By Sarah Murphy Traylor
Today we’re pleased to welcome R. Eric Thomas to the WNDB blog to discuss Kings of B’More, out today, May 31, 2022!
With junior year starting in the fall, Harrison feels like he’s on the precipice of, well, everything. Standardized testing, college, and the terrifying unknowns and looming pressures of adulthood after that—it’s like the future wants to eat him alive. Which is why Harrison is grateful that he and his best friend, Linus, will face these things together. But at the end of a shift at their summer job, Linus invites Harrison to their special spot overlooking the city to deliver devastating news: He’s moving out of state at the end of the week.
To keep from completely losing it—and partially inspired by a cheesy movie-night pick by his dad—Harrison plans a send-off à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that’s worthy of his favorite person. If they won’t be having all the life-expanding experiences they thought they would, Harrison will squeeze them all into their last day together. They end up on a mini road trip, their first Pride, and a rooftop dance party, all while keeping their respective parents, who track them on a family location app, off their trail. Harrison and Linus make a pact to do all the things—big and small—they’ve been too scared to do. But nothing feels scarier than saying goodbye to someone you love.
We Need Diverse Books exists to advocate essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. In what book did you first see your life reflected?
I have been thinking about that question and the answer that keeps coming back is Turtle Wexler in The Westing Game. He was not like me at all. I struggle to think about protagonists who were young Black people. I read widely and there were some books with Black protagonists but I don’t recall reading a book with a queer protagonist. But in The Westing Game I saw someone who was in a diverse environment full of people wrestling with the American Dream and that connected with me and has stayed with me. Books are empathy engines, and anybody who is a person of color or LGBTQ or has more expansive gender identity than binary—we are used to using empathy to see ourselves between the lines. I appreciated getting to hang out in a world where change was possible and a young person was empowered to solve the metaphorical problem of the country and systems of oppression. Turtle was not like me. More recently, I have seen family structures and protagonists who remind me of myself. In reading, I searched for the core humanity in characters that appealed to me.
What books were formative for you as a child? As a teenager? An adult?
I remember when I was 13 or 14, I moved out of the children’s library and explored stacks in the larger library, and I realize, in retrospect, I was in search of myself. I read Roots and found that illuminating and heartbreaking and read The Color Purple and Song of Solomon, which remains a favorite book. In college, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God and was so captivated by Janie and her independence and brilliance. Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place was full of very exciting women who I knew and who were very exciting to me. Tara McMillan’s writing is so vivid, full of exciting characters, and later on I read James Baldwin. His background in religion appealed to me, along with his writing on sexuality. Those jumped out.
Describe your writing process for this book. How do you typically approach writing? Did anything change when you began work on this book? Was there music or other art that influenced you during the writing of this book?
I do a fair amount of research, and it takes different forms depending on the project. For the memoir, I was doing research by telling stories at live events like The Moth and figuring out how the truth lived in front of an audience and that was useful. I wanted the book to feel conversational and be funny and be accessible. Kings of B’More, I wrote during the height of the pandemic and could not go anywhere or do anything. I read a lot of books that won the Michael Printz prize. I was curious about representation in YA that was being highlighted for showing diversity and showing other voices. I took myself on day trips in my car to the places I wrote about—I wanted to find as many little details as I could. Many did not make it into the book, but I was trying to do enough research to understand the vibe and I got vibe searching and I found it!
With Kings of B’more, I did a lot of structure work and wanted to know where we were going and I did a lot of outlining, which I don’t normally do but it was helpful to know the shape of container, then I filled it with vibe, and the characters came to life. I broke the book down into sections and wanted to track Harrison and Linus’ emotional journey and give them peaks and valleys. It has a structure that leads to climax, but I wanted to make it episodic, and, in every segment, have an objective and obstacles. I had colored notecards and what are Harrison’s goals and Linus’ goals and those might be working in opposition, and I put Corinne’s journey on notecards and made sure and was very clear on what had gone on in her day and her life so that she could work as a foil but also so that she was not just existing to serve the story of the boys.
How did you develop the two central characters in Kings of B’More? Was one more difficult to write? Was there a scene that was most fun to write?
