Zibby Owens: I’m so honored to be here today with Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes. Settle in because this is kind of a long bio because she is such a rock star. Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is an award-winning and best-selling author of many books including her most recent, Black Brother, Black Brother. Her books include Ninth Ward, which was the winner of the Coretta Scott King honor; Sugar, winner of the Jane Addam’s Children’s Book Award; and Ghost Boys. Both the hardback and paperback editions of Ghost Boys are New York Times best sellers. Ghost Boys is also an IndieBound best seller, a number-one Kids’ Indie Next pick, and ALA 2019 Children’s Notable List pick, among others. I have to also say it’s a Walter Award, EB White Read Aloud Award, and Children’s Choice Book Award. Dr. Rhodes has also written many award-winning novels for adults like The American Book Award-winning Douglass’ Women plus two writing guides and a memoir called Porch Stories: A Grandmother’s Guide to Happiness. Her adult literary awards include the American Book Award, the National Endowment of the Arts Award in Fiction, the Black Caucus of the American Library Award for Literary Excellence, and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for Outstanding Writing. When she’s not writing, Dr. Rhodes visits schools to talk about her books and teaches writing at Arizona State University where she is the founding artistic director and chair of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Originally from Pittsburgh, she received a BA in drama criticism, an MA in English, and a doctorate in arts in English, creative writing, from Carnegie Mellon University. She currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

Welcome, Dr. Rhodes. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes: I am so delighted. Hello to all the moms. Being a mom, for me, is the best job next to writing that I ever had. It’s a pleasure.

Zibby: Okay, I have to hear more about that. Why is it the best job? People have all sorts of views on motherhood. Why the best job ever?

Jewell: Actually, I always wanted to be, as much as possible, a good mom. When I was about eight months old, my mother left the family. She didn’t come back until I was in the third grade. Then by the time I was fifteen, she was kicking me out of the house and I was on my own. That’s the trauma. To be a good mom was an important goal of mine. I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter Kelly everyone said, “This will take away your time. This will ruin your writing career.” They had all these negatives. In truth, though I had written a draft of a novel, it wasn’t quite ready. I found that motherhood in fact made so much more sense in terms of my entire life. My emotional depth grew. My intellectual depth grew. Sometimes just writing and seeing my little baby in her cradle, it had a new purpose. My career was bigger than myself. I actually told my daughter when she was having her baby and everybody said, “Your writing and career will go out the window,” I said, no, baby’s center and focus to you, children do that, make it all wonderful.

I had this policy that when I was writing as the kids were growing, that I would leave my office door open. I actually got this from Toni Morrison because there’s a picture of her trying to write and edit at Random House and her children are toddling and crawling along the floor. My theory was that any task of mine writing that couldn’t withstand the interruption of a child, then the idea wasn’t good anyway. You know what I mean? The kids would come in and out. True enough, the ideas that really had legs would stay with me. I would continue writing them. When I was also writing, I would pretty much write when the kids were asleep, not all the time, but I would go toward the latter hours because I really enjoyed so thoroughly, my son showing me ants, my daughter talking about, “Let’s make a butterfly garden,” or taking shaving cream and putting it in the sink and letting them make a mess. In those days, we didn’t have all the fancy things that kids could play with. Probably, shaving cream wasn’t a good idea, but we did it anyway. I was absolutely thrilled and feel that it’s a great — I’m going to cry. I feel it’s a great gift in terms of increasing — I’m being just selfish here, but in terms of increasing my humanity, being a mom is the best thing that ever happened to me. For that, I thank my children. I try to show my thanks every day.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so beautiful. Also by the way, I have my kids play with shaving cream a lot. I keep it in the shower, obviously. Every so often they say, “Can we play with it?” I decide whether or not I can deal with the mess after. If I have the time to deal with the mess, then I say, “Go for it.” We have a glass door, so they put it all over. Then they draw pictures. I can get a lot of stuff done, by the way, while they’re in the shower with the shaving cream and I’m on the outside.

Jewell: You make me so happy. I thought that was way out of style because my kids are now in their thirties, so I feel really good. Go shaving cream moms!

