Kwame Mbalia, BLACK BOY JOY

Kwame Mbalia, BLACK BOY JOY

New York Times bestselling author Kwame Mbalia returns to talk with Zibby about Black Boy Joy, the #1 bestselling anthology he edited. Kwame shares where he was when he realized he wanted to gather a number of his friends and peers to compile a middle-grade compilation celebrating Black youth and happiness, and tells Zibby about how he takes his coffee. The two also discuss the first piece of short fiction each of them ever wrote, why short stories are harder to craft than novels, and how Kwame plans to find joy each day.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kwame. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Black Boy Joy, the instant number-one New York Times best-seller edited by you, 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood.

Kwame Mbalia: Thank you so much for having me. I can’t wait to get into it.

Zibby: Yay. Tell me the whole story of this collection. Tell me how you got everybody to participate, how you picked everybody, when you decided you wanted to do this, when you found time to do this with all your other books, the whole thing.

Kwame: It actually started before Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky had even been published. It was June of 2019. I was at a conference. I was at the ALA, the American Librarian Association, conference in Washington, DC. I just saw all of my favorite people there. I remember Justin A. Reynolds; myself; Gordon C. James, who isn’t in the book but who is a wonderful picture book author; Jerry Craft. I feel like I’m missing somebody. I know the four of us for sure, we went and grabbed lunch. Jerry was sketching. I want to say he was sketching what would become Class Act, the sequel to New Kid. We were watching him. We were just chatting. I was like, “You know, we all write for kids. We’re all Black men. I would love to do something.” I love short story anthologies both from a craft perspective and from an enjoyment perspective because they’re bite-size vignettes of a story that you get to experience. Then from a craft perspective, you get to use them to, when I’m working with them, to practice on different elements of dialogue or character building or worldbuilding.

I love to use them with young writers. Studying a giant book can be intimidating, but you give them a five-page short story and you tell them, hey, we’re just going to focus on character and how we can create a fully fleshed-out, believable character, and they’re into it. I was there with all my favs. Lamar Giles was there. I saw him. I ran into Jason Reynolds. I got to sit in on the Coretta Scott King author awards, which was amazing. The year before, Tristan was honored. It was so cool just to be in the room with all of these legends and listen to them and talk to them. I saw so many of my favorite people. I was talking to my agent. I was like, “I would love to write something about Black boy joy with us, just as a concept.” She goes, “Yeah, that’s amazing.” Of course, at the time, Tristan hadn’t come out yet. The sequel hadn’t been written yet. We were like, hey, we still have all of this stuff we need to do. Then 2020 rolled around. We were in the pandemic. Breonna Taylor was murdered. George Floyd was murdered. There was just all of this pent-up rage. Something that I’ve always noticed is that the cameras, I feel like, are always on Black people when we are at our worst, when we are suffering, when we’re in pain.

The cameras always catch that, but they never catch those moments of joy, the little kid who’s been trying to hit a backflip and finally does it or the person who ties their shoe for the first time or the little girl who dresses herself and steps outside successfully ready to start. There are no cameras capturing the little moments of joy. I wanted to write a book that I could hand to a young Black child and be like, listen, we see you in your moments of joy. We recognize that. I think it was important for it to be an anthology because joy is different for every individual. I wanted seventeen, I call them pathways. I wanted us to show seven paths that we can navigate towards joy. Me moving towards my joyful place is completely different than what it may be for you or what it may be for my children. Joy exists in different forms for everyone. Having this anthology of seventeen short stories, having all of my favorite people contribute to it, have it be male and nonbinary, male-presenting authors and have it focus on the Black lived experience was incredible important. My agent was just like, “You know what? I think it’s time.” We pitched it. Publishers loved it. We eventually went with Delacorte and Penguin Random House. The rest is history.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. I’m so glad you did it. It was so interesting to read all the different stories and perspectives. Why did you decide to divide your own story into the part one, part two, part three interspersed with the other stories?

