Derrick Barnes is no stranger to the Brown Bookshelf community. Last year, we did a spotlight on his book The Making of Dr. Truelove as well as announced the debut of the Ruby and the Booker Boys series. In case it is not clear, the future is bright for author Derrick Barnes. Full of optimism, this Brown Bookshelf shining star is poised to take children’s literature by storm.
When you read Derrick Barnes’ biography on his website, you get a true sense of who he is as a person. I could picture the kid version of him in the closet reading his encyclopedias experiencing life in the footsteps of others. Now he is the creator of words that today’s children can read and broaden their horizons by being a part of the stories that he tells.
Barnes write stories that are meant to empower his readers even at a young age. On a quest to change the face of children’s literature, Barnes writes from a sincere desire to appeal to readers of all races. Barnes is determined to shake up the African American literary community without isolating us from the mainstream literary community.
With characters like Ruby Marigold Booker and her rambunctious, charming, loving brothers, fans of mainstream characters like Ramona Quimby, Amber Brown, Judy Moody, and Junie B. Jones will find a new friend in Ruby.
Carla: What drew you to the field of being a children’s author? What is your dream for children’s books by black authors and illustrators?
Derrick: I used to say that I just kind of fell into children’s books, but there’s no such thing. God has a plan for each and every one of us. All of my experiences as a columnist, poet, greeting card writer, husband and father lead to this point.
My dream for children’s books by black authors is that they bust out of being created exclusively for and marketed to Black children. For decades, Black children have had to live vicariously through white children in books, on cartoons, and movies. When the truth of the matter is, all kids deserve the chance to dream and to see themselves in the books and entertainment made available to them.
Carla: Besides the infamous encyclopedias that you read as a kid, what authors did you read growing up?
Derrick: I was deeply influenced by two writers in particular: 1) Langston Hughes and his “Simple” short story series really inspired me to work on my dialog skills and character development. 2) Stevland Hardaway Morris aka Stevie Wonder added color and rhythm to my writing style. I tell kids all of the time that they used to make these big round things called records or LPs. They used to come in record sleeves for the liner notes which contained the lyrics to every song. Imagine me at age seven reading:
Wakes you up with a kiss to
start the morning off
In the midst of herself
playing Santa Claus
She brings gifts through her breeze
I couldn’t sing like Stevie but I was determined to be able to manipulate words like him.
Carla: What is your author style? Do you outline?
Derrick: My author style is similar to my presentation style, very conversational. I really study human behavior and interactions and try to convey every single nuance from our body language to every color on our emotional pallet.
I definitely outline. I arrange them by chapters, and then fill in as the story evolves. Sometimes the outline changes, which is to be expected. The characters’ story often changes through out the course of their journey, similar to what we go through.
Carla: Describe a typical day in the life of Derrick Barnes the author. Do you write full time?
Derrick: I started writing full time almost a year ago, and it takes discipline, structure and time management skills. I’m still working on that aspect of it, but each author has to do what works well for them. May day usually consist of getting my three sons ready for school, dropping them off, going to the gym for an hour and a half, coming back home to answer emails, send emails, telephone calls, and then writing. I do housekeeping, run errands, and make sure dinner is ready for the fam. Although, I do my best writing at night between 10-2 AM. Then it’s just me and John Coltrane working it out.
Carla: As you write, are there voids within the literary arena that you would like to fill? What are some of the stories that you yearn to tell?
Derrick: The obvious voids are African American characters playing key roles in stories that are universal to all children. I promised myself that I wouldn’t create characters and place them in down trodden, hopeless, violent situations or environments. To me it seems like the publishing industry embraces stories that feature African American characters that are one dimensional; characters that fit into ‘their’ ideal and image of who we are. We have to continue to create our own reality in our own voices.
I want to tell stories about Black love, create complete families with both parents, educated, progressive characters. It may seem idealized to some, but it gives children something to aspire to become. I want to tell stories of hope.
Carla: As I watched the video clip on your website, your words that it is okay to be different and to set trends stood out to me. What are you doing to be different as an author? What trends are you setting in the literary arena?
