Nick Brooks Talks with Roger

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Through a collection of intriguingly unreliable narrators, Promise Boys explores the landscape of Black and Latino teen lives. I talked with Nick Brooks about his first YA novel while he played with his dog in his LA backyard, and I sat with mine on the couch in Boston. Ain’t Zoom grand?

Roger Sutton: What was your high school like?

Nick Brooks: My high school was interesting. It was one of the “better” high schools, one of two or three in DC that had IB [International Baccalaureate] programs. You had to apply to get in...fortunately for me, my mom worked there, so that gave me the edge.

RS: I take it your school is not like the school that you write about.

NB: Not so much. In Promise Boys, the school is a metaphor for the whole educational system. The school I write about is inspired by some of the schools I taught in and where I worked as an administrator.

Photo: Dante Bailey

RS: Did you ever read The Chocolate War? It was a YA novel published in the seventies that took place at a Catholic boys’ school. I thought of it reading your book because in the beginning of The Chocolate War, you think, Oh, there are some evil kids at this school. But as the novel develops, you think, Kids?! You ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s talk about the priests.

NB: That makes a lot of sense. One of the reasons I structured Promise Boys the way I did is because it reflects my experience as an educator. I would hear the things that teachers and sometimes even parents had to say about some of the students before I had actually met them. When I met the kids, I’d have a completely different impression of them. Also, growing up in the city and understanding what it means to grow up Black in a city like DC — I saw myself when I met these kids. But I have to admit there was one time in particular when I fell victim to prejudging, where I thought something about a student because I didn’t understand the full picture, and it was extremely eye-opening. It reminded me to never forget where you come from. Teaching in DC and then working as an administrator in one of the tougher parts of Dallas was a very humbling experience. Those experiences really helped me dive into Promise Boys.

RS: The way you structured it, with the multitude of voices, was pretty brilliant, particularly in the way that we think we know who someone is because of what someone else has said about them. You keep turning that.

NB:  You see that a lot in schools. Everybody has different perceptions of different kids, and it comes out in how teachers interact with them. What the adult doesn’t understand is that students bring their energy into the situation because of the adult’s perception of them. The whole idea of cultural responsiveness and trying to identify with the kids — sounds really good in theory, but it’s hard to do if you aren’t given the right tools. Having the experience of teaching in the area that I came from gave me the tools to contextualize what I was seeing.

RS: And I think you can even look at this even more universally. The way that I would see you, for example, is really different from the way that you would see yourself. I like that your book allowed both of those perspectives to be revealed, and neither one contains the whole truth, because at different points in your book, those kids are lying to themselves. You really kept me off balance. Which one of these boys was it? Was it one of these boys? Was maintaining those perspectives hard? I love to read mysteries; I don’t think I could write one.

NB: I won’t say it’s hard. It was a fun exercise. I love writing — every story is an exercise. It’s like building a puzzle. I grew up reading Walter Moseley, and before that, the Hardy Boys, Sidney Sheldon, Agatha Christie. I actually work in TV and film, too — that's what I do primarily. A lot of what I write for TV and film are mysteries. So the idea of three Black and brown boys being investigators seemed like a fun journey.

RS: But what complicates your novel is we don’t know who the good guys are.

NB: That’s what makes it fun. Another thing is I didn’t want the boys to seem squeaky clean. Promise Prep is for kids who had trouble matriculating in traditional classroom settings. I’m drawn to that population because it’s who I worked with. These boys do have pasts. They have their own weight, but so does everybody. They’re not bad people because of that. They’re just people. To your point of why they all seem like they could have done it, that was very intentional. Also, it’s just realistic. A kid can do something once, but he’s learning and growing every day, a lot of times in a really tough environment. These kids can change. They need more grace and more empathy.

RS: What led you into education in the first place?

NB: I originally went to Oklahoma University, ended up leaving and coming back home. My mom worked at Howard University and got me in there, where I studied psychology. I was also coaching Little League football. We weren’t great; I think we won two games. And I worked as an intern for a nonprofit called Concerned Black Men. They would “push in” to classrooms with young Black boys who were having trouble navigating the education system. We would teach the kids about character education, masculinity, social tools, try to help them solve the problems with academics. I really enjoyed working with the boys, in the classroom and on the football field, and decided to apply for the Teach for America program.  You could describe it as a sweet deal, how some people might have looked at the military at one time. You do two years teaching in a classroom, they pay for your master’s degree — all these perks. I’m like, okay, cool. This program sounded good, so I applied for TFA. Working with kids, I realized, was a passion of mine.

RS: But no longer, right? Now you’re in television?

NB: I am in television. I did Concerned Black Men for two years. I was a classroom teacher for two years in Teach for America; then I worked as an administrator for that organization in Dallas, Texas, for two years. All in all, about six years. There was a point around year five I’ll never forget. I said to a colleague, “I think I’m fighting the wrong fight. Or I’m working for the wrong team.” The things that I thought needed to happen for kids weren’t happening, and people didn’t seem as concerned about making them happen as I did. My career has changed, but the kids I’ve taught inspire me every day. Moving the needle in education, getting people to talk about what’s happening in our public schools, charter schools, underserved communities, are definitely passions of mine.

RS: Do you see yourself in any of these three boys, or all of them?

NB: A little bit of all of them. J.B. is the quiet, serious type — that's kind of a box that I check. Also, in the book he’s writing raps, like in my early days writing music and raps for the girls I had crushes on. There’s Ramon, who I call the hustler. That was also very much me. I was always trying to find something to sell, as early as third grade, anything from paper to pencils to candy, to eventually clothes. That piece of me is Ramon, the hustler and the dreamer, wanting to own his own shop and be an entrepreneur. And then you have Trey, who is the most dramatic. He has this really strong shell. He’s a jokester, he’s smooth on the basketball court, but he’s the most hurt of the boys. A lot of kids growing up put on this bravado because deep down, they’re unhappy — I'm no different. That’s the piece of me that lives with Trey.

RS: Why did you decide to tell it in this kind of jigsaw puzzle way, rather than straightforwardly? You really set a complicated task for yourself.

NB: That came out in development. I worked with Cake Creative, a launch pad for writers. Initially, they were the people who asked if I could write this story. As we were developing it, they suggested I read a book written in this multi-perspective way, kind of like the movie Vantage Point. I thought that was really cool, and we decided to go that route. I think it really heightens the mystery and gives it an extra layer.

RS: So what do you think you’ll do next, book-wise?

NB: Man, there’s a lot I want to do. Most immediately, I’ve been working on my next YA mystery, which I think I want to be a series instead of a standalone. And I also have a middle grade graphic-novel series that I’m developing, about a Black boy who’s like a young Indiana Jones. I’m really excited about it. The first one in the series is about this secret order of African American freedom fighters. It’s pretty dope.

RS: And you still have a day job, too?

NB: Yes and no. I’m a writer-director. On the TV side, I have one TV show with Netflix that will be announced at the beginning of the year, I have a couple of other shows, and I have my first feature film that I’m trying to make in 2023. All this is my job. And I still make music. Creating is my full-time job.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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