by Bonnie J. Glover, author of Going Down South: A Novel
Since 2005 when my first book, The Middle Sister, was published, I’ve been asked to speak at various public schools, ranging from grade schools to colleges in Florida where I’m currently a resident. Each event has left me wanting to participate more in book discussions with young adults and I’m glad that now I’m receiving invitations to speak in schools as far away as Missouri.
When I speak to these school age kids we discuss our journeys through life and both of my novels, including my latest work, Going Down South. And, of course, there are always at least a few questions regarding my personal writing process and how to get published. When I speak to adults, they tend to ask about book deals and money. Kids are different. They ask about what’s fair game—is it all right to tell a story about something that really happened? And, young people often ask about inspiration. That’s a great subject. We also discuss reading and my personal belief that a person can never become a successful writer without being a successful reader first.
With the publication of Going Down South, I am finding more and more of my readership among the Young Adult (YA) population due to the novel’s focus on teenage pregnancy. The protagonist, Olivia Jean Stone, is fifteen years old and in “trouble,” —the dated euphemism for pregnancy in that era. Although the book is set on the cusp of 1959 and 1960, it strikes a chord with today’s teen audience and their educators. Suddenly, I’m in demand as a speaker and school personnel, and administrators contact me to come to them and talk to their students.
I’m excited. They want “me.” I’m a writer and an attorney, but best of all, I can identify with problems teens may be experiencing, especially in inner city areas because that’s where I came from. I am an African-American woman who grew up in East New York during the 1960’s and 1970’s. I write about what I saw and sometimes what I lived. I am a triumph over poverty and illiteracy and I am a walking testament to the fact that reading can make all the difference in the world. Having discussions with young people about the odds they are facing today—about sex, drugs, pregnancies, higher education, relationships with boyfriends or girlfriends—is not exactly what I envisioned when I started this quest to become a writer of note. But it feels right. Teens are reading Going Down South and they are hungry to understand. Given the opportunity, I’m going to feed them.
Almost every teen knows of another teen that has become pregnant. They know a baby means missing their own childhood, foregoing Prom night, working low wage jobs, going to night school, and a whole host of other problems, and they’re willing to talk about them. I generally don’t censor my answers to the questions that I’m asked. I try my best to answer them all as forthrightly as possible. I have been asked if I was a virgin before my marriage of twenty-three years to my longtime college sweetheart. I surprised myself when I didn’t even bat an eye with my response.
My latest foray into public speaking for high school students occurred in early March. Dr. Nick JacAngelo met me in a fairly nice sized room at Miami Coral Park Senior High. I had been there before. Rosalind Gooding, the school’s Reading Department Chair/Reading Coach, had invited me to attend an assembly back in 2005, at the publication of my first book. During that meeting I spoke about writing, how I wrote, the process, my ideas, etc. I answered a lot of questions. The students told me about themselves and what they wanted to accomplish. I felt a secret flush of pride when a couple of students remained behind and whispered their aspirations to me because they wanted me to know even though they felt too shy to communicate in front of an audience of their peers. I gave them my card with my email address. I didn’t hear from either student again.
So this time when Rosalind called, I had a plan. I didn’t want to run in and out of the school and not make a solid connection with students. I thought about the issues facing our children today and what I had written about in both of my novels—the inability of parents and children to sometimes connect and make things work. I wanted to meet with the students at least twice—once to introduce myself, to get to know them a little and whet their appetite for reading Going Down South by doing an initial reading and a signing. My follow-up visit would be a discussion of the topical issues in Going Down South with a focus on the students and what their feelings were about the characters and the problems they were facing.
When I arrived at Miami Coral, thirty-six students—all girls except one young man who insisted on being a part of our group—were waiting quietly and very politely for me. I started the process—I introduced myself and used humor to try and ease the inevitable tension in the room when new people meet. They laughed when I told them about my adventures in Los Angeles at the NAACP Awards ceremony. Going Down South had been nominated for an Outstanding Literary Fiction Award and I got to peer at the stars for a good moment or two. I showed the students how I strutted on the red carpet but couldn’t get the paparazzi interested because I am not well known since writers are usually behind the scenes and it was my first nomination. After our shared laughter, they seemed to relax and a few young people shared their dreams with me—there was one attorney to be and one writer!
I signed books as they left that first day and each student whispered to me a promise—that they would read Going Down South and be ready to talk to me when I came back. And I promised myself that I would do more of these talks. That perhaps I might only make a difference to a handful of students but out of that handful, one or two might go on to do great things. I’m hopeful.