Zibby: Maybe if your kids are in their thirties, they should not still be playing with shaving cream.

Jewell: No, .

Zibby: Okay, good. All right. I know, I feel like the shower is the best resource for a parent. If your kids are in there playing — I take all the plastic toys, I’m sure it’s not PC to have plastic toys, but anyway, the little figurines that we have, and I throw a bucket of them in the shower. They stay in there for a long time.

Jewell: That’s great. My granddaughter who’s three had her very first shower yesterday. My daughter was saying she was just so tired. She was too tired to do a bath. Her husband’s been working like twelve, fourteen-hour days. So she said, “Let’s take a shower.” She said Clara was a little scared at first, but she then went in because her mom said, “I’ll give you a sucker afterwards,” which was probably, eh. But she went in. Apparently, she loved it. Clara said, “Showers tickle.” She was laughing the whole time. She’s now going to have her adventure. I’ll remind Kelly to try some shaving cream. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: You should write a children’s book about it called Showers Tickle. That would be funny.

Jewell: Oh Zibby, that’ll be great. If I do, I’m going to dedicate it to you and your kids. That’ll be so much fun. You’re right, Showers Tickle, that’s a great idea. Hey, let’s do it together.

Zibby: Okay, sounds good. That was so much amazing information. I feel like I’m satisfied enough. I could just get off the phone. No, I’m kidding. I just finished your recent book Black Brother, Black Brother, which was obviously so well-written as everything you write is. It had some really interesting themes. I wanted to find out, what made you write that book? What gave you the idea? Tell listeners what it’s even about. Let’s talk about it.

Jewell: Black Brother, Black Brother is about two biracial boys, same mom, same dad, but one is fair skinned and one is dark skinned. The one who is dark skinned experiences colorism, experiences prejudice and bias. He is bullied. He’s called, “Oh, you’re the black brother, black brother,” which annoys him to no end and also is discriminatory. It’s actually based on the raising of my two kids. My husband of thirty-some years is a tall, Norwegian, Scotch, Irish guy. Our daughter is fair. Our son is brown. Particularly when they turned about twelve years of age, particularly for my son, the world started treating him differently. He learned that there were some people — even though we had talked about it, he had never really experienced it in a visceral way. Some people saw him and would see him as a threat, would see him as a possible thief in a store. He’d had to be extra careful while driving if he was stopped by the police. It really just rocked his world because we had grown up in such an equitable home. It’s based on my personal experience. Then it’s also based on the school-to-prison pipeline.

When I was writing Ghost Boys, I learned that children of color, even starting at toddlers in preschool, were suspended disproportionately to white kids, sent to juvie hall or prison disproportionately to white kids, and were punished more harshly pretty much all across the United States. In fact, the zero-tolerance policy that some schools have literally makes it that if a child talks back, they can go to juvenile detention. When you go to juvie, the criminal justice laws are completely different. The judge has an incredible amount of power because now you’re considered a delinquent. The judge can decide, “We’re going to let you stay in juvie for six months.” So Black Brother, Donte, he slams down his backpack because he’s been accused of something he didn’t do, and they cart him off to jail. Donte has privilege. He’s rich. His mom’s a lawyer. His dad is in computer sciences. And so they’re able to fight this. He actually goes to the courthouse, and he makes the association that if you’re impoverished, how much more difficult it is to fight this kind of zero-tolerance, school-to-prison pipeline.

The third thing that my book is about — because all my books are complicated. They read, I hope, well, but have lots of ideas. The other third thing was that I was shocked when I was an adult and discovered that Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers, Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo, was in fact a black man, French Haitian, and that his dad was called the black count and was the famous general of Napoleon’s army. Then I thought, well, wait a minute. If all the movies and television shows about the Musketeers had showed them as also as people of color, that might have been another sport that young people would’ve gone into and we wouldn’t see it as a white, aristocratic sport, so how options get closed down when we don’t pay enough attention to diversity.

Zibby: Wow.

Jewell: And I could still go on, girl, but anyway.

