Day 8: Brian F. Walker

DSC_1343Publishers Weekly called it a powerful debut. Booklist said it was hard-hitting and gave it a starred review. Brian F. Walker’s Black Boy, White School   (HarperCollins) has won praise for its gripping portrayal of a 14-year-old boy from East Cleveland navigating life in a predominantly white boarding school.

Walker found inspiration for his young adult novel close to home. He grew up in the same neighborhood. He left that world and had to find his way in the unfamiliar land of boarding school. Exploring issues of identity, race and class, Walker’s work will linger long after it’s read.

We are proud to celebrate Brian F. Walker on Day 8:

The Journey

I grew up in an all Black neighborhood, in a city and a state where the racial divide was wide and strong. There were days that I didn’t see a white person at all, unless it was a teacher or police officer. In the 9th grade all of that changed for me. I was sent to a boarding school in the northeast, where I was one of very few students of color. There were good times and there were bad. The experience changed me, though; made me look out at the world through different eyes.

After college, and some time as a newspaper reporter, I returned to my old prep school as a teacher and coach, found still just a handful of black kids, facing the same problems that I had, years before. That’s when I decided to write the book, although the initial thought was a memoir. Over time the idea changed, though. I had left the position at my almblackboywhiteschoola mater to teach at a different school, closer to a major city. Although there were more students of color, and some even commuted from home every day, I found that the kids struggled in the same familiar ways.  It made me realize that the story wasn’t just mine, nor did it belong solely to my alma mater or graduation year. It was a universal story. The memoir was gone, replaced by a work of fiction that borrows heavily from my experiences as a prep school student, teacher and coach

The Inspiration

As a kid, I read E.B. White, Edward Stratemeyer, and my favorite was a book called J.T., by Jane Wagner, mainly because it was about a black kid who lived in a city. Other than those, most of the stuff I read was for adults or older kids: Agatha Christie, Mario Puzo, Edgar Allan Poe, and a handful of pulp novels we had about Conan the Barbarian. In terms of today’s children’s literature, though, there is a lot more to choose from, and the stories are so much more compelling and real. Walter Dean Myers is absolutely fantastic.  They way he is able to give voice to today’s youth is inspiring. Monster, Game, and Dopesick are my favorites, so far. Sherman Alexie does a brilliant job of weaving humor into tales that otherwise might break the reader’s heart. My favorite so far is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, although Reservation Blues was amazing, too.

The Back Story

The book started out as a memoir but changed over time to a work of fiction. The first draft got me form letters of rejection, possibly even folded by human hands! The second draft garnered more of the same, although a few of the agents scribbled personal notes of encouragement and advice. By draft three I was more confident, having a better understanding of the market and what they were looking for. It was well received, and I chose an agent in California who really believed in the story. Jodie sent the manuscript to a publishing contact and we waited for a response. Days turned to weeks that felt like years. Then, on my birthday, just as I was getting ready to go to bed, I got a call from the west coast. HarperCollins wanted to publish the book. I could have flown from the room and kissed a star.

The Buzz

” . . . Over the course of his year at the academy, Ant’s intense exploration of his own identity leads to more questions than answers—for example, is he Ant, as he’s called in Cleveland, or Tony, a nickname given by white students? How can he live in two worlds and yet feel like he belongs in neither? Walker grapples with these questions of belonging and examines the subject of race relations with unflinching honesty. Both the Cleveland and Maine characters are authentically drawn, and, like Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), this powerful novel is certain to spark thoughtful discussion.”

— Booklist, Starred Review

“An authentic, raw, honest, wise and thought-provoking exploration of race, of reaching for more even when you aren’t sure what that really looks like, and of how it feels to straddle your childhood and the person you think you’d like to become.”

— Young Adult Books Central

Find out more about Brian F. Walker here.

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