Kwame: I was trying to think about what I wanted to write. I knew that I wanted to tie everything together. Two of my favorite stories, The NeverEnding Story and The Princess Bride, both of those are stories about a story being told. They’re encapsulated in this experience of reading a story. I wanted to sort of do the same thing. I call it the MCU, the Mbalia Creative Universe. I wanted to tie all of this joy together somehow. I didn’t know what method, how it was going to happen. I knew we wanted to move from to a birth because it was important for me to show that movement from grief to joy and how we can transition between the two. It wasn’t until I was just sitting down with my newborn and — I think she was five at the time — my kindergartener. We were just blowing bubbles. I don’t know if there’s a more — maybe fishing, except I don’t like bugs. There are a lot of bugs fishing. I don’t know if there’s a more serene act than just blowing a bubble. I had my baby at my feet blowing his own spit bubbles. I have my kindergartener jumping around trying to pop them. I was like, this is joy for me. That’s when it really was like, we have to have some — joy bubbles up. We’re going to collect that. We’re going to deliver it as a present, as a birth present for this new child, a way to collect all of the joy of the people that care and the people that might not even know you exist. I feel like it’s something almost like giving back towards the planet. When you’re joyful and you spread that joy, it goes out. Someone collects it, someone who needs it at that moment. That’s when the framing story really cemented itself in my mind. I was like, okay, we’re going to collect the joy from these different stories. At the end, I’ll deliver it to someone who needs it.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. Joy is contagious. When you’re around somebody — look at that big smile. You got dimples and smiling. I’m smiling with my dimples. People just would feel so joyful being here with us. Hopefully, it’ll come through the sound waves. You really captured that really well in the book too. I think I was drawn to this graphic novel towards the end by Jerry Craft because my kids are — I know you met my son before he just left. I once had to accost Jerry Craft at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I was like, “Could you please sign a book for my son? He’s such a big fan.” At the beginning, he writes, “My dad says that some people don’t want to see my joy. I wish that wasn’t true, but when you look at books and movies and stuff, they make you think that kids like me are always angry or sad, like we’re the only ones who ever feel that way, but it’s not just us. Everyone is sad or mad sometimes, right? These same eyes that get all teary when I’m sad also see all the beautiful things around me, but there’s no movie about that. Dad says we have to make our own movies to show the world that the same mouths that pout when we’re angry also kiss our moms goodnight. People need to see that too.”

I want to read the whole thing, but people should go buy the book and read the rest. I feel like that really captures what many of these stories give as a message, which is, let’s go deeper. It’s so funny. I don’t know when this episode is coming out. Right now is right after this jubilee with Queen Elizabeth. I don’t know if you looked at these crazy pictures of their youngest child who’s just making faces all the time. We’re like, wow, he must be like that all the time, but we don’t know that. That’s all we got to see. Similar to what you’re saying, when you have focus on a person or a thing at a certain time, then you extrapolate that to mean everything when that’s completely not true. If somebody only knew me based on how I interact in my kitchen before we all have to get out the door for school every morning, they would never want to talk to me again. They would think I was a raging lunatic. You’re absolutely right. Harnessing all the wonderful memories or moments, even, is just absolutely critical. I loved that.

Kwame: It’s true. The saying goes, you don’t judge a book by its cover. Appearances can be deceiving. Yet people will form opinions about other people, snap judgements just off of a thirty-second TikTok video or a tweet that goes viral or anything. Sometimes, yes, maybe that is an accurate representation. I am very discombobulated if I don’t have coffee. That is a fair judgement to make. If you meet me before I make my morning coffee, that is part of who I am, but it’s not the whole of who I am. I think people don’t either put themselves in the position or even want to view the whole because that shatters some preconceived notions. If you don’t interact, if you don’t mingle, if you don’t share lives with someone, it’s hard to visualize their whole. I think we all have to make that attempt. No matter where we are, on what spectrum or what side of life, you have to make an attempt to see the whole. Otherwise, we’re just creating and living and making decisions based off of what we see on the surface when we know it goes much deeper than that.

Zibby: Can we go back to the coffee? This is now the second or third time it’s come up. How do you take your coffee in the morning? What is it you do? What do you put in it? What do you like? How many cups do you have a day?

Kwame: Let me start with the second question first because people are going to judge me less for that. Typically, if it’s any month of summer, for some reason, I’ll have one big — I don’t use mugs. I use travel mugs just because they hold the heat longer. I can sip it. For me, if you have a mug of coffee, you have to drink it within the first five minutes. It just cools off too quickly for me. I make a travel mug. That’s typically the only coffee I’ll drink because it’s enough. It’s two, two and half cups or so. However, recently as it’s gotten hot, an iced coffee right around two PM or so — any later than that and it starts to mess with my digestive system. Right around two PM after you’ve eaten lunch and everything and it’s warm and you’re sitting outside, an iced coffee has really started to be my go-to. All right, I’ve got my second wind. I can be more productive. Let’s jump into it. Between the hours of two and four are when — the kids are out for summer vacation now, but at four o’clock, they begin homeschool. I have to go get the littlest from daycare. Between two to four , I can really be lethargic, go take a nap. I get that iced coffee, I’m like, all right, we’re cleaning our house. We’re doing my writing. As for how I take the coffee, I actually — the only coffee I’ve ever drank black, no additives, was in Switzerland. I think it was the water that they brewed the coffee with. It was absolutely fantastic. Otherwise, I like to tell people I drink caffeinated sugar milk because of how much creamer and either — it’s usually a carmel macchiato or a hazelnut creamer that I will add coffee to. That’s how I drink it.

