What Lessons Did You Learn In the 7th Grade?
Home-schooled in his whiteness, thirteen-year-old TJ Crowley thinks he knows everything about black people. Not that he’s experienced anything about them firsthand. Everything he knows about them and the ugly names he flings, he learned from his half-crazed mom. She flips out whenever she sees a black person. And lately, she’s been flipping out all the time.
It’s the summer of 1968. The nation is divided and on edge over Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam. Even Walter Cronkite seems confused about what’s going on. The slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked violent protests coast-to-coast, including Wichita, Kansas, a segregated city where, due to racial discrimination, blacks have been forced to live in one Zip Code until now….
In this landmark work of historical YA fiction, two American families with different pigmentation of skin land side-by-side after the new Fair Housing law makes it a crime to discriminate against people of color. Nobody can prevent the Washingtons and their daughter from moving to the home of their dreams, even in an all-white neighborhood like the Crowley’s. Not legally. But the Crowleys are a vengeful brood with ties to very evil men….
For TJ Crowley, it’s been a bummer of a summer. With his father away from home and his brother gone off to fight in Vietnam, TJ and his mom are all alone in their house on the hill just one street away from the racial dividing line. When the nightly curfew kicks-in, their doors are locked tight. While his fearful mom drinks her worries away, TJ watches from the living room window as firebombs light the sky....
Despite everything, TJ is excited about going to Junior High where he plans to be a sports star. But he’s worried about entering the 7th Grade because, with forced integration, black students will be bused over the dividing line to join him. He’s also worried about his dorky best friend, Eric, who wears tie-dye and let his hair grow past his collar like a dang hippie.
At thirteen, TJ thinks he knows all there is to know, until the doorbell rings one day and The Real Education of TJ Crowley truly begins….
Plot: With muted riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in the background, Overstake's story of seventh-grader TJ Crowley of Wichita shaking off his racist upbringing to begrudgingly bond with his black neighbors is both authentic and deft.
Prose: The novel's young narrators come across as real kids, squabbling one day and back to being best friends the next. They’re realistically brought to life by the author's crisp, age-appropriate prose--though peppering the pages with almost 100 uses of the non-word "n*****" can come across as almost as exploitative.
Originality: Novels about kids from clashing cultures and classes thrown together are common-enough YA tropes, but Overstake's lesson about the destructiveness of stubborn bigotry manages to be both fresh and illuminating.
Character Development: Through the emotional growth of adolescent TJ and his evolving connection to his schoolmates, his racist mother and her KKK-affiliated boyfriend are central to the story. Each of the supporting characters is gifted with a distinctive personality.
Date Submitted: April 01, 2019
"I am thoroughly impressed! Couldn't put it down." - Sarah Bagby, Fiction Judge 2015 National Book Awards
"Set in an explosive moment in America's racial history, this coming-of-age history prompted me to consider my own moral courage. What choices would I have made if I were in TJ's shoes? I was on the edge of my seat, turning the pages and rooting for TJ as he navigated his young life with increasing clarity." - Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White
"Grant Overstake's The Real Education of TJ Crowley is a remarkable book that takes on the choices faced by a young white teenager caught up in the racial maelstrom of desegregation in the American hinterland. Brought to life by a series of finely drawn characters, the book offers readers, particularly teens, a chance to think about some of the most important issues facing our society today. I heartily recommend it. - Mark Potok, former Senior Fellow, Southern Poverty Law Center
"The Real Education of TJ Crowley is a nostalgic and haunting work of fiction. Anyone who remembers the late 1960s will find the story warm and familiar and deeply unsettling. Even those who did not grow up in that time will connect with the struggles of having to reconcile the values of their home with the realities of the world around them. The story is a window into a time and place that seems so distant, and yet so familiar." - Jay M. Price, Ph.D., Director of the Community History Program, Wichita State University
"This intense young adult novel presents numerous racial stereotypes and then shatters them. Psychologically-complex characters populate this coming-of-age story that is both thrilling and insightful. Highly recommended reading for enjoyment and tolerance education." - Timothy M. Tays, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, author of Wannabe Distance God and The Chameleon Complex
