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“There’s no one way for Blackness to exist on the page.” – An Author Interview with Ty Chapman

Ty Chapman is the author of Sarah Rising (Beaming 2022); Looking For Happy (Beaming 2023); A Door Made for Me, written with Tyler Merritt (WorthyKids 2022); as well as multiple forthcoming children’s books through various publishers, and a forthcoming poetry collection through Button Poetry. Ty was a 2022 Center for Arts + Social Justice Fellow; an award used to support a speculative work in progress with social justice themes. He was also a Mirrors & Windows fellow, as well as a Mentor Series fellow. He was a finalist for Tin House’s 2022 Fall Residency, Button Poetry’s 2020 Chapbook Contest, and Frontier Magazine’s New Voices Contest. He is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and poet? What inspires you?

This is always a complicated question to answer! To some extent, I knew I was interested in a life of creative writing even as a young child. I’d often ignore my teachers in order to spend my time writing and illustrating my own comics and short stories. I was inspired by the likes of Bill Watterson, and Dav Pilkey; as well as an abundance of fantasy writers. Thankfully, (most of) my teachers were patient and understanding in their kind redirections.

I really knew I wanted to be a writer, and to speak meaningfully to social justice issues through poetry and fiction, in high school. Attending Central High School in Saint Paul, I was a part of a (now long-dead) touring theatre troupe that wrote and performed social justice theatre in schools around the Twin Cities. I also began performing (objectively terrible) poems at open mics and poetry slams.

I was inspired and fed by the vibrant Twin Cities arts scene even at a young age. It lit a fire within me that has yet to be extinguished. It encouraged me to dabble in a career in theatre and puppetry, as well as fed and supported my writing career from childhood to now.

I never want for a young Black reader to engage with one of my books and walk away thinking their world is only sorrow.

What are some of the most important things for you when it comes to creating/depicting Black characters in picture books?

I’m always deeply interested in creating rounded protagonists with depth and nuance; particularly in lengthier works of fiction where there’s more room to play. I’m interested in the different ways Black characters can appear on the page.

Blackness is a big part of my identity, and the identity of my characters, yes; but I am not exclusively defined by my Blackness, nor are my characters, because there is no one definition of Blackness. I try to emphasize in my body of work the idea that Blackness, and Black Characters, are not monolithic. There’s no one way to be Black. There’s no one way for Blackness to exist on the page.

Additionally, I always want to depict Black characters as more than just their sorrow. Throughout the history of American media there have been plenty of narratives that only depict Blackness through a lens of sorrow and struggle. Some of those narratives were culturally important, and relatively well-executed. Some were not. Many depicted Blackness only via token support characters whose only personality was ‘being Black.’ I think young people deserve better.

Particularly with more issue-based picture books, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing one-dimensional characters who exist only as vehicles for lessons—subjects like police brutality certainly have the potential to completely overtake a narrative. I try to be intentional about including the joy, the curiosity, the passion, the hope; the fullness of the human-emotion-spectrum.

I never want for a young Black reader to engage with one of my books and walk away thinking their world is only sorrow. Books are a healthy place to experience grief and outrage, and to learn; and also, I believe it is the duty of KidLit authors to instill a sense of hope.

When did you know that you wanted to write on the themes of mental health and emotions with a Black male protagonist? Was there any particular inspiration behind this subject?

Cover of "Looking for Happy" by Ty Chapman

So, Looking for Happy, or at least a very early version of it, was one of the first picture book manuscripts I ever wrote. I knew I wanted to write on this issue before I had any publications, and before I truly considered myself a writer. (Though I was one. Those who write are writers. No external validation makes or breaks that truth.)

I have two answers in terms of inspiration, so please bear with me.

First, I was a fairly unhappy young person. Not because I had some horrific childhood—I had a mother who loved me very much and my needs were met. All-in-all my upbringing was a fairly sheltered one. I spent my days petting my cats, playing video games, reading, and avoiding sports like I owed them money. Also, I was diagnosed with moderate depression and mild anxiety. I didn’t realize until I was an adult, but I struggled with mental health issues my entire life. It took many, many years to develop the skills needed to effectively manage my mental health issues, and I believe a book like this might’ve normalized what I was experiencing growing up, and given me a couple basic tools. I’d still have had years of self-work ahead of me, but I’d like to think a book like this could’ve given me a head start. In short, this was an example of writing the work I wish I had as a child.

Second, there is a rampant mental health crisis where men are concerned. Too many men are walled off to their emotions—wholly unwilling to express them or even admit their existence. It’s a horrible state of affairs that claims lives regularly. Untreated and unconfronted mental health issues are harmful not only to the effected individual, but also to those around them.

There’s a stigma around mental health resources—of getting help. There’s this notion, brimming with empty machismo, that if you’re “man enough” you don’t need help. You don’t experience the fullness of human emotion. You are somehow above feeling sorrow. Somehow immune to having an imbalance in your brain chemistry.

This is, of course, nonsense.

Unfortunately, Black men are not immune to this way of thinking. In fact, (speaking very generally here, again, we are not a monolith) the Black community is brimming with machismo. There’s this idea that in order to survive adversity, to weather the storm of American cruelty, one must be ‘strong enough.’ And (again, speaking generally,) often being ‘strong enough,’ means walling yourself off from your emotions. It is a notion that does not serve us as a people.