Zibby: Thank you for that. The three-o’clock hour, I’m with you. I try to pair it with some chocolate-covered almonds. Dark chocolate almonds and a warm cup of coffee, that takes me at least to dinnertime. Anyway, back to the book. Let’s talk about short story as a form for two seconds because it is really hard to write a good short story. It may seem like it’s way easier than writing a novel, but according to Leigh Newman, who’s my business partner at Zibby Books, she is like, no, no, no. You need to get every sentence right. It is so much more challenging, especially a whole collection. Although these are by various authors, it’s the same thing. Tell me about the difference for you and what you have to think about when you’re crafting a short story. What makes a great short story to you? How do you do it?

Kwame: Everyone’s different. For me, traditionally, a short story has way fewer characters, maybe one or two, three at the most; way fewer set changes, if you think of it as like a movie or a theater. The story’s unfolding either in one place or one person’s carrying us through different places. Typically, there’s fewer set changes, few setting changes. I’m trying to think of a great analogy or whatever. A novel would be like a whole roller coaster ride. You have that slow climb up to the top. Then, zoom, you’re whipping. There’s some loop-de-loops. You’re changing. Finally, you coast to the end. Whereas a short story would be that moment you start right before the first drop. Then you descend. I’m just going to keep going with this analogy. Sometimes you make it all the way. You hurtle through to the next flat period before the rise. Sometimes there are really great stories who stop mid-descent. You’re hurtling forward. It works. You stop suddenly. You’re almost out of breath as you finish the short story. It really depends on the type of story that you’re trying to tell, whether it’s genre, whether it’s contemporary, or just a literary fiction short story. For me, it’s an abbreviated slice out of someone’s life that we’re just capturing with a brief moment.

If you didn’t know, my short story in the collection, “The Griot of Grover Street,” even though it’s stretched out in part one, part two, part three over the entire book, we are really looking at maybe two hours out of Fortitude Jones’ life. We start with him devastated at a funeral. We end with him accepting new responsibility and stepping into this new role that he’s accepting. It was really just two hours of his life. We are witnessing the change that occurs within him within these two hours. That’s what I like to think. When I write a short story, we are abbreviating that tale until we see that moment of change. We see a brief glimpse of the before, maybe we see the after, but it’s really that moment of change that we’re focused on. That’s what I like to tell young writers when we’re writing our short story, which is why I love using fan fiction as a tool for writing short stories because you have the characters. You don’t have to build the characters. The reader’s already familiar with them, with the setting, maybe even with some of the obstacles. We can just focus on a moment of change in their life. That usually distills it for the young writers and makes it easier for them to conceptualize. The worst thing that could happen is you start writing a short story and then keep going. Then you keep going. You’re like, I don’t know how to end this. If we could just focus on that moment of change and them stepping out accepting that change, it makes it a little bit easier.

Zibby: I feel like the short story is to the novel like a pop-up shop is to a giant mall or something. It’s just the best. It’s the curation of all the high points and things you really want people to know and see. You have to put it in there. shopping analogy. You go to the amusement park. I’m going to go to the store. Somehow, we’ll get this message across. Do you remember the first short story you wrote? I know mine was “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers” when I was in third grade about a pair of twins.

Kwame: Mine, it was a short story that I was going to turn into a comic, but I can’t draw, so it just remained a short story. I had several short stories that I would write when I was younger just because I didn’t know how to write a full novel. I would have a summary of the story. This is such-and-such. She works here. They do this. They live here. Then one day, blah. Then I would just talk about that one day because I didn’t know how to write the before or the after. I wrote a short story about a superhero named Emawk. He was way overpowered, better than Superman, better than Batman, devilishly handsome. Of course, people were like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense,” when I’d tell them that Emawk was just Kwame spelled backwards. It was probably the best short story I’ve ever written that no one else will ever read in their life.

Zibby: Wow. Last question. How are you going to find joy today?

Kwame: Today, oh, man, that’s difficult. I’m in the middle of revising what will be my next middle-grade fantasy adventure series, the start of it. It’s paranoia mixed with dread mixed with just fear that hopefully readers will like this one as much as they liked the last trilogy. I may look forward to — let’s see. It’s nine thirty where I am at now. We’ll say one, one PM, I’m going to — there’s a little tiny coffee shop about a mile away from me. If I get all of my revisions done up to that point and I don’t get sidetracked — today is Tuesday, so it’s new-book day. There’s some great books that came out, so I got to hold off. If I can make it to one PM, I will treat myself to a delicious iced coffee. I will sit outside on the patio with the sun on my face and just breath for about ten minutes. That’ll be where I find my joy.

Zibby: That sounds really nice. You can pick up some chocolate-covered almonds too. You can think of me. That inspired me to try to do something similar. I feel like I’m not going to get outside at all today, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful day. Here’s to finding joy and showing all sides of us and hyper-curation of emotion and story and all of that. Thank you so much, Kwame. Good luck with your edits and all that.

Kwame: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Talk to you soon. Bye.

Kwame Mbalia, BLACK BOY JOY

BLACK BOY JOY by Kwame Mbalia

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