Books, Gratitude, and Activism: Author Interview with Derrick Barnes

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Derrick Barnes is a children’s book author with award-winning books that lovingly feature Black and Brown kids in everyday life. Recently, I met with Derrick on Zoom for an interview about his latest book, Like Lava in My Veins. He shared about Lava, upcoming books, favorite books, activism, and faith. You are going to love this conversation!

Derrick has published 18 books. In 2022, his graphic novel Victory. Stand!-Raising My First For Justice was a finalist for the National Book Award, a Coretta Scott King Award Author, and won the 2023 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction. His picture book, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut received a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, and the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers. I Am Every Good Thing also won a Kirkus Prize as well as a Charlotte Huck Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor.

photo credit: EyeSun Photography (Charlotte, NC)

You’ll also know him from his other best-selling books, The King of Kindergarten and The Queen of Kindergarten. (Which are back-to-school must-reads!)

I came away from the interview inspired to be more of a servant leader like Derrick. His legacy, vision, and consistency made me stop and think deeply. Especially as I look forward to the next decade of my life now that I’m finally healthy and newly writing the SEL books that I want to see in the world.

I promise that this interview will inspire you, too.

Author Interview with Derrick Barnes

Melissa: Hi, Derrick. Thanks for being here today with me. 

Derrick: Oh, Melissa, thanks for having me. 

Melissa: I’m so excited to talk to you. I’m honored. You know, I’m a big fan. I’ve been a big fan forever. And so I couldn’t even believe you said yes. So thank you for taking some time to chat with me. 

So let’s start with your newest book. I have it right behind me. I want to talk to you about a couple of things. First, I just want to talk about the format because it’s so unique. How did you come up with this mind-blowing format of a graphic novel picture book? Because that hasn’t been done before, I don’t think.

Derrick: No, I don’t think so either. You know, after Crown Ode to a Fresh Cut, which was my ninth book, I was on the verge of just quitting and not making books anymore and not writing anymore. But Crown changed all of that, and for like a seven-year span I wrote like 30 books, and none of them were published until after Crown happened. And then some of those books I ended up getting book deals for, and a lot of people may not notice. 

But in the children’s book industry, the publisher chooses the illustrator. And the more success you have, the more likely you are to be able to, you know, have a hand in that. So I work with Penguin Random House. You know, Nancy Paulson books. She’s probably my favorite editor I’ve ever worked with, and she gives me the freedom to kind of do what I want. 

So I was a big fan of Sean Martinbrough who illustrated this book and he had never done children’s books before. But just studying his interview tapes and seeing him on YouTube. I really love his work ethic. I’m a big fan of artists who take their work seriously, like Gordon C James, illustrator of Crown and I’m Every Good Thing. Vanessa Newton, the illustrator of King of Kindergarten, Queen of Kindergarten. They really take their craft seriously. So I remember asking Nancy if we can work with Shawn Martinbrough. And at first, she was kind of reluctant. But it’s just like I was like, come on baby, I made Crown, let’s go. 

So I like using illustrators who may not be in the industry. I also like working with up-and-coming illustrators. 

I’m a very visual person. I can kind of see what I can kind of see everything play out in my mind. And with this character having these superpowers, it only makes sense to do it in a comic book-type of format. And I feel like it worked. 

Melissa: Oh, and it’s so cool. And the art was just amazing. I mean, you could just frame every single page, right? What are people’s reactions to it? Are they kind of like not knowing what to do with it, or are they really embracing it? 

Derrick: I think it’s a little bit of everything, people not really knowing what to do with it, not knowing what age group this kind of fits. And so I wrote this book for, you know, primarily Black boys and girls who are in spaces in school where they may not be appreciated, may not be loved. Black and Brown children are almost four times more likely to be, you know, suspended or to face, you know, harsher discipline.

But not only Black children, but just children who, you know, may have disabilities, who may come from another country, who just have issues, and they just may not feel like they’re in a loving environment. But it’s also dedicated to those educators who go out of their way. To educate their babies, no matter what they look like or what country they come from or what language they speak, or what part of town they come from, there are educators out there doing the work every single day to spend their own resources will actually immerse themselves into the culture of the children that they’re teaching. 

