Three moves is all it takes to change the outcome of the game

December 12, 2007

This past weekend, I read G. Neri‘s Chess Rumble, illustrated by Joshua Watson. Got my copy at the newspaper where I work. Couple times a year, they hold a huge book sale with proceeds going to charity. The books are sent from publishers hoping for media exposure. I made it to the sale three hours late, so I was thrilled to see Chess Rumble hadn’t been snatched up.

11-year-old Marcus suffers great loss: the death of his sister and his father’s detachment from the family, following the death. Daddy didn’t tell stories no more. Just sat by hisself at that dang chessboard till all the ghosts in his head chased him away forever.

After his parents split up, Marcus is left to be the man of the house. Spirit-broken and angry, he lashes out, fighting with his younger twin brothers and raising a fist to his mom in a heated discussion. When taunted by a bully at school (He got called Fattie in front of some girls) he not only raises his fists, but he uses them, too.

On the verge of getting kicked out of school, Marcus meets the Chess Man (CM), a tough older dude, who apparently sharpened his chess game while serving time in jail or prison. CM challenges Marcus to fight his battles on the chess board.

Through lessons learned from CM — about life and chess — Marcus gains a new confidence within himself, and he learns the value of thinking ahead and defeating his problems by having a game plan.

After reading Chess Rumble, I realized my 6-year-old son and I hadn’t played in awhile. I pulled out the ol’ chess board and we played a few rounds. As we played, I advised my son in the same way CM had advised Marcus: “Don’t blindly move your pieces around the board,” I told him. “Identify my King, your target. Think ahead a few moves. Make a plan.” Then I beat my son like a dusty old rug. Three times.

This free verse story is told in first-person. It’s a quick read, and I enjoyed it very much. I wish there were books like this when I was a kid. And I gotta give G. Neri his props for so successfully capturing the voice of a troubled 11-year-old, African American male from the hood. Marcus’ language is street, conversational and real. He talks just like I did at 11-years-old, and often still do.

Watson’s acrylic illustrations are strong and bold, full of emotion, and have a graphic art quality about them.


Stocking A Teen’s Bookshelf

December 10, 2007

paula_thumb.jpgYA and teens go well together – they’re both in awkward stages.

Teens (and for the sake of conversation let’s include tweens ages 10-12) are newly indepenent thinkers, yet not ready to fly solo.  Some blame the underlying tension and conflict between teens and parents on a generation gap – but I think it has more to do with them wanting to make decisions on their own and us wanting to guide them in the direction we know may work out best. An ounce of prevention and all that jazz.

And like its readers, YA is a pretty mixed bag. Some books are so edgy they may singe your eyelashes, while others are so mild and sweet, you wonder if there are any unjaded teens out there to enjoy it. 

Dealing with such a huge range of books can make it hard for parents to know what their teen is reading, much less know what to buy them as gifts. If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking gift card!

Still, it can’t hurt to know what’s out there. And since YA by African American authors mix and mingle with all YA, it’s sometimes harder to find the books revolved around characters of color.  So here’s a microcosm of what’s out there, from the sweet to the upper.

I’ve even created a rudimentary chart to help somewhat decipher “edgy” from sweet.  Key thing to remember is that sweet vs. upper is about content.  That means that sweet YA can be read and enjoyed by both younger and older teens, while upper will contain content that a parent may want to check first for younger teen readers.

(S)weet – Content appropriate for 10+

U(pper) – Content for 13+

November Blue (U)

Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid (U)


Urban Goddess (U)


Freshman Focus(S)

Dance Jam Productions

Hip Hop High School (U)

Teen Series
The Bluford High Series (U)


The Good Girlz Series (S) – 3 books

Divine Series (S) – 2 books

Del Rio Bay Clique Series (S)- 2 books

The Perry Skky Series (S) – 3 books


Drama High (U) – 3 books


Kimani Tru Series

What’s on Your Christmas List?

December 7, 2007

Last week I discovered a quote from Lenore Hershey, the former editor of McCall’s and Ladies Home Journal magazines, where she in her sage wisdom advised us, “Do give books – religious or otherwise – for Christmas. They’re never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.”  Now of course, I agree with her words, as both an author and a reader.  In this day of gift cards, I love to receive a gift card to Borders or Barnes & Noble.  Armed with my gift card, I drive to the store thinking about what books I want to read, have heard about, and what treasures lay waiting for me to discover them.  The gift card is a blank slate for me to make myself happy.  Bookstores, and libraries, are my amusement park.