"Too often, the conversation about race omits the role of whiteness in the equation. The Real Education of TJ Crowley is the perfect book to spur frank discussions about whiteness with teens and young adults, offering insights into the fear and hate of white supremacy and a model of how a white person can change and challenge what they think they know about race. This book will provoke meaningful discussions in the classroom." - Jenna Chandler-Ward, Co-Founder of Teaching While White
"Raw, deliberate and honest, The Real Education of TJ Crowley is not a reassuring read. But the book is about potential, about what happens when people are seen as people, not as a "word." This is a book that demands discussion. Read it in a group and talk genuinely about history and its important connection to current society." - Marguerite Penick-Parks, Ph.D., co-editor of Everyday White People and A Guide for White Women Teaching Black Boys
Books mine Kansas upbringings for painful life lessons
By Mike Matson Columnist
QUOTE: "Every Kansas teenager should read “The Real Education of TJ Crowley,” for lessons on how it used to be, but more importantly, for the opportunity to realize how their thoughts and actions can shape the Kansas and America of the future." -- Mike Matson, Manhattan Mercury
We were not exactly friends in high school. In fact, a generous description would be arms-length rivals. Grant Overstake was chorus and madrigals, I was orchestra and pep band. He was varsity football and spring musical lead, I was let’s cut Algebra 2 class and go pound some 16-ounce Budweisers.
Grant was newspaper, I was yearbook. As fledgling teenage journalists, we trudged two similar, but very distinct paths at Wichita Heights. While our yearbook faculty adviser encouraged a healthy spirit of competition with the newspaper staff, I’ll cop to not getting that deep or much past high school one-upsmanship. This manifested itself in short-sighted decisions. When the time came to select photos of the newspaper staff for inclusion in the yearbook, our goal was to find the most unflattering poses.
Out in the real world, we both pursued journalism, Grant as an ink-stained wretch, me wrestling the then-industry standard 1-inch videotape cassette decks, lights and cameras of TV news. Not really surprising, I guess, that we each evolved into authors.
His “The Real Education of TJ Crowley” is a young-adult novel, drawn from Overstake’s own upbringing and surroundings in the heart of the civil rights struggle in 1968 Wichita. What happens when what are perceived to be clearly defined and understood social boundaries are blown through by someone who doesn’t look like us?
My book, “Spifflicated” (a 1930’s slang term with dual meanings, the first translates to “plastered,” the second, to stifle, suffocate, ruin), is a creative nonfiction family memoir based on three years of purposeful conversations with my father at the end of his life about his troubled childhood with raging alcoholic parents. “Spifflicated” spans a quarter century (1931-56) in Kansas and points westward.
Each book, at its core, is about dysfunction. “TJ” powerfully illustrates the dysfunction of racism, traced upstream to individual closed hearts. “Spifflicated” is based on an illness that centers in the mind and is characterized by self-driven thinking that results in choices that can destroy families. The “cure” for each starts with awareness, which can open the door to willingness to change.
This month, we marked the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appearance in Manhattan, three months before he was gunned down in Memphis, six months before the story of “TJ” unfolds in Wichita. In Manhattan, in January 1968, King told a packed Ahearn Fieldhouse that “somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.”
I interpret that as change requires action. Ordinances designed to prevent discrimination served as the impetus for a black family to move in next door to TJ in northeast Wichita in 1968.
Meanwhile, across town where I lived, white kids, including my younger brother, were bused to schools in black neighborhoods and vice versa. Fair-housing laws and busing were the city commission and school board’s tactical answers to a larger communal strategy of integration, obliterating decades of separate-but-equal justification and rationalization — stemming from a legal action that also had its origins in Kansas.
Fifty-one years later, people who look like me and Grant Overstake remain overwhelmingly the majority in Kansas, though as our society evolves that trend line is descending. In fact, studies indicate within half a century, Kansas will be a majority-minority state with people who look like me and Grant comprising less than half our population.
The definition of the word “majority” won’t change, just 200 years of knee-jerking to deeply ingrained collective assumptions. I wrote “Spifflicated” for a broad general adult audience, but also for a narrower band of those who have experienced the heartaches that accompany addiction. That band is much wider than I imagined, based on feedback I’ve received.
