Published September 15th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
In 2012, children’s book author and Kansas Citian Derrick Barnes began to write a poem.
Barnes said he was moved to write after the death of an unarmed, 17-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin. Year after year, he put the pen down. He would then pick it back up every time an unarmed Black boy was killed.
Then in 2018, he saw an H&M ad. In it, a little Black boy wore a green hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”
“That was it for me,” Barnes said. “I pulled the poem out again and I finished it. It’s the exact opposite of how I feel America, especially from a stereotypical standpoint, views Black boys.”
Barnes grew up in Kansas City near Swope Park. In college, he zigzagged his way from business to marketing and, finally, to writing. He attended Jackson State University, one of the largest historically Black universities in the country, where he first got the taste for writing at the college newspaper, and where he met his wife. Barnes wrote an advice column called “Brown Sugar.” After graduation, he was hired as a copywriter at Hallmark Cards, making him the first Black copywriter at the company.
“I Am Every Good Thing” is his second project with illustrator Gordon C. James. Released on Sept. 1, it recently ranked No. 5 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. This follows his 2018 book, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” another bestseller.
In his newest work, Barnes aims to flip negative stereotypes on their head and instead highlight the humanity, joy and value of young Black boys’ lives. Since its release, the book has received five-star ratings by Publisher’s Weekly, an interview with Entertainment Weekly and garnered kudos by celebrities such as Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Garner. Garner even read a few excerpts aloud on Instagram:
“I am Saturday mornings in the summertime. // I am two bounces and a front flip off the diving board. I am hilarious. I am the life of the party. // I am that smile forming on your face right now. // And without a show of a doubt, I am worthy to be loved.”
Flatland interviewed Barnes over Zoom since he now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife and four sons. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Flatland: You said you were a copywriter at Hallmark. What did your foray into the children’s book business look like?
DB: While I was at Hallmark, I landed a literary agent, a young lady named Virginia Brooks based in Brooklyn, New York. I’ve been with her now for 16 years. I signed a deal with Scholastic for a series called “Ruby and the Booker Boys” – got four books out of that deal – and then (in) 2010, my first middle-grade novel came out, my first book based in Kansas City entitled, “We Could Be Brothers.”
It seemed like between 2011 and 2017, it was just tumbleweeds going through our living room. I couldn’t land a deal at all. It was a really tough time for me. It was a tough time for my family and my wife was in residency. I was essentially a stay-at-home dad. We had four boys and it was a pretty tough time. I ended up working at the Kansas City Public Library. I did outreach, took me all over the city to do the storytimes and while I was not doing that, I was working on books.
Between 2011, 2017, I wrote 30 books. I stayed up until three, four o’clock in the morning, working on books that nobody wanted, nobody was asking for it, and then we moved to Charlotte in 2014 and I had a breakthrough in 2016.
F: What was the breakthrough moment in your literary career?
DB: I was on Facebook, I saw a friend of mine posted a sketch of his 15-year-old son coming home from the barbershop. And I asked him if he would mind sketching 15 more of those and I would write poems to him about how beautiful our sons are and how much we care about them. I kept working on the project (and) landed a book deal. Then they paired the text up with a longtime friend of mine, Gordon C. James, who’s the illustrator of the new book. I met him at Hallmark Cards when I first got out of college.
It’s been a long journey. It has not been an overnight success, man.
F: What or who helped you find your rhythm?
DB: While I was writing and just thought about giving up a couple of times. But something inside me wouldn’t let me give up. And I think a lot of it was my family. (I) just wanted to make them proud of me. I felt like I had something to say.
There are just legions of Black and Brown children who still need to see themselves on the cover of books and be the lead of stories, be the most important person’s story, the most beautiful, be the hero.
F: Tell me about the sorts of things that inspire you and what you put in those books. What sorts of things go on in your head?
DB: A lot of it is my own influences growing up. Being from Kansas City, the home of Charlie Parker. I’m a big jazz fan and just the history of my city, the history of my family. The migration of Black people that moved from the South up to St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago. Music is a huge influence for me.
People always ask what I read when I was growing up. (There weren’t) a lot of books with Black protagonists that were not runaway slaves or centered around poverty or basketball. I used to write down the liner notes in albums, like classic R&B albums – Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, World Flag. And I fell in love with all the writers from the Harlem Renaissance, especially Langston Hughes, who’s one of my homeboys. He’s from Missouri. I just kind of weaved my own life experiences with a lot of lyrical (elements). You can hear a lot of rhythm and lyricism in my writing style, and also match that with just having a social responsibility.
As a Black artist in America I feel we all have an obligation to create work that uplifts the Black experience. I’m going to always look at the market and see what’s not there, which voices are not being heard… and what’s not being said.