SD Girl is polling young adult authors for their December blogs.  We were asked the following questions:

What WAS the one gift you had to have? Did you get it? If so, how much did you relish the gift? If not, how did you feel about that?

As a teen, I wanted to fit in with my classmates and dress just as nicely as many of them but I also wanted new books for Christmas.  So I asked for clothes and I received some.  Not the Guess jeans and Skidz pants that were expensive and fashionable though.  But I also asked for music because I was a big New Edition fan growing up along with Salt ‘n’ Pepa, The Boys and a few other singers.

But the books were what I really wanted.  And received.  Imagine under the tree, boxes and boxes with tags addressed to me.  Heavy boxes filled with books.  And I was happy.  Boxes filled with Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club as far as the eye could see and my mother’s wallet stretched!  Christmas 1987, in addition to other books I received a thesaurus because I was famous for using the same words over and over.  Can you believe I still have that thesaurus?  The cover has tears in it as I carried it with me to college, the pages are yellowed and I no longer use it thanks to, but it sits on my bookshelf still.

Christmas 1988, I received a cassette player walkman with auto reverse.  Boy, you would have thought it was an Ipod, lol.  There’s a picture of me lying on my bed with the headphones on while listening to my Salt ‘n’ Pepa tape and reading a book.  This was the year I received Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown as a gift.  I want to say this is the first “heavy” book that I read.  This is a book that I’ve read several times since I first received it so many Christmases ago.  I remember that it was a book I skirted around for a few months, but one day I picked it up and was hooked before the first chapter was even ¼ done.  I kicked myself for not reading it first because it was more than just a book.  It was an educational experience for me to read that book.

Clothes come and go as the styles and trends change.  Skidz, Cross Colors, and Marithe Francois Girbaud are no longer fashionable replaced by Sean John, Phat Farm and a host of other labels, but books are timeless.  Books make the perfect gift as they are lasting treasures.  Books can be rediscovered and passed along to share with others.  Books can be discussed which is why book clubs are so popular these days.  After an outfit ceases to fit you or be in style, it’s useless, but a book keeps on feeding your soul after you read the last words. 

Letters to a Young Brother

December 5, 2007

Recently I picked up a copy of Hill Harper’s Letters to a Young Brother. I purchased it only because my wife chased me through the book store, repeating, like a broken record, “But I think you’ll like this book. But I think you’ll like this book. But I think…”

I didn’t want a celebrity book. I wanted to read something profoundly inspirational, surely out-of-bounds for dippy and shallow, Hollywood eye-candy types. Most celebrity picture books, in my opinion, are simply bad. Best thing about them is that they end at 32 pages. But Harper’s book was YA. I wouldn’t be able to escape after 32 pages.

I was wrong! Totally wrong. Hill Harper, star of CSI:NY, is a graduate, magna cum laude (which means the brotha’s real smart), of Brown University, and has a Harvard law degree. And he writes well, too.

In his introduction, Harper writes about a book that inspired him — Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. In that book, Rilke responds to questions presented to him by a young man seeking advice. In the same way, Harper hopes to inspire and serve as a mentor to young people by addressing questions posed by those he’s met in his travels.

In all honesty, I’ve only read as far as the introduction. But in those few pages, I’m already impressed and inspired. Through the example of his own grandfathers, Harper lays out the importance of fathers, grandfathers, uncles and older brothers mentoring young boys through the maturation of manhood. Harper’s message, one of emporwerment though education, a strong sense of purpose, compassion, confidence and humility, is timely. In an age where popular culture (gangsta rap, reality TV, music videos, Paris Hilton) offers no productive direction, and when more African boys are more destined for prison than college, this is the kind of book that is needed.

Again, I’ve only begun to read this book. But if the introduction serves as a foundation on which to build, this book stands on solid ground. And, like me, the author is an Iowa native. Can’t go wrong there.

— Don

Can you hear us now? We sure can!

December 4, 2007

To everyone out there that send an email or nominated an author or just posted a comment — THANK YOU!

Quite frankly, we’ve gotten more suggestions than I ever imagined we’d get. And what a great mix is it — pbs and middle grade, YA and chapter books, historical fiction and sci-fi, serious books and funny books.

Also, if you sent a message via email but didn’t get a response, don’t worry — we got it. Just like those that gave suggestions on the website, you all are automatically entered into our February drawings as well!

Please keep on coming back to the site; we’ve got some great things coming that we hope will keep your attention until February 1st.

And again, on behalf of the entire Brown Bookshelf Team —