My book is passive in that I seek to illustrate the self-destructive behaviors of addiction through the lives of those from whom I sprang, whose DNA and blood I carry. If a reader recognizes troubling traits and wants to do something about it, they’re free to knock themselves out. In fact, that’s the only way it works.
Grant Overstake’s book takes that a step further and builds in an action step. His target audience is “young adult,” generally recognized in the book publishing game as teenagers. Grant tells a compelling story, but he also wrote “TJ” to serve as a resource, to reach those young adults in the classroom and foster a conversation about race and social justice.
Every Kansas teenager should read “The Real Education of TJ Crowley,” for lessons on how it used to be, but more importantly, for the opportunity to realize how their thoughts and actions can shape the Kansas and America of the future.
By Cheryl Unruh
Wichita. 1968. Gasoline is no longer allowed to be pumped into glass containers because of a rash of firebombs. A troubled 13-year-old boy is growing up in a racist white home. A black family moves next door.
Fellow writer Tracy Million Simmons recommended this book to me and once I opened the book, I couldn’t close it. It’s a fascinating story.
Grant Overstake of Wichita has written two novels, Maggie Vaults Over the Moon and The Real Education of TJ Crowley, both published by Grain Valley Publishing Company which he owns and operates.
Hi, Grant – would you tell us a bit about yourself, about your career, your journalism background, the writing and creativity workshops you lead?
I was born at Wesley Hospital in 1957 and grew up in the “troubled northeast side” of Wichita. At one point, we lived a block from the border line separating blacks and whites by discrimination, a setting that would become the setting for my new novel, The Real Education of TJ Crowley.
I went to Buckner Elementary, Brooks Jr. High and Heights High School, where I had an excellent journalism teacher, Ed Thompson. I wrote for the Heights Highlighter and entered several writing contests. The phone rang at my house one evening. It was the Sports Editor of the Wichita Eagle & Beacon, Mal Elliott. He said, “I judged the sports writing contest that you won recently. Do you want a job?” Heck yeah! So, that’s how I got my first job at a real newspaper at 18 years-old.
On my first day of work, a pipe-smoking editor called me over to see him.
“Overstake,” he puffed. “Go down to the composing room and get me a picture stretcher.”www.grantoverstake.com
But when I went downstairs to get one the shop foreman snarled, “Tell that SOB we gave him our last one!”
Awhile later, the editor called me over again.
“Go down there and get me a left-handed pica pole. And this time, don’t take no for an answer!”
The foreman was waiting for me. “Do you have a union card? No? Then get out! Don’t come down here again!”
When I returned to the newsroom empty-handed, the reporters howled with laughter. I’d been duped. There was no such thing as a picture stretcher, or a left-handed pica pole. It was a newspaper snipe hunt. It was a thrill to see my stories in the same papers I’d been reading my whole life. I used my first paycheck to treat myself to a big steak dinner at the LazyR Restaurant. As I was chewing, I had an epiphany: I could feed myself with words!
I worked at the Eagle and Beacon while earning a degree from Butler Community College, where I ran track and earned All-American honors in the decathlon. In 1978, I married my high school sweetheart, Claire Brewer, and we transferred to the University of Kansas. Claire had been a standout sprinter at Wichita State. As 20-year-old newlyweds, we became the first married couple to compete on the Jayhawks’ track teams. As a junior, in 1979, I placed 5th in the KU Relays decathlon and was looking forward to my senior year. But I was forced to forgo track to fulfill my scholarship obligations at the journalism school.
I was heartbroken about leaving the team. Coach Bob Timmons called me up in front of the squad to shake my hand. “Now Grant isn’t the greatest athlete,” he said to no one’s surprise. “But he could wind up writing for Sports Illustrated someday. He doesn’t want to leave us, but it’s time for him to do what he does best.” That same year, a feature article I wrote as a reporter for The University Daily Kansan won the William Randolph Hearst Award, the college version of the Pulitzer Prize. The J-school thought I’d wasted my time and their money by running track, but I knew the experience would serve me well down the road, and it certainly has.
