It feels like another lifetime now, but in the late 90s, Henry and I had this brilliant idea to move to Atlanta, Georgia. He went to college down there at Morehouse and I’m from Snellville (which, I know, I know, is not Atlanta, but it’s close enough), so we thought “hell, why not? Let’s do this.”
Henry got a job before we left New York (of course he did) with a hot litigation boutique down there, immediately jumping into a matter involving mischievous NBA players, and I kind of tried to find my way. At the time, there was no reciprocity between New York and Georgia, which meant I had a bar exam and a job search looming over my head.
So what did I do?
I started writing my first novel.
Of course I did.
Interview for jobs, study for the bar or write a novel – which would you pick?
We had a loft downtown, but only one car, so I would drop Henry off every morning for work and then come home and claim to be furthering my legal career when, in fact, I was embarking upon my writing career.
And it was fabulous.
I remember the thrill of writing my first few chapters, sending it to my girlfriend, Priya, she loved it and encouraged me to keep going, saying it was exactly what she wished existed when we were younger.
So what was I writing, say you.
It was really very simple – I wanted to create a series for young adults of color similar to those Sweet Valley High books that were around when we were growing up, but with kids of color as the lead protagonists instead of in the usual, stereotypical roles of the sidekick or irrelevant, forgettable minor character. At the time, there was really nothing of the sort out there; urban lit was emerging, but that’s not what I was trying to write. I wanted to turn a stereotype on its head, not reinforce it.
And so was born The Coco Butta Kids: Ayesha Bala, her best friend Kenya Solomon, twins Malik and Simone Travis, uber-athlete Walt Haley, and charming misfit Dhru Thomas. They were my crew and I loved them.
I published two books in the series, Crossing Paths and Tough Times and had begun working on the third when I kind of gave up on the enterprise (a long story for another time), put my writing dreams on hold for a bit, did some lawyering, did a lot of partying, had a kid and began creating The Sanctum Trilogy.
But people often ask me about those books, especially those who knew me at the time and saw the way the kids I interacted with reacted to my crew. It was quite special.
I remember one night going up to do a reading at the 92nd Street YMCA with some of the kids in the after-school program. As I was setting up, the director let me know that I shouldn’t be too upset if the kids don’t really get into it, that no matter what, she wanted me to know how thankful she was for me coming up to talk to them. So I started with some chit chat about myself and my story about creating the series, let them ask me some questions, and then took a chance and I asked them if they wanted to do a reading. Let me tell you, every hand in that room went up so fast, they were so eager to get a chance to read aloud. It was unreal being surrounded by all that positive, excited energy, the kids letting me know how happy they were to read about kids that looked like them, and all of us wondering aloud why there weren’t more Coco Butta Kids on bookstore and library shelves. (More than 10 years later, we still need diverse books, hence the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement)
When I was packing up to leave that night, the director came up to me, visibly emotional, and thanked me, saying that almost all of the kids in that room had trouble reading and they most definitely never read aloud. She had never seen anything like the way they responded to me and those books.
It was awesome.
I had more experiences like that, with fantastic kids in Maryland and Georgia and Florida and New York, but I also had some really crappy experiences with adults in those same places (selling books is a bitch, people) and in the long run, I think I just got tired of the whole grind.
Anyway, I still think the Coco Butta Kids have a role to play, which is why a few years ago I re-released the series as an eBook under the name Ayesha’s Teenage Survival Files. I admit, I’ve done little to nothing to promote it, nor have I rewritten it or revisited its content in any way, except to design a new cover, which I think should probably be re-designed, but I don’t have the time right now.
But I’m going to – I have every intention of going back to my original crew of Xavier High School kids and adding to their story. They deserve it. But for now, it will have to suffice to offer the two books in the series for free every so often and hopefully pull in a few new fans each time.