Chrystal Giles’s debut middle grade book, Take Back the Block features Wes, a fly middle schooler who realizes the need to stand up for his community and rapidly growing gentrification in his neighborhood. I read, loved and reviewed this book. Today, I’m pleased to be chatting with Chrystal about gentrification, Black joy, great teachers, and her day job (which is very different from writing!) among other things.
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Hi Chrystal! It’s so nice to finally be chatting to you about Take Back the Block, which I really enjoyed. Your Author’s Note sheds some light on why you decided to write this book, but could you share with your yet-to-be-readers why you decided to write a middle-grade book with gentrification as a central theme?
Hi Afoma! Thank you so much for having me. This story was directly inspired by my hometown. My city, like many cities across the nation, is experiencing gentrification and the displacement of marginalized people. Years ago, I started to notice whole communities being wiped away. I really became troubled by the thought of what happens to the children and families when these neighborhoods are transformed.
I couldn’t get that worry out of my mind so I decided to write a story that centered the up-close view of a community fighting to remain whole.
Wes is not a fan of activism at the start of the story, but he gets more interested when his neighborhood is involved, which shows us how near and dear to our hearts community is. Do you feel that way about your community? Why is community so important to you?
I believe community is an extension of the family. I learned at a young age what a community village was. I spent a lot of time between my home and my grandmother’s home; I basically had two communities of friends and neighbors. My grandmother also had a very open home; she “mothered” and fed so many. I was also very active in my church. We had a huge and very exciting youth program where we were always participating in events in our surrounding community. It is where I learned service could also be fun.
I loved reading about Wes’s friendships and all the different dynamics, from his crush on Alyssa, to the sometimes-awkwardness in his friendship with Takari. Which dynamic was your favorite to write — and which friend did you like the most?
It is impossible to choose which friend I liked the most! I loved creating each of these characters and believe all of them are important to the story. Creating the friend-turned-crush relationship between Wes and Alyssa was fun and effortless. Alyssa is smart and sweet and supportive; she was a delight to write. Wes couldn’t help but fall for her.
Teachers play such a major role in kids’ lives. Wes has an excellent one in Mr. Baker. Is he inspired by any teachers in your life?
Not directly, but my high school African American Studies teacher, Mr. McClure, comes to mind. He was funny and interesting. He taught his students about Black excellence and challenged us to see beyond the struggle our history books showed us. He always made a point to highlight the greatness we could achieve.
I loved that you still made room in Wes’s life for fun: he likes clothes, looking fly, video games, has a crush, has fun with his friends, and also has struggles with math. I find that a lot of books by Black authors can be so “issue-focused” with not enough time for Black joy. Was this joy something you were intentional about depicting?
YES! Black joy will always be a part of my stories–by design and on purpose. Because I write contemporary realistic fiction, struggle and challenge is inherent. My job is to provide balance and levity, to give the main character and the reader a break from the tough moments. Balance is needed in all stories but more specifically in stories that represent Black life because it has been too often left out.
I find it so interesting that you work in the finance industry, while being an excellent writer! How do you balance your job with writing?
Thank you! There are moments when I feel like I have things under control and moments when I feel the exact opposite. I am great at organization and attention to detail, those things have served me well in juggling two careers. The business industry experience definitely aided me in the unchartered waters of publication during a pandemic.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love to read (of course), eat great food, try to keep up with my son, and binge watch TV shows with my husband.
Have you read any wonderful middle-grade books recently? Share your favorites!
Yes, I’ll tell you about two middle-grade novels set to debut soon. THANKS A LOT, UNIVERSE by Chad Lucas is superb and will be releasing soon! I also just finished, JUST RIGHT JILLIAN by Nicole D. Collier, it is such a sweet story with a main character young readers will love.
What do you hope readers take away from your debut middle-grade novel?
I’d love for readers to take away a couple things. First, your voice matters! I hope my story inspires young readers to speak out about injustices happening around them. Secondly, Take Back the Block, will inevitably be coined as timely and important, which is true but I would like to emphasize the humor and everyday realness of the characters. Black life is truly a tandem of struggle and joy. I want my readers to walk away with that in mind.
Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
My next novel is a stand-alone contemporary middle-grade story set to publish Fall 2022 with Random House. It isn’t titled yet, but I love it so much. It’s inspired by Takari’s character from Take Back the Block and the main character, Lawrence, is trying to figure out his next move in a new place all while challenging the way he’s perceived.
Buy Take Back the Block
Meet Chrystal Giles
Chrystal D. Giles is a children’s book author and champion for diversity and representation in children’s literature. Her middle-grade debut, Take Back the Block, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and Kids’ Indie Next Pick. Chrystal was a 2018 We Need Diverse Books mentee, and her poem “Dimples” appears in the poetry anthology Thanku: Poems of Gratitude (Millbrook). Chrystal lives outside Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and son. You can also visit her website, goodreads, twitter and Instagram.