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Alicia D. Williams' on her new book 'Mid-Air'

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Get a bunch of 13-year-olds together, and you can pretty easily see where that natural urge to send it comes from - you know, to jump the big jump, to skate the big ramp, to bike down the big slope - because it's cool to show off how brave and daring you are. You know, you don't want to look like a baby in front of your friends, right? But the other side of that is, who can you show those more vulnerable feelings to? When you feel sad or scared, it can be hard to figure out where to put those feelings, especially for boys. Alicia D. Williams' new book for young readers explores that dilemma. It's called "Mid-Air," and she joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALICIA D WILLIAMS: Thank you so much. I appreciate being a part of your show.

LIMBONG: So "Mid-Air" centers around a kid named Isaiah. He's just about to enter high school. Tell us a little bit about him.

WILLIAMS: Yes. Isaiah is one of those sensitive, gentle boys. But like so many other sensitive, gentle boys, he hides that part. He loves plant life. He loves rock and roll music, which can get him attacked for being Black, not being Black enough. And he loves, as he discovers, nail polish, of all things. He hides this part of himself because, as many boys are taught, be strong, be tough, don't cry. And as a 13-year-old navigating his world, he learns to process his emotions.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I just want to say he's at that age where, you know, cultural signifiers can mean so much, right? He skateboards. And like you said, he listens to rock bands. He does like the classic stuff, like Led Zeppelin, to more modern pop-punk bands like Meet Me At The Altar. He likes certain clothes. How do you sort of pick and choose what he's into?

WILLIAMS: You know, setting up this character was so difficult because I wanted to tap into that boy that we don't often see. We don't often see him in literature, and we especially don't often see him in popular culture, especially not a person of color at this age. So I tapped into this nerdy kid who loves all of these things that are quirky. And so tying into the nontraditional Black kid, I think of - even though my daughter is definitely a girl, she was that quirky kid who was on the outside of Blackness. You know, she got it all the time from my parents, my family. Like, she's not Black enough. She speaks too proper. She does this and that. She introduced me to rock music and, of course, K-pop and all these other genres. And I thought, oh, this is that kid who loves it and hides these things - so building out that world and all of those grasps. And so developing Isaiah encompassed all of these different worlds and all of these people that I knew in real life as well as in pop culture.

LIMBONG: Yeah. And, you know, he has these two friends, Drew and Darius, and early on in the book, Darius dies. And I won't say why, but he dies. And Isaiah and Drew have a hard time talking to each other about it. I was wondering if you could read the poem "School" for us.

WILLIAMS: I can.

(Reading) "School." When the classroom door opens, I look up, halfway expecting Darius to stroll in with a slick smirk on his face. But no, it's never going to be him ever. I linger at his locker, waiting for him to run up, spouting about some anime move he did in PE. But no, he never comes. At lunch, me and Drew talk about what we might do after school. Then one of us'll look to Darius' empty seat, then quickly turn away like we didn't because no, he's not there.

LIMBONG: It seems like if anyone should be talking about this loss, it's the two of them, but what's getting in the way?

WILLIAMS: The first thing that's getting in the way is that they're both taught in different ways how to express emotion. In Isaiah's home, he has his dad, and although his dad teaches him, don't cry, be tough, he also gives him agency to say, it's OK to feel sad. But Drew doesn't have that. He has to be tough, but he has a lot on his shoulders in trying to keep his family afloat. So they are processing their lives in different ways, but they're also processing grief in different ways.

And I also wanted to speak to how boys process grief. We girls are taught that it's OK to cry. We girls are taught it's OK to talk about it and talk about it and reflect about it and write about it and all these different outlets, but boys aren't given that same permission. And I really wanted to explore how one like Isaiah, who has a little bit of softness and sensitivity, that he needs to talk about it. But Drew, so guarded, is like, you don't even know who I am. If I tell you who I am, you won't be able to handle it. And these boys represent the extremes of wanting to talk about it and not wanting to talk about it or acknowledge it.

LIMBONG: This is a story told in verse. Why choose poetry over prose for this?

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) I did not choose poetry over prose, not initially. When I wrote this story, the first few drafts came out in prose, definitely in prose. I was really trying to figure out who this boy was, and I overwrote it. And I realized, after these events, he became inward. So I said, OK, I'm not feeling this. I'm not feeling him. There's something missing here. So I got off the computer and got an old-school technique of paper and pen. And the words came out first person, present tense, and it came out staccatic (ph) and rhythmic, and I knew he was withholding something. And once I switched the tools in which I wrote the story, the voice changed with it, and it's almost like I was freeing Isaiah to speak to me in the way he wanted to tell his story.

LIMBONG: That was Alicia D. Williams. Her book is called "Mid-Air." Alicia, thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Adam Raney
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