So this book is a shout-out to them. And I’m, yeah, I’m getting, I’m getting all kinds of responses– people not knowing what to do with it, people loving it, and people, you know, hoping like I am, that it becomes an animated series. So, you know, we’ll see. 

Melissa: That would be cool. Yeah. Well, it’s so important. The love letter to teachers. And then also just acknowledging the truth that’s happening to Black and Brown children and in classrooms. 

How do you use literature to change hearts and minds? How are you seeing how stories like this can make an impact? How can we do better? 

Derrick: Yeah, I  feel like, you know, personally, I have an obligation. I have a more obligation to my children and an obligation to artists that came before me. That paved the way. People always ask where I get my subject matter from. And I choose to be an activist, you know, in a sense, you know, in my work, and kind of tackle issues that are affecting, you know, not only black people and Black children but just this country overall. 

And I try to do it in a very exciting, heartfelt, and honest way. You know, for example, I Am Every Good Thing… I wrote that book when we were on tour for Crown Ode the Fresh Cut, I saw an H&M ad of the clothing company H&M. It was an international ad. They had these beautiful children from all over the world. But the lone black child had a green hoodie that said, “The coolest monkey in the jungle.” Yeah, so it really, really just blew my mind how that could even get past the marketing. So I wrote a list of almost three pages of all the good things that I think about when I think about my four beautiful sons. And that’s how that book was born.

So I really just try to look at what’s going on in the world. I try to look at whose stories are not being told because none of us are monoliths. You know we can’t put this blanket over all of us and say we are all one type of way. And I want to be able to tell everyone’s story. I think every child deserves a right to go into a bookstore or library and see a character that looks like them on the cover. And so, yeah, I had a few personal experiences that really led to me writing this book, and yeah, that’s just how I approach it. 

I do see myself as an activist as much as I see myself as an artist. 

Melissa: I love how you write stories that are affirmations of blackness and their stories that show Black kids and Brown kids as the heroes. And they are just really good stories, too. They always just hit the right spot for me. They’re brilliant.

Do you have any favorite stories, or is your latest one your favorite one? 

Derrick: My favorite work I’ve done so far, I actually wrote during, you know, in the heart of the pandemic. It’s a middle grade novel that comes out spring of ’25, and took me three years to write this book. It’s entitled The Incredibly Human Henson Blayze. I feel like this book is going to be one of those books that hopefully gets thrown into that pantheon of Great American middle grade novels.

Crown, obviously. So my desk is there. I wake up every morning with my back to the window looking at that book. It launched my career, and I feel like it’s a very important book in the history of children’s publishing. Not just in the whole canon of children’s books but just my life. When I look at, when I look at my life and how and how long it took for my career to take out. I was over 40.

When you know when that book happened. It’s just an inspiration and hopefully a testament to other people, no matter what you’re doing for a living to keep doing what you’re doing, keep pressing forward, keep waking up every day thinking that something good is going to happen to you, that you’re going to do something that, you know, hopefully, inspires people. And when I get up in the morning and sit at my desk, and I look at that picture, I feel all those feelings, all those things.

And yeah, so Crown and Incredible Human Henson Blayze, which comes out spring of ’25. I think those are my two favorite books. 

Melissa: OK, I can’t wait. Is Nancy doing that one too? 

Derrick: It is Penguin, but it’s not Nancy. It’s going to be Viking.

Melissa: Okay. It’s always such a long wait with these release dates It’s kind of ridiculous.

Derrick: I have a Christmas book coming out at the end of this year. Santa’s Gotta Go! comes out in October, and I have a second book in my Who Got Game series. It’s the basketball book that comes out in January. And then I have a book by a new and amazing illustrator named Jamar Knight Justice. It’s called The Brothers. It comes out next spring, late spring, right before school starts. 

Melissa: That was going to be my next question. What’s coming up next? It’s a lot of things!

Derrick: Yeah, those three and and and I’m working on four books right now. I’m working on finishing two books. Gordon C James and I are contracted to do two more books. I’m finishing book one of the two books that we have to do, and I’m working on the picture book dedicated to the work of one of my favorite musicians of all time and the celebrity project that I’m doing, so yeah, that’s awesome. 

