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Nick Brooks on his new young adult novel 'Promise Boys'


As the city of Memphis and the nation comes to terms with the brutal video of Tyre Nichols being beaten by the police, we're thinking of the systems that shape a society where young Black men and boys are often treated like criminals no matter what they do. Earlier this week, we spoke to author Nick Brooks about his new young adult novel, "Promise Boys," that explores some of those systems. The book is set in the Urban Promise Prep School, a fictional charter school in southeast Washington, D.C. Here's Nick Brooks reading the school's anthem.

NICK BROOKS: (Reading) We promise. We are the young men of Urban Promise Prep. We are destined for greatness. We are college-bound. We are primed for success. We are extraordinary because we work hard. We are respectful, dedicated, committed and focused. We are our brothers' keepers. We are responsible for our futures. We are the future. We promise.

RASCOE: The school is led by the strict no-nonsense principal, Kenneth Moore, but when he turns up dead, three boys, J.B., Trey and Ramon are accused of his murder. Author Nick Brooks introduces us to Principal Kenneth Moore.

BROOKS: I mean, he's a man who, I think, comes from the same system, you know, that he is trying to prepare these young men for. And because of - he had to be thrown in the fire, it's what he does to these young men because on one hand, he starts off with a really noble cause, trying to help these boys matriculate, but that cause starts to corrupt him.

RASCOE: One thing that struck me about the story was - these are kids. In many ways, they're being told that they need to be men and what it takes to be a man. And they're not really being allowed to be kids, especially in the school and the structure of the school - they're not even allowed to really talk, laugh - any of that stuff. Why did you want to explore that in this book?

BROOKS: I kind of grew up in a household that a little bit mirrors the structure of "Promise Boys," as far as, like, how discipline was drilled into these young men. And it's unfortunate because I think as Black men trying to raise - they're so scorned, and they feel so jaded by generational trauma that they feel they need to pour certain things into young Black men to help them succeed. And so Principal Moore has kind of fallen into that bag - right? - where he's saying that, oh, in order for America or whiteness, the patriarchy and, you know, all of these kind of buzz words - in order for them to accept you, you have to be excellent.

RASCOE: You did - in the structure of this book, you use a lot of different perspectives. So you have different chapters, but a lot of them are from the perspective of different characters. Why did you choose to tell the story in that way?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, really, we thought it'd be, like, most cinematic, honestly. Well, two reasons. One, it would be more cinematic, but then two, the mystery component - I think the multi-perspective - it really, like, lends itself to mystery really well. And then another piece of it, too, is like - when I first came into a school, before you would even meet the kids, sometimes you would meet all of these other people. Like, whether they were community members or other teachers, you would have, like, all of these different perspectives about who that kid was. And so for me, I always kind of just met students for who they were. So going back to the multiple perspective thing, it was, like, you know, a way to hide the mystery. It was very cinematic, but also a way to, like, stimulate kind of a real experience. Before you even meet these young men, you're meeting all these people who have things to say about them.

RASCOE: When you talk about kind of that tough love - that idea that you have to be very hard on these young boys so they don't end up in the system, that's kind of like what was happening with Trey and his uncle, who he's living with, where he's getting really abused, but I mean, his uncle is saying this is what he thought he needed to do to keep him in line - get him in check. There's this push and pull between I want to keep you alive...

BROOKS: 100%.

RASCOE: But then that can also be just as harmful when you're putting that type of pressure on a child.

BROOKS: 100%. There's been a lot of content, like, in TV and film to come out recently that takes place in and around slavery, right? And I was watching it, and I was really thinking that a lot of these - these are survival techniques, right? Like, a Black man telling the (inaudible) and trying to beat into him - hey, you've got to be obedient. You've got to be disciplined. That's a survival technique, and you can literally trace that all the way back because I'm sure, you know, on a plantation or something that was something that you felt like you had to do because you cannot have that child step out of line or whatever, right? I think a lot of our ways that we, like, rear kids are still survival techniques. People are still in survival mode, and so it's just one of those things that we have to break. And not to mention the whole hypermasculinity, you know, we also kind of talk about in the book, but again, growing up in an environment where it's a survival technique, you feel like you have to be hyper masculine because at any given moment you can be tested, you know what I mean? And so a lot of these toxic traits that we have - it pains me because I understand it's really a reflection of the positions that we've been put in. The kids aren't inherently bad. The people aren't inherently bad. It really comes down to, you know - how do we change it up? - because what we've been doing hasn't been working.

RASCOE: This is a young adult book. As you said, you want kids and people all over the world to read this, but what do you want for, you know, the young Black and brown children that will read this? What do you hope they take away from this story?

BROOKS: What I'm hoping is that this hits so close to home for a lot of them that they're like, oh, man, like, I see myself in this book. Like, I can - I have stories, like - I have stories that I can tell that I just don't want to inspire people to read, but I want to inspire these kids to write. You know, I really want kids to take away, like, I see myself in this, and I can do this. I can tell a story like this.

RASCOE: That's Nick Brooks, who is the author of "Promise Boys." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BROOKS: Perfect. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.