Though they might start with the main character feeling sad, afraid or angry, all the stories end in a positive, often playful, way, with the character in a better situation.
“We need that right now,” said Mbalia by phone from his home in Rolesville, North Carolina.
He told KidsPost that the idea for the anthology came to him in summer 2020, a particularly difficult time for the whole world. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, there were protests about the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people.
Mbalia wanted the stories to center on joy, because the news media can often highlight only the “bad stuff, the trauma,” in the lives of Black boys, he said. That portrayal, he said, doesn’t offer a complete and authentic picture of the Black experience.
A wide variety of fun stories
Mbalia approached Black writers, many of whom are his friends. Those eager to contribute included Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; Varian Johnson, author of “The Parker Inheritance” and “Twins”; and Jerry Craft, winner of the Newbery Medal, the top prize in children’s literature.
The stories are a kaleidoscope of types and forms — fantasy, science fiction, verse, contemporary and graphic.
Mbalia uses a three-part form for his featured story, “The Griot of Grover Street.” The tale appears in three sections of the book and helps set up the other stories. Like his Tristan Strong series, this magical story features figures from West African and African American folklore and culture, such as the griot (storyteller) who whisks young Fortitude Jones to a strange galaxy.
Fortitude does something the author likes to do with his wife and four kids: blow bubbles.
“I challenge anyone not to have a good time blowing bubbles,” said Mbalia, with a laugh.
He also had fun dressing his fictional griot in the same silver pants and colorful hat that he often wears when he writes at home.
Young readers 'vibe with this book'
The anthology came together quickly, taking about a year from idea to publication in August. But the tight deadline paled before another challenge: choosing the two best tales from a contest for writers who hadn’t published for kids.
“It was super-difficult because we received so many brilliant submissions,” Mbalia said.
Ultimately, they selected Don P. Hooper’s lively work of science fiction, “Got Me a Jet Pack,” and DaVaun Sanders’s plot-twisty time-traveling tale, “Kassius’s Foolproof Guide to Losing the Turkey Bowl.”
As for readers’ reaction to the anthology, Mbalia has been touched by how “they vibe with this book.”
“So many photos sent to my phone,” he said. “Photos from parents of their Black sons holding up the book and smiling, of kids reading it to younger kids.”
Real-life cases of spreading joy.