Zibby: You can still go on.

Jewell: My books come with so many ideas, Zibby. They’re important to me. The big thing is not, then, to write a didactic novel; to write a novel about family, friendship, brotherly love, self-esteem, and affirmation. I do like the idea that my books teach. In a sense, they always have an element of historical fiction. They sort of uplift. I also like having characters from all kinds of cultures in my books. In general, I’ve had Cajun. I’ve had Creole. I’ve had Vietnamese. I’ve had Chinese. In Black Brother, I make reference to, in the neighborhood, there are Pakistanis. There are people from India. There are Africans. Two twins who start learning how to fence are from Jamaica. I just love that idea of a mixed-blood stew because my grandma told me that everyone is family. She says we’re all kin, or she said. She’s unfortunately dead. She says we’re all mixed-blood stew. Everybody is related. Everybody is kin. This whole idea that color would be a determining factor for someone to discriminate against you has got to stop.

Zibby: Okay, good. Pound down our fists.

Jewell: I don’t know if your listeners heard that, but I had pounded my desk.

Zibby: I pounded my desk too. We’re pounding together. You can’t even see. We’re on Skype. I thought it was interesting in Black Brother how when Donte goes to the police department in the first place, the mother — well, first when his dad shows up and they realize his dad is white, they treat him completely differently than they had when they didn’t know that about him. Same as the judge when they find out that he fences and what his family’s like. Everybody has a different impression of him altogether than they did at the beginning and that his — go ahead.

Jewell: No, you go ahead, please.

Zibby: I was just going to say and that his mother, when she was picking him up at the station, was just so shocked that they wouldn’t think to call her. I think about this with my kids. The idea that something could happen at school and they wouldn’t call the parents, they would go right to the police, is so crazy. Yet it’s happening all the time. It’s really hard to believe.

Jewell: Absolutely. It’s the most frightening thing as a mom, for them not to notify you about the welfare of your child. Actually, when we were raising our kids, for Kelly, people very much thought that I was the nanny and were very dismissive towards me. Then when my husband was walking with Evan, they were confident that he was such a great guy because he adopted a black son, that that couldn’t be his son. We even had vacations in Hawaii where the kids would go and make leis, and adults will tell them at the lei-making session that they couldn’t possibly be brothers and sisters. The kids would come back to us just crying. Then Mama had to go on the warpath. It’s really amazing. That’s another thing which I don’t go into that I think biracial children have to sometimes deal with. I didn’t speak because I don’t know enough about it from my children’s point of view. Every day, Evan knows, my son, that society gives his dad privileges that they don’t give him.

A dear friend of mine, there was robberies in the neighborhood, and they have, in fact, a black son that they adopted. The police wanted to explore, investigate their home. She thought it was necessary that she tell them, “I have a black son in the bedroom,” because she was afraid he would be in danger if the policemen just entered the house and saw this young black kid. The mental toll that it takes on everyone is just horrible. I love, Zibby, how you said the way that people interpret Donte, you’re absolutely right. Last night in my ethnic literature class, my student said, “People interpret you in a certain way that has nothing to do with really who you are.” We’ve got to stop that. We interpret you more positively if you’re rich, if you “so called” have degrees and educated, when actually my grandmother who never finished third grade was the most brilliant person I knew. We interpret you if you are of a different skin tone. We do that for religion and gender and all kinds of things. It’s really a sad commentary. Martin Luther King said it should be the content of your character. Yet it’s so hard for us to live that way.

Zibby: What can we do?

Jewell: I think that’s why I’m a middle-grade writer. I think that middle-grade kids have such empathy, such wonderous hearts. They are growing up in a time when there are more positive reminders of diversity, that we have made progress in our civil rights. They’ve had friends of different colors, different religions, different classes. My books remind them, or I hope it reminds them, to keep that, to not become cynical and lose it, say, in high school or in college, to remind them that, yes, you are on the right track. That’s why very often in — well, not very often, but in my books, it’s generally the kids who are smarter than the adults. Even in Ghost Boys when the police officer shoots a young black boy, it’s his white daughter who is able to say, “Dad, I still love you, but you did wrong.” I think that critical thinking that I try to remind kids about is what they need so they don’t wake up one day and they are just following family tropes, cultural tropes, I’m thinking unconscious bias tropes, that they stop and think and remember, oh, no, this is about how I choose to live, and life is always better with all different kinds of friends.

