Reading about Coe Booth’s journey to becoming a published writer is inspirational. Having read many of her interviews and articles written about her, I can honestly say that she is phenomenal at crafting stories and she is truly meant to be a writer. And she has received many awards since the release of her debut novel Tyrell to prove it. Coe has earned the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction, 2007 New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age, 2007 American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, and the 2007 American Library Association Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Writing stories since she was in the second grade, Coe is a born storyteller. Writer Marion Woodman confesses that “storytelling is at the heart of life. As a child, I was never bored because I could always get on with my story.” I imagine that this is very much true for Coe based on an article I read written by James Blasingame, Jr. where she reflected on just how connected she is to her writing, “I have been writing my whole life. I sometimes judge my happiness at a given time by my writing output, so no matter what I’m doing, if I’m writing, I’m OK, but if I’m doing something and I’m not able to write, I’m not happy. Period!” Being in touch with her emotional barometer aligns with what Maya Angelou once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”
I started reading Tyrell one morning as I sat in my car allowing it to warm up. My car was ready to go, but I was still making my way through chapter one. As I drove to work, the word griot kept echoing in my mind. I know that griots are storytellers who are skilled in the oral tradition. But griots are also tasked with being the chronicler of history and keeping their audience abreast of current events. The guardians of the family genealogy, griots are trained to excel at what they do. Like Coe Booth. Tyrell is not her family history, but she is telling the story of so many of our young people. She is telling the stories of so many people that she knew from her years as a social worker. Her storytelling is so powerful that I am able to visualize Tyrell as he walks such a tight rope trying to keep his head above some dangerous waters and make very grown up decisions. As a former social worker, Coe is in tune with what’s happening to so many young people and their families. She tells Tyrell’s story with great perception about him and those like him. As someone who also has a degree in psychology, I believe that her educational background also aided her in telling Tyrell’s story and understanding who he is to help us as readers to see him better in our minds.
Tyrell made me pause a lot as I read because I wondered which of my former students lived a life similar to Tyrell. How many did I write off thinking they just didn’t care about school or my class when really they had bigger problems than my homework assignment? For all of my training to become a teacher, it’s books like Tyrell that are just as essential alongside the behavior management theories. This is a story reminding us that sometimes we need to look beyond a person’s circumstances. This is a story with heart. If I was still teaching, this would be a story I would encourage many of my students to read even with the sexual content. I also recommend that adults pick up a copy as well.
Author Caitlin Matthews advises, “The one story worth telling is the one that strikes most nearly to the heart. For each person, that story will be different, for each heart is like a harp with its own distinct tuning.” I’m thankful that the other story Coe was working on a few years back wasn’t meshing with her and she opened up a new file that later became Tyrell.
Coe, it is a real pleasure to interview you. I feel a kinship in that I didn’t outline my first book either. I made notes here and there but no real outline. I just went with the flow. Did you stick to that with your next book? Does that work better for you – discovering the story as it happens to you?
CB: There’s definitely something exciting about writing without an outline. The first time I had done that was with TYRELL and I really liked it, even though it got scary at times. I kept thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to tie up all these storylines. What am I doing?” But looking back, I do believe it worked best for me. It was fun putting myself in Tyrell’s shoes and wondering what he would do next, as opposed to what I would do. There’s a lot of acting involved with writing sometimes!
With my next book KENDRA, I wrote about 200 pages and then I hit a wall. A big one! So my editor suggested I outline the ending and it actually worked! So the lesson here, I suppose, is every book is different. I’m the kind of person who likes to jump right in and start writing, but if I get stuck (and if I’m up against a deadline!) I will give outlining a shot.
Currently you are in Switzerland doing a year-long writer-in-residency at Laurenz Haus. How long have you been there? How’s that going for you? What are you working on over there?
CB: I’ve been here since September and it has been such a great experience so far. It’s the first time I’ve been to Europe, and Laurenz Haus is in such a central location that I’m only about ten minutes from both France and Germany. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be chosen for this! The only stumbling block is the language. Here they speak Swiss German, a language that is much different from standard German. So the German 101 class I took last summer hasn’t helped me a bit!
Since I’ve been here I’ve been working on KENDRA. Once I’m finished with the revisions, I will try to get most of the sequel to TYRELL written. I also want to do some traveling, since I don’t know when I will have this kind of opportunity again!
Can you tell us what your next book Kendra will be about? I am eager to read that one already. Will Tyrell be a part of her story? Will their lives ever connect?
CB: KENDRA is about a fourteen-year-old girl whose mother gave birth to her when she was fourteen. Kendra is being raised by her very overprotective grandmother because her mother, Renée, has been away at college and graduate school. Kendra has been waiting for Renée forever, and when she does return, Kendra learns that she’s still not ready to assume her role as Kendra’s mother. This sets Kendra off on a downward spiral since she doesn’t feel she has anything to look forward to anymore. So the story is really about the choices Kendra makes and the consequences she faces.
Kendra lives in the same “projects” as Tyrell, but she lives a much different life than he does and they don’t even know each other. However, Tyrell does make a very brief cameo and Ms. Jenkins also pops up here and there. It’s been a lot of fun overlapping the stories this way.
