Author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James’s first collaboration, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Bolden/Millner, 2017), earned extensive praise and accolades, among them a Newbery Honor, a Caldecott Honor, a Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Honor, the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal, and multiple starred reviews. Their forthcoming book, I Am Every Good Thing (Penguin/Paulsen), will be the first published of three subsequent collaborations since Crown.

The cover of I Am Every Good Thing, which is revealed here for the first time, alludes to the book’s evocative celebration of black boyhood and features a face familiar to the collaborators: James’s son Gabriel. “My son is diagnosed autistic, so to be able to put him on the cover looking so strong and cool and powerful really meant a lot to us—me, my wife, my family. It was a big deal.”

The cover concept was important to Barnes, too, who explained that it’s always bothered him that, whenever a book featured a black boy on the cover, he was one of three things: a runaway slave, a civil rights leader or athlete, or menacing. “The boy on the cover [of I Am Every Good Thing] looks so confident, but, when I look in his eyes, I see that sweetness and realness. We are a multitude of things. Black boys in America are not a monolith.”

Barnes started writing I Am Every Good Thing the day Michael Brown was murdered in 2014. He picked it up again, a few months later, when Tamir Rice was murdered in Cleveland, but it wasn’t until 2018, when an ad featuring “a little black boy, maybe nine-years old, wearing a green hoodie that said, ‘the coolest monkey in the jungle’ ” was advertised by H&M that he resumed the project in earnest. “Growing up as a black boy, you grow accustomed to these negative stereotypes of what it means to be a black boy in America,” Barnes explained. “Now that I’m an adult black man with four beautiful sons, I think it’s imperative that we define who we are. It’s so important that we tell our own stories. This book is about challenging those negative stereotypes about black boys that have seemingly always existed in this country.”

For James, it was important that his illustrations reflect the black diaspora, with varied complexions, body types, and personalities represented: “Whether they are tough, or tender, cerebral, or more heart driven, lots of kids will see themselves in this book.” Also important to James was making sure black boys feel welcome in all spaces: the library, a house party, in the woods, at the beach, and in universities. “There is no place that is off limits to you as an African-American boy.”

Barnes and James first met 18 years ago, when they both worked for the Hallmark greeting card company, and they both live in Charlotte, N.C., today, which Barnes noted “almost never happens when you’re working with an illustrator.” Though they communicate mostly via email when working on a project, Barnes said that, if he doesn’t like something, he doesn’t hold his tongue. “I consider him a brother,” he said “so we can argue and disagree, but I still love him. Our main goal is to put these books out. We want to put out something beautiful.” James concurred: “We try to stay out of each other’s way. When Derrick says he’s writing something and he thinks I’d be good for it, we give each other space to be experts in what it is we each do.”

Barnes acknowledges that he felt pressure following Crown’s success, but his biggest takeaway was that “you don’t have to land the big book deal, but you must have a message.” Published by Agate, a small press in Chicago, Crown’s humble beginnings served it well. “For the remainder of my career,” Barnes said, “I will always strive to be as authentic as possible. There are so many kids who have a story to tell, who want the world to see what kind of people they are. I’m speaking for those children. I’m always going to publish books like [Crown and I Am Every Good Thing] because they are so needed, even in 2020.”

For James, the success of Crown is independent of subsequent projects. “I try to always put out the best work that I can at that moment in time. At the end, I know I did the best that I could do. How people receive it? That’s up to them.” Barnes, however, knows exactly how he’d like his books to be greeted. “I always imagine a child opening my books and their eyebrows raising and their cheeks lifting, reading something that they’ve never read before that fills them up and makes them feel good about themselves. When they shut the book, they run to the mirror and see themselves and go, ‘Man, this is who I am.’ I want them to have that experience every time. To see themselves and feel good about themselves.”

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illus. by Gordon C. James. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99 Sept. 2020 ISBN