Zibby: I would pound my fist again if you could — I love that. Amazing. Just to go back, when you grew up, you said your mother had left your family. You had gone through this trauma. Is that what prompted you to start writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Jewell: Great question. I would say that when my mother left, it spurred my imagination. One, I thought I was responsible, so I would escape through my imagination. I used to hide in the closet buried underneath all the winter coats and just daydream, or I would lay in bed. I would also stare in other people’s windows or cars that were driving by trying to imagine what their lives were like. I started writing as soon as I became a chapter reader. Particularly around the third grade, I wrote my very first short story called “The Last Scream,” which I still have. I read it to all my fellow classmates. I was really hooked by that connection between writer and reader, or writer and audience. Though I wrote always after that, poetry, bad poetry, stories, starts of novels, I never thought I could have a career as a writer because I never read a book by a person of color or even a non-American or British writer at all, ever. I didn’t know black people wrote books.

Even when I was in college for undergraduate, master’s, doctor of arts degree, I was never assigned a book by a person of color. One day I was walking in the Carnegie Mellon University library. On the shelf they had a book called Corregidora in new fiction which was written by Gayl Jones who was a black author. It was like a revelation when I read it. Wow, black women write books. I literally changed my major that week to English and started writing. In my class, I was the only person of color. When I wrote my stories, my classmates would say, “Why didn’t you tell me your characters were black?” I’d say, “Why don’t you tell me your characters are white?” I realized then that I too had learned to read white unless people told me the characters were of color. I went on a mission to write my stories and then came of age, in terms of the university, in terms of black studies, Chicano studies. It was a great time, but I almost missed my calling simply because I never saw writers of color. I was never offered that. I was certainly not given a book in an educational system that showed anybody who was non-white.

Zibby: It’s so funny how things have changed. When I went to college, I took a whole class of just African American literature. It’s not that long ago that you couldn’t even find the books. It’s really crazy for me to think about that.

Jewell: It is. Zibby, actually, to put it in context, I was in my late twenties. Now I’m in my mid-sixties. I was in my late twenties when they were just starting African American studies programs. When I was coming out looking for work as an assistant professor, I wanted to be a writing teacher. Everybody wanted me to be an African American studies person, but I hadn’t studied that. I did, on my own, study it. I didn’t study it within the university because they didn’t offer it. In fact, I eventually went on to become a professor of African American studies and creative writing. A lot of us, that first generation of professors who taught African American literature, we were self-taught and then started creating the degrees. Isn’t it cool?

Zibby: Yes!

Jewell: Then when I was a little girl, we had Dick and Jane. I bet you don’t remember Dick and Jane who had the nuclear family, the little dog named Spot, and the picket fence.

Zibby: That didn’t look familiar to me either. Who are these blond people with the little house and the fence? I live in New York City. Everybody’s life is different. It kind of makes me wonder what classes are my kids going to be offered in college that I didn’t get? What literature will they be exposed to that I wasn’t and that I’m missing out on now? What’s going to come up in the next twenty years?

Jewell: Isn’t that amazing? That’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. Keep a book club with your children. I say that to all moms and all the dads. My son and I, we now have a book club. All his friends are thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two. We talk on the weekends. Each of us gets to pick a book. It’s been the most refreshing thing ever because they’re sharing their ideas and I’m sharing my ideas. I just love it. Whatever your kids are reading twenty years from now, join a book club with them or make a book club and talk to them about it. Then you could tell them, “Well, have you read…?” Then you can pull out one of your favorite books from African American literature, say.

Zibby: Wow, that’s a great idea. I don’t know if my kids would ever want to do that with me, but maybe. Maybe some of them would.

