Derrick Barnes, award-winning children’s book author, spoke to students at Robert E. Howard Middle School recently with words of honesty, humility and inspiration.
Beginning the session with a brief biography, Barnes engaged the young audience of sixth- to eighth-graders and held their attention as he discussed his 2017 paperback release of “We Could Be Brothers,” copies of which many students had in hand for the question-and-answer segment and the book-signing event that followed the presentation.
“It is so important that all young children see tangible examples of people they can relate to who become successful,” Barnes said.
“I didn’t meet my first black author until I was 23 years old, and that was because I wanted to become a writer. It doesn’t matter where you come from. You may want to believe something is possible, but until you see someone who looks like you, who actually accomplishes it, you may not fully believe it.”
“The next best, great American novelist may be in Orangeburg,” said Barnes, who has been writing since he was 10 years old and believes that everybody has a story to tell.
In response to a question from a young lady in the audience about the book’s title, the author answered, “I hate to hear other black men use the ‘N’ word when talking to each other. I was raised to call other black men ‘brother’ and I want my sons to think that way. I don’t care if I’ve never met him before or if I know him, I always call him ‘brother,’ and that’s where the title comes from.”
Standing in line to have is personal copy autographed by Barnes, middle-schooler Darnell Keitt said, “I feel really good because he inspired people to accomplish their dreams. They can see him growing up from a spot where he felt like he couldn’t get things done and then he accomplished his dream of becoming a writer.”
After speaking to the students about “We Could Be Brothers,” Barnes read aloud from his multiple award-winning picture book, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut.” The author described the storybook as appealing to readers young and old as it highlights the universal theme of what it is like to come from the barber shop or beauty salon “done up” to heighten their unique qualities.
“I want children who read the book to be able to look in the mirror and see a one-of-a-kind, God’s creation,” Barnes said.
“I want them to feel good about who they are, about their features, about their family, and about every good thing that makes them who they are,” he said.
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“With ‘Crown,’ my ninth book, I am now able to take care of my family with words,” said the author, who admitted that he struggled for many years as a young writer before finally getting his big break in 2018.
With this book that won eight big literary awards, including the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Coretta Scott King Author Honor, the Newbery Honor and the Caldecott Medal, Barnes says he is very proud of the fact that he can earn a living with his love for writing while also producing positive content for young readers to enjoy and inspiring them to believe in themselves and their dreams.
Barnes said he has two books scheduled to hit the bookshelves this year. “Who Got Game?,” a story centered around baseball and his first in a three-book sports series, will be released in March, and the follow-up book to “Crown,” also illustrated by Gordon C. James, titled “I Am Every Good Thing,” will be in bookstores across the nation in September.
“I am going on tour in April and May and again in September and October,” Barnes said.
The Kansas City, Missouri, native currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife, Dr. Tinka Barnes, and his four sons, Ezra, Solomon, Silas and Nnamdi.
School officials said events like this allow students to connect with authors on a personal level.
“Author visits allow students to gain insight into the author’s mind and see his or her creative vision and motivation. It’s a shared experience that is so much more than just a talk – it’s a chance to connect with someone who understands your life without even knowing you personally,” said school librarian Anya Bonnette, who met Barnes last spring at the SC Association of School Librarians Conference in Columbia.
When planning for the 2019-20 school year, Bonnette said she and a colleague discussed the relevance of this literary work to the lives of local youth and was instrumental in assuring that all students at Howard received their own paperback book.
Shanna White, an English teacher at the school, said that as soon as they confirmed the scheduling of the event, books were distributed school-wide so that everyone could discover it on a personal level.
“This novel resonated with the students in my English 1 class because it told a story about boys who were the same age and dealt with the realities that (my students) face as teenagers here at Howard Middle School. In analyzing the work, my students questioned the names and significance of the characters, the setting of the novel and the author’s motivation for writing,” White said. “My students were also able to learn about the Kansas City Chiefs and the irony of how they will be in the Super Bowl this Sunday.”
Orangeburg Couny School District board member Dr. Debora Brunson, a longtime educator who encourages literacy, agreed with White about the relevance of the book’s theme.
“This story reflects everyday life for some of our students, and I think that when they find books that they can connect to, they will read more,” said Brunson, who noted that middle school children, in her experience, do not always enjoy reading.
To find out more about Derrick Barnes and for booking information for schools or events, visit his website at derrickdbarnes.com.
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