I read in another article that you are working on the sequel to Tyrell and you’re bombarded with questions and ideas for how that should go. Don’t you just love when your readers respond to your story and characters in that way? How is the sequel going for you? Is Tyrell speaking to you or through you like he did the first time?
CB: I think just about every reader who has written me has asked if there will be a sequel to TYRELL. They tell me I left them “hanging.” But not only do they ask me if there will be a sequel, they tell me what the entire storyline should be. It’s so great.
Writing the sequel will be pretty challenging since when I’m in the Bronx, I usually hear people talking like the characters in Tyrell’s world. Unfortunately, I’m just not hearing that here in Switzerland! But luckily for me, Tyrell’s voice is strong and (hopefully) I’ll be able to call it up whenever I need it.
I know you began writing Tyrell as a grad school assignment. How long did it take you to finish writing the book once you graduated from the New School?
CB: Yes, I began writing it in grad school, and when I graduated I had only about one-third of it written. (But at that time I was a full-time college professor and a full-time student, so I wasn’t able to write a whole lot.) Once grad school was done I was able to finish it in about six months. So altogether it took about a year and a half to write. But I’m a slow writer!
You mentioned in the article written by James Blasingame, Jr. that you grew up reading Judy Blume as a child and wanting stories like that to be written for Black kids. You also mentioned that you have a desire to write for middle grade readers. What are some of the topics that you want to write about for middle grade?
CB: Oh, when I was a kid I loved me some Judy Blume! And I really wished there were books like that featuring Black kids. But there wasn’t anything out there like that. So I started writing my own!
I would love to write for middle-grade readers, especially books that will appeal to boys as well as girls. That’s the age where kids really need to find books they can relate to or else they’ll be non-readers forever. It’s such an important time in their lives and if I can write something that will connect with them, I would feel extremely good about that. I have a million ideas right now, but nothing has yet clicked for me. So over the next few months, while I’m working on the sequel to TYRELL, I will try to “marinate” a few ideas and see which ones have staying power.
We know that since Tyrell has been released, you have received many well-deserved accolades from the industry as well as readers, but have you received any criticism about the story? How do you deal with that?
CB: While most of the reviewers had good things to say about TYRELL, I have received some criticism from individuals, mostly for the use of language in the book. Some teachers of sixth and seventh grade classes have written me to say how much they liked the book and how they wish they could use it in their classes, but the language makes that impossible. And they always ask me if I could write something for younger kids who are reluctant readers.
I don’t find it too difficult to deal with that kind of criticism because I understand that TYRELL isn’t for everyone. Some people aren’t comfortable with the language, and that’s their right. I knew going into this that some people wouldn’t like it, but I’m really happy that so many people haven’t let that stop them from reading the book and teaching it, especially in high schools.
Other criticism I’ve received from a few individuals is that TYRELL shows a very skewed perspective of African American life. A few people have said I should write more uplifting stories with more upwardly mobile characters. But this is only my first novel, and this one is about one particular boy. It doesn’t mean everything I write will be exactly like this. But I also think it’s important to write about characters like Tyrell because people like him exist. And young people like Tyrell deserve to have books they can relate to available to them.
As I read Tyrell, I was very intrigued by Jasmine and her back story. I’m rooting for both Jasmine and Tyrell because they’re both good kids in spite of life’s circumstances. Any plans to have a book about Jasmine and her adventures? Will she be in Tyrell’s sequel?
CB: Yes, Jasmine will definitely be in the sequel to TYRELL. I really ended up liking her, which kind of surprised me! At first I thought she was going to be more of a minor character, but she just grew on me (and Tyrell!) I don’t have any plans for a book about Jasmine, but one never knows…
What are you hoping for through your writing? What do you see for yourself as a writer for the next 20 years?
CB: Wow, what a good question! I guess my main goal is to write books that children and teens actually want to read, including those who don’t normally enjoy reading. I love making that kind of connection with readers, one that will hopefully open the door to more reading in their future.
In 20 years I would like to have a body of work I’m happy with, books for both middle-grade and teen readers. I’d like to grow and improve with each book, and maybe push the envelope a little! I also have a not-so-secret dream of writing for television and film one day, but that would definitely be on the side. Writing novels is what I’ve always wanted to do and hopefully I will still be doing it 20 years from now.
The Buzz on Tyrell
From School Library Journal
Starred Review. This is a thrilling, fast-paced novel whose strong plot and array of vivid, well-developed characters take readers on an unforgettable journey through the gritty streets of New York City’s South Bronx. At its heart is the painful choice the teen must make as he realizes the effect of his mother’s failure to do right by their family. ~ Caryl Soriano, New York Public Library
*Starred Review* . . . The immediate first-person narrative is pitch perfect: fast, funny, and anguished (there’s also lots of use of the n-word, though the term is employed in the colloquial sense, not as an insult). Unlike many books reflecting the contemporary street scene, this one is more than just a pat situation with a glib resolution; it’s filled with surprising twists and turns that continue to the end. ~ Hazel Rochman