My first job after graduating from KU was amongst the circle crops and tumbleweeds in far Western Kansas, as Editor of the The Johnson City Pioneer. It was like being on a National Geographic assignment. I wrote all the stories and took all the pictures. I bundled the papers coming off the press and took them to the post office. I went pheasant hunting in the milo fields and learned what the heck a wheat drill was. I was following the footsteps of small town Kansas newspaper editors like William Allen White! But I was too restless to stay in a town with one stoplight. In 1981, six months out of college, I made the leap from editing The Pioneer (about 1,000 circ.) to a staff writer’s post at The Miami Herald (about 2 million circ.). I was 24 years-old. It was a competitive newspaper market with five daily papers. We scoured the other papers first, to see if we’d missed a big story, at the risk of losing our jobs. I worked day and night. My wife was an early-rising school teacher, so we lived in different worlds. After four years in the race of daily journalism I took a position selling group health plans with Blue Cross & Blue Shield in Palm Beach County. Over the next few years, we had three children, born 16 months apart. Some of the reporters I worked with at the Herald became best-selling authors, including Carl Hiasson, Mark Ombascik, Edna Buchanan and Christine Brennan.
Prioritizing home and family, we moved back to Kansas in 1988. I worked for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Kansas City, where Claire and I volunteered at a Salvation Army soup kitchen. Serving the poor and needy opened our eyes to a greater good that we could do, so we sold our possessions and enteredThe Salvation Army seminary in Chicago for an intensive two-year training program. As interns we were assigned to the decrepit Henry Horner housing projects, which was an eye-opening experience. As new lieutenants, we were sent to command the operation at the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa, where we were greeted by the “Great Flood” of 1993. We devoted five years in The Salvation Army before returning to Kansas, where Claire went back to teaching. I spent five more years in ministry in the United Methodist Church, at Stafford, Leavenworth, and finally, the tiny farming community of Hiattville, in southeast Kansas, the setting for my first novel, Maggie Vaults Over the Moon.
After a decade moving our brood hither and yon in itinerant ministry, we decided it was time to stay put long enough for our kids to attend Fort Scott High School together. I stayed away from newspaper work until our youngest child graduated from high school and then I dove back in, as Editor of The Hillsboro Star Journal. I wrote 56 weekly newspapers in a row, winning a dozen writing awards from the Kansas Press Association and two Golden Wheat Awards from the Kansas Farm Bureau. Writing stories about harvests, homecomings and hoedowns was a future author’s dream.
Today, as a full-time author and independent publisher, I help make ends meet by presenting writing workshops for students as a Teaching Artist for Arts Partners of Wichita. I also lead The Artist’s Way creativity courses for adults at Larksfield Place and Watermark Books and Cafe. And, I enjoy substitute teaching at The Independent School, where the Lower School kids call me “Mr. O!” That’s a long answer to your question, Cheryl, but like many authors, my life has been anything but ordinary. The good news is that I have a wealth of experiences to write from.
In your first book, Maggie Vaults Over the Moon, a high school girl and her family suffer a devastating loss after which she finds an unexpected mentor who leads her to an unexpected sport: pole-vaulting. How did this story come to be? Do you have an interest in track-and-field, or pole-vaulting specifically?
I’ve been pole-vaulting since I was a little kid, so track and field is fertile ground for my storytelling. I’ve discovered through the years that the events in track often reflect the people who do them, not unlike people who look like their dogs. For example, grief-stricken Maggie Steele is a gritty teen who discovers that the daring sport of pole-vaulting is her path to personal healing and a higher perspective on life. In the same way, the volatile TJ Crowley discovers shot putting is the perfect place for him to channel his fiery temper. Mycharacters learn life lessons through the crucible of competitive sports.
Maggie has become a cult classic in the world-wide pole-vaulting community. Olympians have endorsed the book and coaches have purchased copies to inspire their young vaulters. The story was named “National Book of the Week” by BookWorks. Audie Award-winning voice actress Tavia Gilbert earned top reviews for her audiobook performance of the story from AudioFile magazine. And, Maggie was picked as a “Too Cool for School” read by Publishers Weekly.