F: What do your kids say?
DB: It’s kind of a mixed bag. Your children just see you as mom or dad and because they don’t know anything else, right? They’re used to seeing me sit down at a desk or go to a coffee shop. I think they’re proud of it.
Especially my eldest boy. He’s been through this whole journey. I remember my first school visit was at his school. He was 4 years old (and) it was in Kansas City… I did everything for free (at the time).
F: Let’s talk about the new book then. Your new baby.
DB: My new baby. “I Am Every Good Thing.”
F: You worked with the same artist, right?
DB: Yes, Gordon C. James, my brother. He was the first Black guy I met walking through the halls of Hallmark. I went to a historically Black college, surrounded by Black brilliance for four years and then I entered the corporate world where they aren’t a lot of people that look like us and I was very conscious of that.
We became friends, and we did “Crown” together. He was actually like the third option. I don’t know why I didn’t think of him the first time, but there are no mistakes in this universe. It was just a matter of time before we got together again. And he is a classically trained painter and most of his work hangs in museums. He actually paints. Every single illustration that you see in a book, it’s a huge painting and it has to be scanned and then shipped off and (it’s) just a whole process.
This is actually his son on the cover.
DB: And my son was on the cover of “Crown.” That’s my third son.
F: Oh man, so it’s personal.
DB: It’s very personal.
F: What message were you trying to get across in this book?
DB: I started writing the poem after Trayvon Martin was murdered and I put it down and then I picked it back up when Michael Brown and Tamir Rice were murdered. I started noticing that whenever an unarmed Black teenager was murdered by an adult or by a police officer, there was this narrative that started floating around, trying to paint this child in a very negative light. Maybe he had some negative pictures he posted on Instagram or maybe he dabbled in marijuana or maybe got into a fight. You know what I mean?
I wanted to counter that and really paint Black boys in the most positive light that I possibly can because I was once a Black boy, Gordon was, and we’re both raising Black boys. I don’t care if they come from the suburbs of Baldwin Hills of Los Angeles or projects in Brooklyn, New York, they have somebody, they have a host community of people that care about them and want to lift them up. And they have high expectations and high goals for these children. The same goals and dreams and aspirations you have for your sons, how clumsy and goofy they could be and how funny they can be.
Our boys are the exact same way and if you don’t live around Black boys and you only go off of stereotypes, you may have this idea of being the boogeyman or maybe they all like to play basketball and are involved in criminal activities. I have an obligation as a Black father and as a Black artist. I feel it’s my job to do that. I finished it after I saw that ad and two years later here it is.
F: And I assume that it’s going to be sold in Kansas City in different bookstores. How’s the book doing so far?
DB: It’s doing extremely well. This is one of the top-selling children’s books, new releases right now. Is actually in its third printing already. The idea that books about Black boys getting their haircut, books about Black boys and affirmations… is doing that well means that hopefully the world is changing and the world is, despite everything that’s going on around the country that more often than not, people are good. People can see the good in each other’s journey.
F: Why children’s books?
DB: To be honest with you, I kind of fell into it. One of the greatest moments I had was (when) Hallmark signed a deal with Maya Angelou. I was on that writing staff and we were able to fly to South Carolina and stay the whole day with her. And I still remember the first thing she said to me because I was leaning back from the table: “Mr. Barnes, can you lean in so I can see your handsome brown face?” I was like, all right.
I want to affect the world the same way that you have with the written word. My first book deal that my agent brought to me was with the African-American imprint that Scholastic started. My first two books were “Stop, Drop and Chill” and “The Low-Down Bad-Day Blues.” (My wife and I) only had one son at the time. It seemed like the more children we had, the more opportunities came up.
And man, after a while… just being able to travel and see the influence that you have by creating books that did not exist before you wrote them. You know what I mean? Books that our children need. It really impacted me and kind of guided me in this direction. As long as the world is the way that it is, I’m going to always crank these out.
F: Do you have a message that you want to share with Kansas City?
DB: I want to tell Kansas City, first of all, I wish I can come back home. I miss my mom, but I don’t want to put her at risk right now. Our numbers here are kind of up and down and I don’t know what they’re like in Missouri, but I’m coming home soon, Mom, and I miss the barbecue. Carolina barbecue is not like Kansas City barbecue and I miss it. We try to come back home twice a year since we moved here. Kansas City means so much to me.
And one of the things I always say is no matter where you go take you with you and every single place that I go, I take Kansas City with me. I take all those memories with me, every single place I go and you’re going to always be able to find Kansas City in every single thing that I write. Hopefully, I’ll be back sometime in the next two months.