Derrick: I think the trend I’m setting is being one of only a few young Black men that write children’s books as well as being an aggressive promoter of my work. I have a BA in marketing from Jackson State University and it definitely comes in handy. I am very conscious of my image, my brand and all of my target readers. I learned quickly that being an author doesn’t stop with writing great books. You have to be a salesperson. You must come up with ideas that will get your stories in the hands of people that will appreciate them. I want to be the Usher of children’s book publishing. I want my books to be everywhere for children of all colors to appreciate and love.
Carla: The world is your oyster, what would you love to see happen for your books?
Derrick: First and foremost, I want every single child that is able to get a Ruby Booker book in their little hands to become huge fans of the book series; millions of books sold! Second, I’d like the series to transcend the books and become either a series on Nickelodeon or Disney or a cartoon series. I created the characters to leap off of the pages and become bigger than life. Third, I’d like Ruby to become as big merchandise-wise as Dora the Explorer, Hannah Montana or High School Musical. Every time I see a little sister wearing a Dora backpack, a Hannah t-shirt, or High School Musical notebook, I say to myself it sure would be nice to see them rockin’ Ruby. It’s going to happen. I’m full of optimism.
Carla: I read an article in the Kansas City Star about your career with Hallmark and was amazed about the history of the Mahogany line. Looking back over your entire writing career from your days as an advice columnist at Jackson State to today, if you could go back and give yourself any advice, what would it be?
Derrick: I think I would have done more to reach out to writers and authors of all genres. Just like in every other aspect of our lives, you never can learn enough. I’m always a sponge and willing to pick up as much as I can from others in order to become a better writer.
Carla: Reading about your career at Hallmark and the aftermath, I am curious about other obstacles you faced as a writer.
Derrick: I think the biggest obstacle as an African American author/writer is getting your books and ideas across effectively and efficiently to the audience you’re trying to reach. The decision makers, most of the time, are not people of color. It’s been my experience that because of the lack of understanding and connection with our culture, there doesn’t seem to be a marketing machine in place to properly promote product that is unfamiliar to them.
That goes back to what I was saying earlier about the author having to throw on their promoter and marketer hats. Although those obstacles exist, it doesn’t mean that our books will not succeed. You must work your butt off, make as many contacts as possible, and most importantly believe that there is an entity more powerful than your publisher, editor, PR rep or agent. God is amazing!
Carla: What are the moments that you have experienced as an author that makes it totally worth it to craft stories and get the first draft ready for readers?
Derrick: It’s always about the kids. Always. When I receive emails from little Black girls saying thanks for making a character that acts, thinks, and dreams like they do, it pushes me to do more, to go further as an author.
Carla: Do you plan to write more for young adults? Will you return to Diego, the protagonist in The Making of Dr. Truelove?
Derrick: Dr. Truelove is quietly my favorite book. I would love to work on a sequel, and I’d REALLY love for a legendary indy movie production company to purchase the rights to the book and make it a hit underground film (What’s up, Spike!? Get at me!)
Carla: What’s the story behind Ruby? How did she come to be? What’s next for Miss Ruby? How many books will the series have?
Derrick: The series was created in 2002 as simply The Booker Boys. Tyner was the protagonist and the books were slice-of-life from three little African American boys. Then, Ruby was just a sub character; just the little chatty mouthed little sister to the brothers (kind of like Dee from What’s Happening).
We tried for a couple of years to land a deal, but a series about three little African American boys just wasn’t in demand at that time. So I put the series on the shelf. In 2006 my agent (the lovely Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency) suggested that I pull the Booker Boys back out, but this time make the little sister the star. I dusted the original four manuscripts off and rewrote them for the new star Ruby Marigold Booker. It took us a year but we finally landed a four book deal with Scholastic!
Just recently, the publisher asked for two more books. We just signed that deal so expect books five and six in the near future. Until then Ruby fans should look forward to book four, Ruby Flips For Attention on March 1st of this year.
Carla: Will you ever focus on her brothers for a YA boys series? Do you have plans to write more books for male readers?
Derrick: I’m researching right now for a boys series. It’s a detective/super hero/hip-hop idea I’ve been mulling over for the past two years. On school visits, teachers ask what they can do to get their boy students to read more, and the little guys ask when I am going to make something cool for them. The bottom line is 1) boys have to see the male role models in their lives reading on a regular basis. Period. When boys see their dads, uncles, grandfathers reading they accept it as being cool. 2) Just as in the case of Ruby, boys like to read books that reflect their own interest and ideals. Help is on the way little brothas! I’m hard at work now.