One of the core influences is Ferris Bueller, and I asked myself, look at Ferris and look at Cameron and figure out, how do they translate to contemporary boys and Black boys in Baltimore and to queer boys? I had some data from that and started from scratch: what is this friendship and what do these people need from each other? Harrison was the easiest to crack. They are similar to me; neither is based on me, but I understood Harrison’s desire to find an emotional vocabulary and how that manifests as his love of theater but not a front and center person. I love to be front and center, but that is his journey.
So then I said, “Who does this person need?” and Linus became clear in that way and has a diff emotional vocabulary and his emotions are under the surface but he listens to the same song, and that was his way of making sense of complicated emotions that he did not have the life experience to deal with. That is what Harrison needs and it became easy to put things on top of that. It also became clear that Linus was on a B-plot journey of finding someone he connected with on a different level, and I had to figure out how that would not threaten their friendship. I made a mess, and I had to clean it up.
In terms of the most fun scene, I loved writing almost every part of this book. It was a real balm. I got to write complication and joy in equal measure. When they finally got to Pride, it was delightful. They went through a strange experience before that. I got to put the idiosyncratic character of Baltimore front and center. I got to introduce new fun characters. That was a lot of fun. There is a scene where Harrison and another character race, and that was a lot of fun to write. I have never been in a race. That is not my ministry. But I like writing physicality and writing it as character transformation.
What do you hope young readers take away from this book? What do you hope adults, caregivers, teachers, and parents take away from this book?
Young Readers—I have 3 things. I hope that they take away an expansive sense of possibility. There are some books about characters who are very bold or living in very extreme circumstance, and those are important. At the same time, I hope a young reader sees possibility waiting outside their door or with friends or inside themselves. Secondly, the older I get, the more important it is to know oneself emotionally, and I want young readers to think about themselves as emotional beings with emotional needs and speak those needs. For the third thing, I would love for young readers to, wherever they find themselves—city or rural or suburbs—to think about that space as belonging to them both in a civic way and enjoyment way. I hope they come away believing that the world belongs to them too, and find joy.
Adults—I am always impressed by how funny and erudite young people are, and I tried to capture that and I hope that adults are reminded of that. Whatever seeds we bloomed from into adulthood, they were planted early on. Platonic love is an important thing to talk about. I want young people and adults to come away thinking about the people we love and care for and need and don’t want to date. I also think there are a lot of real environments depicted, but there are some I completely made up, and I think that one thing I try to do in some of those environments is that I point back to the adult who made it as special as it was. We have power to create welcoming vibrant spaces and opportunities to think about what welcome means and what community means.
Reading Recommendations: What books do you recommend adults read with young readers or that young readers read on their own? What books do you recommend readers add to their list?
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison was a huge influence to me, and I cannot recommend that enough. That continues to be a book I go back to. As I was writing, I thought about the poetry of Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays. That is a great book. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde is a great book. Everyone should read The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with We Need Diverse Books Blog readers?
I know it is such an extreme privilege to write a book and to be read and it should not be unsaid that my editor reached out and said, “I think that there is a young adult novel in you.” There is so much conversation around who gets in and does not get in, and I am very grateful to be seen. That is the objective for the book—to create a space where these characters and boys can be seen in their fullness.
R. Eric Thomas is the bestselling author of Here for It, or How to Save Your Soul in America, a Read with Jenna book club pick featured on Today and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is the co-author of Reclaiming Her Time, a biography of Rep. Maxine Waters. He is also a television writer (AppleTV+’s Dickinson, FX’s Better Things), a playwright, and the long-running host of The Moth in Philadelphia and D.C. For four years, he was a senior staff writer at Elle.com where he wrote “Eric Reads the News.” Kings of B‘more is his YA debut. Learn more at rericthomas.com.
Sarah Murphy Traylor is a Blog Volunteer with We Need Diverse Books. Sarah works as an educator in Houston, Texas, supporting teachers across multiple school districts and is driven by the belief that all students deserve access to an excellent education. A lifelong reader and former English teacher, Sarah is thrilled to join the We Need Diverse Books Volunteer Team and can be found sharing books on Instagram at @smtlovestoread. Sarah enjoys delicious restaurants, participating in competitive trivia events, creating awful puns, and taking walks with her husband and daughter.