I present school assemblies called “Don’t Quit, Use Grit!” using pole-vaulting and Maggie’s resilient character as a jumping off point to talk about “famous failures” like Edison and Einstein and Oprah, to encourage youngsters to get back up and try, try again.
Would you give us a brief summary of your second novel, The Real Education of TJ Crowley?
The Real Education of TJ Crowley is a coming-of-age story set in segregated Wichita, Kansas during the racially turbulent years of 1968 and 1969. The story is told in first-person by a volatile white teenager from a racist household who is forced to choose sides after a black couple and their daughter cross the line and move into the house next door, unaware that the Crowleys are a bigoted brood with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
The Real Education of TJ Crowley shows me you’ve grown as a writer. The story and characters are much more complex than in your first novel, and the main theme of the book is race/racism, which in itself is a very complex issue. As you wrote The Real Education of TJ Crowley, could you feel yourself stretching as a writer? How did it feel to be tackling such an important topic?
It was a harrowing experience to be writing about racism while white supremacy was on the rise. But it was a story that I had to write, because it was my story to tell. I grew up in a racist family. We lived a block from the dividing line, we had a vacant house for sale next door to us, just like in the book. When a black family moved into that house one day, my mom went berserk, just like in the book.
I’d like to say that we stuck around and had a great cross-cultural experience with our new neighbors. But the truth is that we didn’t stick around to find out who those people were. We put up a for sale sign and moved to an all-white neighborhood a mile away, without ever knowing their names. So the story was there for me to write. But I needed to do a lot of research.
Characters in the book are fictional, of course, but because you yourself had a black family move into your white neighborhood, you did have solid personal experience to draw from – at least from a white kid’s perspective. What kind of research did you do to learn about the black experience?
This book would not have been possible without the support of many wonderful black folks in Wichita who shared their life experiences with me. Especially Dr. Val Brown, Sr., and his wife, Josephine. For 47 years, he practiced medicine at 17th Street and Hydraulic in Wichita, treating more than 8,000 patients until his retirement in January 1995. “Mama Jo” Brown was the first black woman elected to the Wichita Board of Education. She also founded the acclaimed ARISE Ensemble, and invited Claire and me to sing with the group.
The idea for the story came to me when the Browns hosted the ARISE Ensemble Christmas party. Walking into their house was a stunning experience for me as a white guy who considered himself an ally. But I discovered that even though I thought I knew, I didn’t really know anything about the lives of black people. I realized that I could move the Browns into the empty house next door and write about them, as the Washingtons. In subsequent visits, the Browns agreed to participate in the story. They gave me a grand tour of their house, which is filled with amazing photos and artifacts, and I recorded our conversation as they shared their remarkable lives with me.
The Browns were extremely helpful. I also received a lot of really great help from Dr. Gretchen Eick, the historian who wrote, Dissent in Wichita, the story of the Civil Rights Movement here. The Dockum Drug Store sit-in happened here in Wichita, so it’s a historic town in the Civil Rights era. We had a lot of racial strife with fair housing and discrimination; busing and school integration, just like in the book.
There’s a rawness to this story, we’re really exposed to harsh sides of human nature. The story is told exclusively, I believe, in TJ’s voice. We learn about who Uncle Ray is as TJ learns about him, bit by bit. As readers, we see a little more of what’s coming than TJ perhaps, but I think you did an extraordinary job of keeping the story and the revelations on TJ’s level, from his perspective. When you were writing, did you really have to watch that perspective, to not let too much information out too quickly, in order to maintain the perspective of a 13-year-old?
Some readers expect the story to be like “The Wonder Years” when it’s more like “The Wonder Years” meets “Mississippi Burning”. It’s real and it’s raw. But in discussing the story and language with my beta-readers, especially black beta-readers, I heard time and time again not to sugarcoat anything. The first manuscripts were rougher. We toned down the language in the final version so the story could be read aloud in middle school and high school.
Keeping TJ Crowley in the dark early-on is more realistic because that’s how kids are. He’s hard-headed but manages to wake up to the point where, when the time comes, he is ready and willing to go against his family and risk his life to stand up for what he comes to believe in.
Maggie Vaults over the Moon is a YA book, as is The Real Education of TJ Crowley, although I think the latter could easily also be marketed as literary fiction. Is this your preferred niche, YA books?
