Thursday, September 10, 2020

Kelly J. Baptist

Kelly J. Baptist was born and raised in the great state of Michigan. She’s lived in Alabama, Florida, and Minnesota, but somehow found herself right back in her home state. Baptist won the 2015 We Need Diverse Books short story contest, and her winning entry is included in the middle grade anthology, Flying Lessons and Other Stories. Her new novel, Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero, is a follow-up to that story. Baptist also won the 2017 Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award for her picture book manuscript, The Electric Slide and Kai, which is scheduled for a September 2020 release.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I think both titles and covers have a huge responsibility for pulling readers into the story. They are the "first impressions" that are so important for potential readers who are quickly browsing for their next reading adventure. For me, I usually have a firm title before I begin writing the story, as I did with The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn, the prequel to this current work. In writing the follow-up, I didn't have a title when I started, but I knew I wanted Isaiah's name in the title again. As I thought about how resilient Isaiah was and how his late father wrote him as a superhero character, I wanted the title to be affirming and reflective of how I personally felt towards Isaiah and kids like him. Thus, the title Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero was so fitting. I got the title about halfway through writing and didn't consider anything else.

What's in a name?

A name is everything! Isaiah is a biblical name and means God Is Salvation, and while I didn't know that when I named my character, it matches with Isaiah's constant drive to help or save his family from the downward spiral he sees them on. Isaiah is a very strong name, which is fitting for a very strong kid. I gave his best friend the nickname Sneaky for two reasons: 1. He was a sneaky kid when he was little. When I was younger, my sister and I played a game called Sneaky Soldiers, where we would spy on people, preferably at big family gatherings. I wanted to honor that memory. 2. He's really into sneakers. There's another character, Angel, who, at the beginning of the novel, is absolutely nothing like her name. I wanted that contrast to be strong.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I think my teenage reader self would be surprised that I was writing for children! But at the same time, my teenage reader self would've felt so excited to see the cover of this new novel and to read about such a relevant and moving story. As a teenager, I was very proud of my heritage and would've felt empowered to see this title.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find it harder to write endings. I've typically been a pantser, (ie, writing by the seat of my pants) so I'm used to allowing the story to take me somewhere that I may or may not know about. I have a general idea of how a story will end, but sometimes events in the story change the direction. I think the hardest part of writing endings is being so close to completing the work and feeling the anticipation and urge to just get it done! Very similar to childbirth, where you are tired of pushing and just want that baby out! With Isaiah, I originally wanted the story to take place over the course of a year. As I progressed through the story, however, I found that would've drawn things out unnecessarily and so I had to adjust my ending.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Yes, I do see myself sometimes in my characters. In Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero, I'm definitely like Sneaky when it comes to the candy hustle and saving my money for special purchases. I can also identify with Isaiah's mom and the tough task of grieving while still being responsible for kids and their needs. Isaiah's love of writing poetry also reminds me of myself when I was his age

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Hands down, Kobe Bryant. Not in terms of subject matter, but in how I approach writing. I take so much from his Mamba Mentality and the idea of striving to be better every single day. I have a small tattoo of his jerseys and name on the wrist of my writing hand and it serves as a reminder to push past writing (and life) obstacles and put my all in everything I write. Outside of God and family, Kobe has been my biggest inspiration.
Visit Kelly J. Baptist’s website.

--Marshal Zeringue