Jewell: I never thought that my son’s friends would want to do a book club with me, but we have a great time talking. I’m so privileged.

Zibby: If you were my kids’ mom, they would want to do a book club with you too. I want to do a book club with you. You should just conference me in. That sounds fun. So what are you working on now? You must be writing more books. What do you have coming up?

Jewell: I do have a picture book that I’ve been working on for a long time. Picture books are extraordinarily difficult to write. I’m hoping I’ll be able to do it. In terms of a middle-grade book, I’m actually writing about climate change and the wildfires. To me living in California, being in the West, also seeing what’s happening in Australia, having Greta get nominated as the teen climate activist, I really want to talk about that. Also, I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to give a talk. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is predominately a white community. In the audience in the back row were a group of black kids. I was like, wow, that’s so cool. It turns out that they were part of a project, it’s based in DC, called City Kids where they take young city kids, oftentimes kids of color, and they take them out into the wilderness so that they get a chance to experience it. They do it for multi years. By the time they become high school students, they’re then mentoring middle-grade students. Also based on that, I want to talk about how our city kids are starved for nature. When I go visit the national parks, to me this is a great tragedy, you see little diversity in national parks. It’s just amazing. It’s the Grand Canyon, Yosemite. The lack of diversity for our public treasures is just incredible. Myself, I never went to a national park when I was a kid. I never learned how to swim when I was a kid. I just lived in the city when I was a kid. I didn’t know there were forests. I want to talk about the healing of nature and then also about what happens when, with climate change or irresponsible activities, we make situations where we’re burning up the very thing that is so good for our souls.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds amazing. I can’t wait for that.

Jewell: I don’t know whether it’s going to work.

Zibby: It’s going to work. I’m going to put money on that.

Jewell: Zibby, you’re so wonderful. Thank you. I’m going to call you whenever I’m feeling insecure, which I do feel a lot. I guess maybe this answers your question earlier a little bit better. Writing for children, I always wanted to write for children because I wanted them to see a book that represented their diversity and their wonder because I needed such books when I was a child. Even though I read about white authors, I learned empathy, humanity. Books are books are books, and they’re wonderful. But I am writing for the child of color who doesn’t have to wait until she’s a junior in college to see another character of color. To me, books kept my hope alive, kept me from being bitter, kept me from being closed off from the world, and healed me in a way. To write for a child, to me, is the highest honor possible. Even when I started writing and I wrote like seven adult books, I’d always say to my agent, “But I want to write for children.” I kept practicing to become good enough, I thought, to be able to write for children.

The day that Hurricane Katrina hit, I had an adult novel about New Orleans get published that day. It was really traumatizing. Then two weeks later, my publisher sent me to New Orleans for book tour. What? I do book tour, but basically, it’s a devasted community and town. That’s when I knew I had to try to write about the children who had to survive Katrina and the animals that had to survive Katrina and talk about their resilience. That was when my middle-grade career was born. I finally felt ready. I am living my best life now. The thing about being a woman, about being a mom, we go through all these marvelous stages from when our kids — you know, pre-pregnancy; being pregnant, which I loved; having the toddlers; the baby; going up the whole chain and then being an older mother. The stages that I’ve gone through just as a person are amazing. It just keeps getting better and better. I think that’s such a cool gift that we have as moms. My writing career in terms of me doing precisely what I wanted to do happened later. If you ever get impatient, moms, with what you’re doing or not doing, don’t. It’s just like a symphony. Your life is a symphony. It has different movements. All will come to fruition.

Zibby: Wow, thank you. That’s fantastic, fantastic advice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing everything. I hope I get to meet you in person. You’re such a special woman. I wish there were bazillions of you out there because you’re spreading such a great message and being so inclusive and uniting. I think that’s really what we need right now. It’s really wonderful.

Jewell: I think you’re amazing. I hope to meet you too, Zibby. I’m going to get offline. We should think about doing that tickle book, Showers Tickle, together.

Zibby: I’m in.

Jewell: Thank you for your podcast and your service in keeping books alive for everyone. Love you.

Zibby: Love you. Bye.