What I’ve learned is that the YA label doesn’t mean a story was written just for teenagers; but rather, the YA label indicates that the protagonist in the story is a teenager. This is true in both of my novels. Adults might play a role in YA stories but the focus is always on the teenage characters. Young Adult stories often appeal to older adults, who can relate because they were once teenagers themselves. The niche we decided on was realistic, historical, YA fiction.
In your earlier years, you did a lot of writing as a journalist, a newspaperman. When did you begin writing fiction?
I started writing fiction in 2010, after we moved back to Wichita. Claire won the Presidential Award for Excellence as a science teacher, the highest award in the nation. So she got to pick where we moved to next and she said she wanted to come back to Wichita to be closer to our kids and her parents. So “Mrs. O” got a job teaching 6th grade science at Stucky Middle School and I had a yearning to write a novel. So we downsized to so we could afford to live on her income. I thought I was going to need formal education to learn to write fiction, and I was accepted to a Masters of Fine Arts writing program. But, after reading On Writing by Stephen King, I decided against grad school. King argues that an MFA isn’t really necessary, if you do your homework. So as I began to plot out my first novel, I was studying how-to books on fiction writing, earning a home-school MFA if you will. There is craft to storytelling which includes a subtle framework that readers subconsciously expect in novels. The best way to learn is by doing.
After I wrote Maggie I promised myself I wouldn’t second guess myself or be too critical of my first effort. But the second novel was a different story. It was an opportunity for me to apply what I’d already learned and then some. My first novel is simple and direct, 222 pages. The second is complex and layered,364 pages. Now I still don’t know what I don’t know about writing fiction and I don’t know if my work could survive MFA-level scrutiny. But I really don’t care so much about that. It’s only my second novel. I am still learning. In so many ways, The Real Education of TJ Crowley has been a real education for me, too.
Are you working on another project?
I have some ideas for new novels, but marketing TJ Crowley is getting all of my attention right now. The book has been endorsed by local historians, such as Dr. Jay Price at Wichita State University, and by national social justice folks, such as Mark Potok, former Sr. Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.It is on the reading list for the Kansas History class at Newman University this spring, taught by Emily Williams. It looks like the novel will find its place in social studies classes where students are studying the Civil Rights Era. I’ve posted helpful teachers’ guides for middle and high school classrooms and plan to add discussion guides for book clubs, churches, and other groups at grantoverstake.com. We hope the book will spark candid discussions about race and white privilege. So far, so good.
Is there anything else you’d like writers and readers to know about you or your work?
Yes, I want to thank you and everyone at the Kansas Authors Club who have so warmly welcomed me to their community. It was an honor for me to present a program on the pitfalls of cultural appropriation at last year’s state convention. I look forward to the state convention in Wichita later this year, because Newberry Award winning author Clare Vanderpool is scheduled to speak! Clare came to my author’s talk for Maggie at Watermark Books several years ago. Luckily, I had no idea she was in the audience until she came up with a copy of the book for me to sign. Wow, what a moment. It was so kind of her to show up! I’m grateful for the support I’ve received for my work from Kansas authors. I look forward to returning the favor as time goes on. Thanks for the interview!
Thank you, Grant!
Visit Grant’s website. BUY Grant Overstake’s books at your local independent bookseller. Here in Emporia, Kansas, we shop at Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore.
Yesterday, I reviewed Grant Overstake's new YA novel The Real Education of TJ Crowley. Today I am pleased to post an interview with the author. Read it and share with others who are interested in writing a novel, whether for adults or YA.
Nancy: You were a newspaper sports writer and editor. When you retired, you started writing YA fiction. What inspired the big change?
Grant: Becoming a novelist came as an unintended consequence of being unable to find a newspaper job in the same town where my wife could teach middle school science. In 2011, we moved back to Wichita, KS where Claire found a teaching position and I began schooling myself to write fiction. As a newspaper writer, I was a stickler for accuracy and nobody accused me of misquoting them. As a novelist, I get to make up juicy quotes and put in my characters' mouths. It's funny. Everything I write is Fake News.