I also have a middle grade novel coming out in 2010 entitled We Could Be Brothers. I have high “Coretta Scott King Award” dreams for that one.
Carla: I know that you have three sons. How much of Ro, Ty, and Marcellus are based on your sons?
Derrick: All three of the Booker Boys’ personalities eerily mirror those of my own sons. When I created this series, my wife and I only had one of the boys. And now, six years later my two year old son is just like Ty; really considerate and sweet, bright, and he has a little round head just like Ty. My four year old is the catylst in the family just like Ro. He keeps things interesting; he keeps the ‘pot stirred’ in the house. And my eight year old is a know-it-all, pretty boy just like Marcellus. A real life Ruby would be cool…but I don’t know. You never know, right?
Carla: From reading three of the Ruby titles as well as your biography, I know that family is very important to you. Share with our readers how you incorporate family in your stories. Besides the importance of family, what else do you hope readers come away with after reading your books?
Derrick: Family, my family in particular, is the main reason I do what I do. I pray everyday to become a better husband, father, friend, son, brother, etc. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that no matter what my profession is, my main obligation is to my wife and children. I take my role in their lives seriously.
In the Ruby series I always incorporate one or two scenes where the family is together, maybe during a meal or on an outing. That togetherness, the exchanging of ideals, feelings, and laughter is priceless. I don’t know where I’d be without my family, and I try to impart that core necessity of love and support in every single book.
Carla: While reading Ruby’s stories, I pictured the very exuberant and adorable Sasha Obama as Ruby and reading your books. How cool would that be to have the President’s daughter reading your books?
Derrick: I have tried two or three times to get all three of the books in the First Lady’s hands. I have no way of knowing if I was successful. I autographed all three of the books for Sasha and Malia and gave them to a friend that was involved in a rally attended by the First Lady here in Kansas City on 18th and Vine; the historic jazz district where Charlie Parker once ruled. I saw him hand the books to Mrs. Obama, but they were quickly confiscated by her staff, for security reasons. I hope the girls received them and are stark raving mad Ruby fans. That would be a dream come true. Little Sasha giving my girl Ruby a shout-out from the White House? Amazing.
Carla: Five years ago, your first two titles debuted. How does it feel to celebrate five years as an author? What changes have you seen and experienced since 2004? What are your plans for the next 5 years?
Derrick: I guess I haven’t really had the chance to reflect on it. There are so many more things I want to write about, and so many more books I’d like to write. I’m always looking towards the future; never allowing myself to get comfortable. I’d like to work on essays, more middle grade and YA novels that reflect positive imagery and hope for African American children. A picture book or three would be nice too. In five years I see Ruby as a literary icon, Dr. Truelove has been made into a film (…and its dope!), plus a couple of big time awards under my belt. But most importantly I’ll still be working hard every day to be the best family man that I can be. It’s a never ending journey, and the ride has been well worth it.
Carla: What’s up next for Derrick Barnes?
Derrick: I’ll be a featured author at the Bush family’s Celebration of Reading conference in Florida February 13 (that’s right thee Bush family: George H.W., Barbara, and Jeb will be in attendance). My eldest son, Ezra asked why the Obamas didn’t invite me to a book conference, especially since Ruby Booker is a beautiful, smart little Black girl like their daughters. I told him that the Obamas are really, really busy, so they haven’t gotten around to it yet, but they will. I’m sure of it.
Wow! What an awesome opportunity that should be for you. Enjoy the Florida sunshine and the networking opportunity. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. We wish you all the best in your writing endeavors.
Stop, Drop and Chill (2004)
Low-Down Bad-Day Blues (2004)
The Making of Dr. Truelove (2006)
Ruby and the Booker Boys: Brand New School, Brave New Ruby (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys: Trivia Queen, Third Grade Supreme (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys: Slumber Party Payback (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys: Ruby Flips for Attention (2009)
The Buzz on Ruby and the Booker Boys
“Many younger siblings find themselves in this exact predicament and will find strength and motivation in Ruby’s spirit.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Derrick Barnes captures the hearts and minds of young readers with the very colorful Ruby Marigold Booker. . . Barnes cleverly writes to entertain, as well as educate young people.” ~ The RAWsistaz Reviewers