Melissa: That’s going to be great, and basically your career has exploded. 

Derrick: Yeah, it is a blessing. I wake up every morning, and I can’t believe it. And you know, you know, when people say that I can’t believe this is happening to me, you can’t believe it because this is what you dreamed about. But when you’re actually in it, it feels, it feels really good. Yeah, I take my responsibility very serious because I really, really want to be one of those people, one of those artists, that moves the needle and are really trying to create something that makes people feel good about themselves, about the way you see other people and just about life in general. 

Melissa: Yeah, I think your legacy that you’re building is you’re already having such an impact. I know it has impacted me and children everywhere. I see how I see so much buzz about your books. I remember when I read THE KING OF KINDERGARTEN for the first time, and I just fell in love with that character. It was just so positive. So I’m glad you’re gifting the world your ideas and your activism. We need that, especially now more than ever.

Derrick: Definitely. With all the book bands happening and leadership. The leadership in this country too. State level. That’s another issue we have to deal with. But we have to keep doing what we’re doing. And not only till, you know, combat those entities, but in order to bring this country together. You know, in order to spread truth about American history. Not to make white children feel guilty, or to make anyone feel bad about themselves, but. You know, we highlight, you know, the beauty of our diversity. We tell the truth about American history so that we don’t; we don’t repeat those things that, you know, they really tore us apart. They are really the same for us to talk about in order for us to move forward as a people. I’m talking about human, the human race, not all these different sects and cultures. Our diversity is a strength but we need to appreciate all these things that make us so beautiful. And then we move forward, and you know, without any shame. Without any negative thoughts about what we were but we want to focus on what we can be. 

Melissa: Yeah, you can’t do better unless you understand the past. You really can’t, and you lie to yourself, and it’s… not good.

I know from being friends with you on Facebook that faith is a big part of your life, too. Is that something that you want to talk about?

Derrick: I don’t have a problem talking about it. So you know, the seven-year stretch where there were no books published, and I was really struggling before Crown happened. I just woke up one day, and it’s kind of, you know, reconnected myself to God and my relationship to God, and a lot of it was rooted and you know, just humbling myself. Gratitude.

And just waking up every morning and just being grateful for the small things. And sometimes I think we keep, we keep our eyes straight and focus or we, or we keep our eyes down and we never look up and appreciate all the things around us that really help us to just get through, you know, every day. 

So I just recommitted, you know, my relationship to God and turn everything over to him and and and and stop feeling like I am in control and the things turn around. For me, it’s going to be because of something I did that’s kind of done away. I did away with all that kind of thinking. And just make myself available and say how can I be of assistance to you. How can I be of assistance to anybody and to everybody?

And as soon as that happened, things started changing in my life. So I never missed the opportunity to talk about my faith with my sons as they go out into the world and hopefully become difference-makers. That it’s okay to pray multiple times a day, even when you’re in class or after class or even when things are going well for you, just to give thanks and be grateful, and to always have an open mind in regards to being of use to not only God but the people around you. 

Because I feel like that’s the only reason why we’re here is our service. You know we’re here to serve and to help people. So as long as you keep that mindset and just keep doing the work and which I try to keep my head down and keep and keep cranking out these books, I feel like I have a really deep connection and I’m doing it. I’m supposed to be doing this right now, so I love that. 

Melissa: Thank you for sharing that, and Amen.

Well, is there anything else you want to share with me today? I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but anything we haven’t covered?

Derrick: I think we covered it all. I’m really excited about, you know, Lava, and the direction that it’s going in, and God willing, it will reach the people that it’s supposed to reach, and if it does extremely well and bookstores and we’ll have a book two. I leave the ending kind of open. I have a whole idea about the next five or six books, so. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that, but again, I’m really interested in just cranking out as many books as I possibly can right now. I feel like it’s my time. I have to say something, I have to say something worthwhile.  

Melissa: And you’re a brilliant writer. So when you say it, it’s so beautifully said.

Derrick: Thank you.

Melissa: Thank you for your time. I’m grateful. Thank you for your books.

Derrick: Yeah. Thanks for having me, for sure. You take care. 

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Books, Gratitude, and Activism: Author Interview with Derrick Barnes


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