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Publishers’ Preview: Diverse Voices: Five Questions for Jewell Parker Rhodes

Publishers' Previews: Special advertising supplement in The Horn Book Magazine

This interview originally appeared in the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Diverse Voices, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.

Sponsored byLittle, Brown

Jerome, twelve, has been killed by the police, but his spirit literally haunts those he left behind in Ghost Boys.

1. Have you ever seen a ghost?

No, but I feel my grandmother’s spiritual presence every day.

2. Did you have any hesitancy in making Emmett Till a character in your novel?

None. I grew up seeing images of Emmett Till and knowing that his death served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. I’m especially proud that, based on eighty-two-year-old Carolyn Bryant’s 2017 confession that she lied about Emmett assaulting her, I was able to write Emmett as the unconditional innocent that he was.

3. How can a book help “so it never happens again”?

Empathy. Character-driven fiction allows readers to identify with my characters — each of whom grows up to accept his or her loving responsibilities toward other human beings. Carlos becomes a surrogate big brother to Jerome’s sister; Sarah, the police officer’s daughter, commits to advancing social justice. Jerome, Carlos, and Sarah bear witness to tragedy — telling, retelling, and remembering the history of racism and its legacy of bias.

4. You found a potent metaphor in Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. Was that part of your story from the beginning?

The novel developed slowly over two years. After a year, I was revising the scene in which Jerome is enthralled with Sarah’s library. He selects Peter Pan from the shelf. I focused on J. M. Barrie’s first line: “All children, except one, grow up.” Only later did I realize the irony that Peter — coming from a white privileged background — decides to be irresponsible, abandon his family, and not grow up. Jerome, on the other hand, is aware that his blackness makes him vulnerable to discrimination, and he wants to be responsible, grow up, and support his family. The cultural resonances and differences are striking.

5. What book (besides this one!) would you most want our young Jerome to read?

Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. Flying has the same spiritual affirmation of the ghost boys whose spirits rise and move through the world searching for equity and justice.

Sponsored byLittle, Brown

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