I wanted to write this book because of my experiences, but also, I wanted to offer Black boys in particular the notion that it is okay to feel sad sometimes. That, even if you can’t explain why, it is a normal part of the human experience to feel the full spectrum of emotions. And most importantly, that brighter days and joyful tunes are always waiting around the corner.

In short, this was an example of writing the work I wish I had as a child.

In a book full of art and connection, the main character’s grandmother and a neighborhood saxophone player help him weather sadness and find a happy song. How and why did you decide to feature these relationships in particular?

I love depicting different family compositions. In one project, a child might live with her dad and go to a protest, in another, the child might live with both parents. In this one, my character happened to live with a grandparent. As someone who grew up without a father, that was something I didn’t have enough of in my childhood media—varied family compositions. This was a great source of sorrow and confusion. So, in part, I’m just trying to show love to the different ways families can look.

Simultaneously, given the (general) reality of toxic masculinity running rampant amongst men, it is often the matriarchs of households and institutions that act as safe people with whom to share emotions and be vulnerable. I don’t think they get the flowers they deserve for that. (Also, I don’t think that responsibility should fall solely on the shoulders of women and femmes.)

The saxophone player and his song, as a source of joy, are present in my work because that has always been my personal escape from sorrow. I listen to music roughly 90% of my waking hours. My Spotify Wrapped is bonkers. I think music, and the arts generally, but particularly music, is such a universal and safe way to process emotion. In the days when my depression had full control of my brain, it was always music that kept me grounded and sometimes sparked genuine joy. I think it’s a core part of who we are as human beings. It’s as central to our existence as the earth around us, and story.

What do you find to be the most difficult part of creating books for children today? What is the most rewarding?

Cover of "Sarah Rising" by Ty Chapman

Well, certainly children’s media is under attack. Particularly the books, and exclusively the books written by marginalized/under-represented voices. There’s a difficulty inherent to that. It doesn’t interfere with my writing practice—I have too much of an anti-authority streak to let anyone tell me what I’m allowed to write about; but it does make it more challenging to simply exist as a Black author. My debut was a picture book about a Black girl going to a protest. While it was generally well received by readers across the country, I certainly received hate mail for my book, and there were certainly spaces I wasn’t invited to, or opportunities I wasn’t offered, because of the messaging of my book. It pains me that we live in a society where centering human rights and standing in opposition to tyranny is somehow construed as unethical or controversial. Where adults are afraid to center the messaging that racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and religious persecution, are wrong; but here we are. Honestly, bless the librarians, booksellers, and editors fighting the fight against censorship, because the path we’re on as a country leads to nothing good. It’s hard to overstate the danger inherent to censorship. I encourage anyone willing and able to reach out to their local libraries and school boards to see how they might help to combat these modern-day book burnings.

In terms of what’s rewarding—definitely interacting with young readers. That’s the best part. That’s what it’s all about. Whenever I have the honor of directly interacting with my readers, or seeing them interact with the work via social media, it reminds me why the work I’m doing is important.

What was your favorite childhood book?

I had so many! Please forgive me for cheating, but I’m going to give two answers again.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi immediately leaps to mind. I remember when I was reading those books as a young person, there was this sense that magic could truly be lurking around any corner in my actual life. It was one of a few books that really got my deep undying love of fantasy started.

I also really enjoyed Bud Not Buddy, as well as the other Christopher Paul Curtis books I read in school. Reading Bud Not Buddy was the first time I distinctly remember seeing a Black boy centered as a protagonist.

What can you tell us about your other upcoming works? What’s next for you?

Lots! Too much, and I’m thankful for all of it! Currently I’m about halfway done with grad school, where I’m experimenting with new forms and refining my debut novel-length work. I’m not in a place where I’m ready to say too much about that project, but it has become my primary creative focus, and something I’m excited to share whenever it is ready. Additionally, I have a few books in various stages of development—and a couple I can even talk about! My dear friend John Coy and I wrote a collaborative picture book about a historic basketball player; My debut poetry collection (for adults) is publishing with Button Poetry in early 2024; and I have a few more picture books from various publishers on the way. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Mostly just that I appreciate the time and questions. I also want to take a brief moment to shout out my local lit scene in Minneapolis. There are so many incredible writers here who I’m honored to be in community with—honestly there are too many to reasonably name, but I encourage folks to read the works of a couple direct collaborators of mine:

Ari Tison’s, Saints of the Household, is an incredible YA verse novel that I believe belongs on every single bookshelf. It’s frequently described as breathtaking, haunting, and beautiful. Ari is also a wonderful human, friend, supporter, and deserves nothing but praise and spotlight.

John Coy is a terrific and prolific author (and friend, and collaborator) who truly needs no introduction. He has a wide-ranging body of work, written for children and teens. While I love all his work, Where We Come From, co-authored with Diane Wilson, Sun Yung Shin, and Shannon Gibney, is an especially gorgeous picture book full of lyricism and explorations of home. All four of these authors really did an amazing job with the work.

Diverse BookFinder would like to thank Ty Chapman for his time and input.

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