What I love about books is that they take you to worlds beyond your imagination. What I love about being an author of books is that it literally takes you to worlds beyond your imagination.
Like the time I found myself in the Ural Mountains of Russia, in the middle of winter, looking for a school where I was supposed to talk about my book, Ghetto Cowboy.
Talk about a fish out of water. I couldn’t imagine a stranger scenario: me, a Floridian, in the coldest, whitest place on earth, talking about the world of black urban cowboys to Russian teens who lived in a place so remote, they skied to school. Did they speak English? Could they possibly have anything in common with Cole, a black kid from Detroit, abandoned in the inner-city world of horses? I didn’t think so.
When I finally made it to that first school, I walked into an auditorium filled with 300 kids, and a drum set on an empty stage. For most of these students, I was the first foreigner they’d ever laid eyes on. And the only Russians I knew were the bad guys from the movies. We stared at each other for a moment trying to assess the situation. Who would make the first move? I was pondering whether I should just go over and start banging on that drum set for a laugh, when a girl raised her hand and asked the most profound question of all: Can I take a selfie with you?
A minute later, a dozen students surrounded me, phones in hand, taking selfies with me. and I realized no matter where I was, all kids are alike on the inside.
It turned out not only did they speak English; they understood my book in the deepest, most meaningful way possible. They got it, which really surprised me and taught me a valuable lesson: if you focus on telling the emotional story of your characters, it allows anyone to walk in their footsteps. We all know what if feels like to feel love, hate, anger, sorrow, fear, joy. All the surface stuff, like place and dialects and looks, is window dressing. Tell the story of inner lives and it becomes universal. Even to a white kid in Russia.
Every school I went to during those two weeks on the road followed a similar pattern. They loved asking me questions and I loved asking them too: What do you eat? What do teens like to do? Who’s your favorite NBA player? Who’s your favorite Russian author… Speaking of which, it was a trip to visit their school libraries and see all the Russian masters, like Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy on the shelves… and then there were my books, too? I was humbled and honored to be in the same room.
Once, I was late to another school and opened the door to the lobby only to find about 100 students in full traditional costume. They promptly launched into a half-hour extravaganza of singing and dancing, a tribute to the coming harvest– all for me. They presented me with dozens of amazing drawings and paintings—their interpretation of my story. I was then given a feast of homemade food made by the teachers and parents. This generosity of spirit followed me throughout that journey.
But the best part of the trip occurred afterwards, when I received an email from my connection at the U.S. State Department. They’d been sent a strong letter of objection from the Kremlin– about me! Turns out they didn’t appreciate me talking about a book whose main theme was civil disobedience and standing up to authority. No wonder the kids loved it!
Ghetto Cowboy has opened my eyes to so many wonderful readers and places. I visited kids who were wards of the state in Illinois. My book’s theme of abandonment was all too real for these readers who had no family to speak of. Many of those kids started reading the book in tears, only to find inspiration in Cole’s ability to find a home within his new family of cowboys. In other places like New York and Florida, local black cowboys brought their horses to my talks to share with the kids, much to their amazement– proof that black cowboys really existed. In Houston and Los Angeles, teens brought their horses to school to show me that they were the real deal. The book was read in military schools, juvenile facilities, in one book, one school (or district) programs. Sometimes, community readers came in and read chapters over the PA system for the students.
But no world was more special to me than the one that inspired the story in the first place: Fletcher Street, Strawberry Mansion in North Philly. That is truly a world beyond my imagination. When I first saw it, I had the same reaction readers had to the book: Say what? What is this place? From the news, outsiders used to think of Strawberry Mansion as the most dangerous part of the city. But now, I am proud to have been a part of changing the narrative to the truth: this is a unique community worth celebrating. It is part of a rich history of urban black cowboys, who have been saving horses—and kids—for almost 100 years, allowing them to ride tall in the saddle. When the movie of the book, Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin, opened in 195 countries around the globe, this community got their chance to shine and inspire the world in ways I could not have predicted. The story inspired donors to give nearly half a million dollars to save the existing barn and hopefully build a new one in the future to keep the dream alive. And just when I thought the story was complete, a new one finds its way into my head. Polo Cowboy, inspired by readers and young riders in Philly, shines a light on yet another unexpected horse world in Philadelphia: polo
Like readers, these stories have taken me places I could not have imagined. In many ways, I feel like I’m just along for the ride. Yeehaw.
The sequel, Polo Cowboy, and the movie tie-in novel, Concrete Cowboy, are out now. The movie Concrete Cowboy is available on Netflix.
G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King honor-winning author of Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and Ghetto Cowboy, which was made into the movie, Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba, which debuted at #1 on Netflix. His books have been translated into multiple languages in over 25 countries. They include Tru & Nelle, Grand Theft Horse, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, and Chess Rumble. In 2017, he was awarded the first of two National Science Foundation grants that sent him to Antarctica; he is currently co-chair of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Collective. He writes full-time while living on the Gulf Coast of Florida with his wife and daughter. You can find him online at www.gneri.com.