Kansas City author features black children series at Big Read
by Kenya Vaughn, St. Louis American
Ramona Quimby changed my life – and she wasn’t even a real person.
Ramona was a fictional character from Beverly Cleary. Through a series of books, Ramona’s life appeared to run parallel with mine.
We were both 10 years old and had a big sister who worked our nerves. Both of us even had grandmothers who were proud owners of Chevrolet station wagons.
It was the first time I completely related to a character in a book. As much as we were alike, there was one big difference (and plenty of smaller ones). You can probably guess what it was.
But Ramona was the closest thing I had to a “shero,” so I took it and ran with it. I fell in love with reading and writing and never looked back.
Through Ruby and the Booker Boys children’s book series, author Derrick Barnes is making sure that little black girls and boys can turn the pages towards other little black girls and boys. He will be presenting his unique brand of children’s fiction that features a day in the life of ordinary black children at the annual Big Read Festival this weekend on the campus of Clayton High School.
“I have three sons, and the series was initially just the Booker boys,” Barnes, a native of Kansas City, said. “But none of the publishers wanted to make a deal with a book about three black boys.”
The book sat on the shelf for three years. But his agent was eager to revive the idea by incorporating a little sister.
And so the juvenile literature world was introduced to eight-year-old Ruby. She is constantly in search of alone time in the spotlight among her brothers in a fictional Brooklyn neighborhood.
Five books into the series and 100,000 copies sold, Barnes has apparently found his niche.
“I was not seeing anything that spoke to the real black girl and the real black family. Nor was I seeing anything that focused on the young progressive black family,” Barnes said.
“I try to capture the dialogue – and not so much the broken language that blacks supposedly speak. But the way we handle situations are different, even though we all have universal experiences.”
Just like I discovered with me and Ramona, Barnes effectively illustrates to white people that we are different, but so much the same.
“It just so happen to be told from a black point of view,” Barnes said. “I don’t want to beat the reader over the head with it.”
And it’s not just about black children seeing themselves in a positive light – though that’s a major element. He also hopes to expose white children to commonalities with their African-American counterparts through his books. Introducing his perspective to children’s literature is one of the things he enjoys about promoting his book through visiting predominately white schools.
He said, “I love it because they wouldn’t ordinarily pick it up, but once they do they see that that they are not so different. I just want to offer up a different voice.”
A professional writer for six years, but a lifelong writer, Barnes was a greeting card author for Hallmark before his career in the business of children’s books kicked off. He wrote for the Mahogany and Between You and Me lines. By doing so, Barnes mastered the art of keeping it simple – which was especially handy in his writing for Ruby and the Booker Boys.
“You have to say a lot with the most minimal words possible,” Barnes said. “Subsequently, my books are quick reads with action that moves. I focus on how we really communicate with each other and more than just with words.”
Derrick Barnes will present his book “Ruby and the Booker Boys” on the KETC Channel 9 Kids’ stage of the Big Read at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 10. For a full schedule of this year’s Big Read Festival, taking place on the campus of Clayton High School (1 Mark Twain Circle), visit www.bigread.net.