Publishers’ Preview: Diverse Voices Redux: Five Questions for Tiffany D. Jackson

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

This interview originally appeared in the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Diverse Voices Redux, 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.

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Three Brooklyn teens are mourning the death of their friend and brother — and trying to catch his killer. Let Me Hear a Rhyme is a mystery set against the musical landscape of late-1990s rap.

Photo: Andrew Fennell.

1. What is Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine’s neighborhood like today?

Brevoort Housing Projects hasn’t changed much, but its surroundings sure have. Gentrification has locals wondering where “old Brooklyn” has gone. But it’s still there in the everyday — the basketball courts are crowded, aunties sit by open windows, teens play hip-hop out of speakers (now hooked up with Bluetooth), and you can still grab the perfect bacon-egg-and-cheese from the corner bodega.

2. There’s a lot of rap music in your characters’ lives. I’m clueless: what artist would you recommend I listen to first?

That’s such a hard question. Of course, I’d recommend The Notorious B.I.G., whom this book surrounds.

But for a real introduction to hip-hop, start with The God MC Rakim — he was a lyrical genius with an unforgettable cadence. For groups, A Tribe Called Quest and N.W.A. Next Tupac and Biggie, followed by Jay-Z and Nas, then J-Cole and Kendrick Lamar. I’m skipping over a lot, but that foundation is key to understanding hip-hop’s roots and culture.

3. Have you read The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou? Old-old-school YA (1968) about a group of Black kids with a music dream.

I haven’t, but I’m not surprised. Older YA novels featuring kids of color weren’t suggested nor readily available. We were forced to read from the literary canon — not particularly inspiring for teens looking for themselves on the page.

4. The raps in this book are by Malik “Malik-16” Sharif. How did the two of you work together?

Malik and I have been besties since 2001, when we met during Verbal Armageddon, a rap competition at Howard University. He’s a brilliant artist and freestyler. Working together was surprisingly easy (especially given that we fight like brother and sister). I sent him chapters and explained the feel I needed for each song. We only volleyed a few rounds before they fit perfectly.

5. You’ve done a lot of work in TV — what did that teach you about writing for teenagers?

TV taught me all about capturing kids’ attention and keeping it without sacrificing quality or craft. It also taught me not to be afraid of tough topics. Kids can catch whatever you throw at them.

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