Poet and filmmaker Don P. Hooper has always set his sights on young audiences, as a writer for children’s television programming and a contributor to the 2021 short story anthology Black Boy Joy. His debut YA novel True True follows Black Brooklynite teen Gil’s transition to his new Manhattan prep school Augustin, where he faces discrimination and racism and turns to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to help guide him in his battle for justice. As Gil grapples with the new life he is building in the city, he struggles to remain true to his loved ones and his life in Brooklyn. We spoke with Hooper about the interconnected experiences between himself and his story’s protagonist, the necessity of community, and creating a validating space for Black children facing racism.

How did you balance writing about aspects of your own experience while creating Gil’s unique journey?

I think at first I was trying to make sure there was a full-on distinction, and Gil was totally separate. But the inciting incident in the book where Gil is attacked happened to me the first week of freshman year—getting attacked and called a racial slur. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and my family and my neighborhood were all Caribbean. A major aspect I wasn’t pulling in [at first] was that pressure that Gil feels from his parents; that’s one of the things that nearly broke me as a teenager. It became a lot for me to deal with, battling racism, while going to school. The academics was the easy part, it was everything else that was really difficult. It was important for me to include because I don’t want my parents to read it and think that I’m dumping on them. I included the grandma character, who I just love celebrating, because it’s like every Black woman who has influenced me throughout my life. She’s such an inspirational character to me. It’s not exactly how it happened to me as a child, but just having those figures in [my] life and be there [in the book] was important.

The Black students at Augustin have different responses to the trauma they’re facing at school. How did you hope to showcase and validate the different ways Black characters process trauma and racism?

I didn’t want it to be a monolith. I didn’t want everyone to be like, “Hey, we’re adamantly against this,” because that’s not how it happens. Everyone’s family situation is different. And Gil kind of comes into the party late. [The Black Augustin students] are like, “We’re four years in here and we’ve had to deal with this all the time.” There’s an arrogance to Gil, but he’s coming from this public school side. He’s fought certain battles at public school, and he’s just like, “Why aren’t we doing this?” It’s a different playing field. What Gil has to realize is everybody is coming from a different path. Everybody came to this school. Not all of them necessarily wanted to, but they’re all trying to get something different out of it and they’re using it in a different way. I think Augustin ends up becoming the paradigm for America and corporate America because everyone there is trying to figure out how to deal with those problems.

Gil has to realize that there’s this fight with Augustin, the administration, but what else are [other students] going through? They’re united and there’s this racial aspect, but where are you as a character personally coming from? [With] all these stories, what you’ll start to see is what it means when we come together.

How does Gil’s desire for justice begin to impede his relationships? How does one find a balance between fighting for what’s right and maintaining personal peace?

I think the most important thing for Gil [that he learns from The Art of War] is to see that every situation he’s in is some kind of battle, and it’s a sad way to look at life. What he doesn’t see initially are the repercussions of this. He’s starting to see that he needs allies and friends. If you don’t have friends, and you don’t have numbers, you have to find a way to be loved. And unfortunately, for him, he’s trying to use [these people] as soldiers. He has to learn to use them as allies and partners, rather than thinking of himself as a general. By manipulating these people, he ends up becoming a villain in that way. He starts using his friends rather than working with them.

It’s also important not to forget and lose sight of the joyous moments, and not to let the war take over. Because that’s what ends up crushing him in many ways. He learns he can turn to other people and let people in and not have to take on all this pain; they could take it on together as a community. The Art of War makes no reference to community and the village—how we work together to raise each other up. And I think that’s what he starts to learn by the end.

The phrase “true true” is repeated in the book when Gil voices agreement with his friends’ poignant and powerful statements about their experiences. Why did you choose this for the title?

Throughout Gil’s journey, he’s trying to figure out a way to be true to himself. And there’ve [been] so many times when I’m with my friends and everyone’s talking, that we repeat the same word as an adjective. It’s like, right, right. And it’s like that, True, true. It used to be a [more common] thing, so I thought that it’d be cool to bring that back. He’s having an internal moment and an external moment, because he’s saying it to his friends, but he’s also reasserting it to himself. Like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to remember that. I’ve got to keep that locked in for whatever comes to me in the future.”

True True by Don P. Hooper. Penguin/Paulsen, Aug. 1 $19.99 ISBN 978-0-593-46210-2.