help readers express themselves because of something I wrote in the book that even I felt weird about. I’m glad we’re able to give access and permission to our readers to feel these things that some may be hiding, out of fear of being the only one.
Mbalia: There’s an inherent safety in reading a book and being able to connect silently with characters who are experiencing things that you might directly experience or read a similar situation where they see themselves and their circumstances echoed within the stories.
There’s something reassuring about that. Within these fictional characters, we’re allowed to create recognizable characters and situations. Being able to have that fictional pillar to lean on, to come back to that safety net, to silently relate to within the book —it’s safe for readers of all ages, but specifically for kids who are reading in households where they might not feel understood, where they might not be able to express their acceptable joy within that household.
Being able to find those instances within the book makes it feel like we are providing safe spaces for these readers to enter and say, “Yes, I feel validated in here. I feel welcome.” Everyone needs that, no matter what stage they are in life.
Giles: I want to ask you a different question. What was your reaction when you saw Kadir Nelson’s cover for Black Boy Joy, and what was it like getting him on board?
Mbalia: I'm a firm believer in shooting your shot because the worst thing that can happen is that they say no, and we move on. And so, [the team at Delacorte was] like, “We're going to try and get Kadir Nelson,” and I'm like, “Let's go. Fire away.”
When he agreed, it was mind-blowing.
The cover—there’s something beautiful about seeing the unrestrained joy and smile of children, specifically Black children, especially when I feel like we have been maligned so much. When we are presented via the media or in other formats, we’re angry or we’re upset. Being able to have unfiltered, unadulterated joy and happiness—it’s one of those things where the smile is contagious, it's like you see this smile and everybody starts smiling.
The cover blow-up is hidden underneath my Tristan Strong cover because my son, my one-year-old, that's the one he gravitates toward. Anytime he sees it, he starts trying to hug it and play with it. I have to hide it until I’m doing events.
What did you think when you saw it? Because I think we broke the news to you when we showed y’all the cover, isn’t that right?
Giles: I was super excited. First of all, because it’s a gorgeous cover. I'm going to brag a little bit; this is where I name-drop Kadir Nelson. We all went on tour a couple years ago together, and it was my first time meeting him. I was 100% intimidated because he’s Kadir Nelson! I just didn’t know, like, am I allowed to talk to him? But he’s the coolest guy ever, we had a super fun time on tour. For me, it was twofold in that it’s a great cover, but it also felt cool like I was connected with my friend Kadir again.
Mbalia: It sounds silly, but when I'm interacting with readers, for example at the Black Boy book club I hosted, these readers look nothing like the boy on the Black Boy Joy cover.
But then they smile at what we’re talking about—our favorite books, video games, these things that bring them joy—and they smile. That smile is not the exact same, and yet it is, because it’s unfiltered, there is no cynicism. There’s no reserve in the smiles. That's what this cover symbolizes to me. It's the idea that we are passing along something to these readers, to these young Black boys specifically. We are passing joy in literary form, and I think that is just fantastic.
Giles: You brought up your son gravitating to the blown-up version of the Black Boy Joy cover. It's another swerve. Do your kids think you're cool?
Mbalia: They’re not allowed to think otherwise. They have no choice—like they have their chores, they have to go to school, and they have to think I’m cool. That's the list.
Giles: Seriously, are they impressed by what you’ve done in publishing? Does it resonate with them that their dad has written these fantastic books or quarterbacked this fantastic anthology?
Mbalia: No, and I’ll tell you why. I think it's because my books aren’t their favorite books. What is cool to them is when I start name-dropping. It’s not in an effort to get them to think I’m cool, but it's an effort to get them engaged in reading and literature.
When I hop off a panel and I talk to my daughters, I’m like, “Hey, I was just on a panel with such and such.” They’re like, “I love their books.” I’m like, “Cool, we’re going to get their ARCs.” What’s great about that interaction is the fact that I know their favorite authors or artists. The interaction that I’m happiest and proudest of is that they are now excited about these books that are coming. We’re in this pandemic, but one of my dreams was to take my kids with me when we go on tour or when we’re at these conferences and festivals, so that they can see what happens behind the scenes, because not everyone, especially at a young age, is privy to that information.
We don’t always know what happens in publishing and in the industry, and exposing my Black daughters and my Black son to the information early gets them into the frame of mind of what they can do, what parts of publishing they can kick the door down on. You can write, you can create, you can publish someone else, you can edit, you can market, and just open the door to all of these different positions and realms within publishing that quite honestly need more melanin within them.
Giles: I’m asking those questions because I have ulterior motives. My wife and I are expecting our first child next month.
I love to hear the perspective of people who have gone through this process before me and try to wrap my head around what it would be like when my little girl is coming of age and starting to read. Then I’m able to put these books in front of her that feature characters that look like her, like us. And I’ll still be able to name drop in and say, “These are my friends.”
Mbalia: Congratulations! But you’ll be starting from a point when that is all they know. They’ll just know, “This is the publishing industry, this is where my dad works, this is what he does.” Whereas, with my kids, I’m switching over from a different career, from scientist to writer and it’s cool for them, but it’s still like: “That’s the thing that Daddy does as a hobby. He’s just doing a little bit.”
It still hasn’t sunk in for them yet. One of the most amazing feelings in the world is being able to create something that your kids, years from now, will be able to say, “I remember Daddy working on that at the kitchen table. As I was doing my homework, he was working on edits on this and that.”
I love listening to stories of my peers who have parents who are writers, working with them and what they have to do in order to get that draft done before we had Dropbox and Google Docs. It’s just a wonderful experience, and I treasure each milestone.
Mbalia: Let me wrap it up with this. We’ve talked about our stories. We’ve talked about what the reaction from initial readers has been. That ideal reader we’re writing for, whether he’s a Black boy or someone different, a younger version of yourself, maybe—what do you hope that reader takes away from your story and from the anthology?
Giles: I think that ideal reader is anyone who feels like they have to hide. I hope they take away the knowledge that that’s not the case. Whatever it is that makes them happy is okay. Not only is it okay, it should be celebrated and I hope they see some inspiration in these stories to go out and celebrate whatever joy is uniquely theirs.
Mbalia: I’m similar to you. What I want the reader to take from my story is the same thing that I want them to take from the other 16 completely different stories. The only thing uniting them is this idea that joy is attainable. I want that message to be central.
I want each story to hammer that into the reader’s head 17 times—your joy is attainable and it doesn’t matter where you’re starting from.
If this book is a roadmap, there are 17 different routes you can take to find joy and that’s just the start. You may find the 18th or 19th or however many. I just want them to take away this idea that joy is attainable. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different.
Black Boy Joy, edited by Kwame Mbalia. Delacorte, $16.99 Aug. 3 ISBN 978-0-593-37993-6