Nancy: The first YA novel you wrote, Maggie Vaults Over the Moon, was a real winner in my estimation. A Kirkus Review called it "a fine young adult novel about perseverance in sports and in life." What prompted you to write it? And why feature pole vaulting in the story?
Grant: Maggie is the story of a gutsy Kansas farm girl who overcomes tragedy and soars to new heights as a pole vaulter. I got the idea while watching former Olympic pole-vaulter, Earl Bell, share his wisdom with youngsters. I asked Earl if he would consider coaching a fictional vaulter to new heights. When he agreed, I knew Maggie was destined for big things. With its ever-rising crossbar, pole-vaulting is a great life metaphor. I vaulted myself and was able to express the thrill of flying so high. It's gratifying that coaches have used the story to inspire their athletes. Maggie is the subject of my school presentation "Don't Quit! Use Grit!" She's a resilient character who gets back up time and again after she fails. She's an inspiration to students who have real-life challenges to overcome.
Nancy: Did your first novel win any awards?
Grant: I'm happy that the story was inspirational to readers and that the quality of the writing has also been recognized. The strong Kirkus Review was a big affirmation. Having the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) put Maggie on the cover of its statewide journal was a great tribute. The story was named Book of the Week by BookWorks in 2013 and Publisher's Weekly selected it as one of their "Too Cool for School" reads just this past year. The book was published in 2012 so it's gratifying to know the story is standing the test of time. Another awarding experience was having the story performed by Audie Award-winning voice actress, Tavia Gilbert. She received great reviews for her audiobook production of Maggie Vaults Over the Moon.
Nancy: Your second YA novel, The Real Education of TJ Crowley, was released yesterday, November 5, 2018. The story is set in a period of great civil unrest in Wichita, KS in 1968-69. Young men being sent to Vietnam was also a part of that era. Thirteen-year-old TJ Crowley receives an education in both race relations and competing with the shot put. Why did you include the sub-plot of TJ learning to compete in Track and Field?
Grant: It's said that an author should write from their most vivid personal experiences, and as a former decathlete and coach, I know about the subject. The late 1960's was an explosive time in US history and TJ Crowley is an explosive young teen. He needed an event to pursue that would match his temperament. Because the shot put is one of the most explosive events in all of sportr, the shot put ring was the perfect place for TJ to channel his fiery temper.
Nancy: Why do you want the young people of today to read and learn about the Civil Rights Movement of years ago?
Grant: They say that history doesn't always repeat itself but often rhymes. The things we experienced 50 years ago during the Civil Rights era need to be taught to young people so they can separate ongoing racial myths from reality, especially with the resurgence of hate groups in our country today. Experts who've read the manuscript are eager to introduce it to their classrooms so students can address these issues while reading and discussing the novel.
Nancy: Did you base the story on real people or were the characters entirely made up?
Grant: This story is realistic, historical fiction for young adults. Which means everything about the story is made up, except for the parts that are real. Or, in reverse, everything is real except for the parts I made up. I grew up in that exact time in Wichita so the setting is real but the storyline is almost entirely fictional. Many of the main characters are real people fictionalized for the story. I had some personal experiences that helped me wake up to being White; I did a lot of research and spent many hours interviewing Black people who lived in that time, trying my best to get it right. I received my "real education" first and then I wrote the story the way TJ Crowley might've learned it himself in that period.
Nancy: What is your plan for promoting this newest novel?
Grant: There are several ways we plan to promote the book, which is being produced and distributed through Ingram. We'll be targeting libraries, bookstores, and schools. The first steps have gone remarkably well with outstanding endorsements and reviews locally and nationally. The best way to promote a book is by word-of-mouth. We want readers to tell others that TJ Crowley is a good read.
Nancy: Do you have plans for a third book? Possibly a sequel to this one? This reader was left with wanting to know more about TJ.
Grant: I don't think there will be a sequel but I have a couple of stories that I was working on earlier. Now, I'm not quite sure. My main focus right now is acting as the publisher and marketer for this book, which is going to be a full-time job for the foreseeable future. We are going to republish Maggie Vaults Over The Moon as a hardcover soon. There are people who want to collaborate with me on a sequel to Maggie soon.