African-American series character is a role model for black girls her age
by Lisa Gutierrez
Kansas City Star
In his mind, Derrick Barnes is already casting the film version of his new children’s books.
Will Smith’s daughter, Willow, currently appearing in “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl,” would play the lead, Ruby Marigold Booker. (But only if she can sing.)
“Hancock” himself could play Ruby’s father. And, of course, Jada Pinkett-Smith could play Ruby’s mother.
You have to forgive the Kansas City author for getting a little ahead of himself.
It’s just that he sees the faces of black mothers when he introduces Ruby to them, and he knows that this is a little girl many of them are eager to meet.
Ruby stars in the first two books of Barnes’ Ruby and the Booker Boys series: Brand New School, Brave New Ruby and Trivia Queen, 3rd Grade Supreme.
The two-books-in-one have just been published by Scholastic, the same folks who gave us Harry Potter. Ruby will have her literary coming-out party Friday night at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library.
“I just fell in love with her. She’s such a great character,” says April Roy, children’s services supervisor at the Plaza library. “She just has this style all her own, and she’s very expressive. And unlike some of the characters written for kids that age, she’s very respectful.”
Ruby is the daughter that Barnes, the father of three young boys, never had.
She is a smart, sassy third-grader who wears shoes of different colors, owns a pet iguana named Lady Love and is little sister to three brothers who look out for her when she needs it. Her parents own their own businesses, and her mom is treated like a queen in the family.
Writing for children was not the path he set out on when he left for college in 1995 from Kansas City, his hometown. “The only reason I went to college is because I wanted to be like Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs,” says Barnes, 32.
Like Combs, Barnes enrolled in a historically black college, Jackson State University in Mississippi. Barnes hoped that connections he made there would open doors to the music industry, as had happened for Combs. It didn’t.
But while in college, Barnes started writing poetry and short stories just for fun and then landed a columnist gig at the student newspaper. “That’s what boosted my confidence,” Barnes says.
After graduation he came home to “regroup” in Kansas City. “I was going to bum across the country and maybe stay with some of my friends and look for jobs in various cities,” he says.
But his girlfriend, now his wife, suggested that he send his writing portfolio to Hallmark. The company hired him in 1999, the first black man hired to write greeting cards. His training was on-the-job.
“The key, pretty much in a nutshell, is to cram a lot of emotion into a few lines,” he says. “I loved it, and I met so many talented artists there. Hallmark is a place where people stay for life. They don’t leave.
“There were writers on the staff who had been there 30, 40 years. It was so cool to hang out with them and sharpen my craft.”
Six years ago, with the help of a former Hallmark colleague, Barnes created the Booker Boys, Ruby’s three brothers. At first Ruby was just a secondary character. Barnes tinkered endlessly with those boys, once even giving them superpowers. He kept working on them after he left Hallmark to move to New Orleans for his wife’s medical residency.
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