Before Coe Booth was a writer, she was a caseworker with child protective services in New York City, where she worked with teenagers and families in crisis. She was, at times, responsible for removing children from their homes and placing them with foster families. The foster parents would often have children of their own.
"I was always wondering: What would it be like for those kids to have these new kids come and leave and come and leave and not want to attach to them?" she tells Tess Vigeland, guest host of NPR's weekends on All Things Considered.
Booth's latest book for middle-grade readers, Kinda Like Brothers, explores that question from the kids' points of view.
The novel starts with the arrival of a new set of foster children in the home of 11-year-old Jarrett. He's been through this many times before, but always with babies. This time, a young girl named Treasure is brought to his house late one night, along with her 12-year-old brother, Kevon.
The book follows Jarrett and Kevon as they grow from being strangers to sort of enemies — and then, kind of like family.
On getting the mind of her characters and writing for young boys
I think in every grown woman, there is an 11-year-old boy. No, I'm just joking! ... I don't know, I have nephews that ... they don't know it, but I've been spying on them while I was writing this book and a lot of my book is set in a community center much like the community center that my nieces and nephews go to. I would just hang out there for a little while. I was the creepy lady like writing notes as the kids were running around ...
But as I continue writing, he just becomes a person, so I'm able to kind of just let go of fear that I'm not portraying boys accurately.
On a scene where young boys at the community center receive advice on what to do when stopped by the police
That scene begins with Jarrett walking up and seeing a counselor at the center getting stopped and frisked for no reason. And it really disturbs him; he's just really angry. That afternoon a guy comes over to the center ... and he just tells them, "I'm going to keep it real with you guys, you black and Latino boys are going to get stopped a lot. And it doesn't matter what you do, or what you didn't do. It's just because of who you are. And in the meantime, I need to teach you what to do when the cops stop you — not if, when."
I think any parent or anybody who is dealing with young black boys — as is what's happening at the community center in this book — I think every single community center has had this conversation with their boys. And it's just so sad that we have to do this, but we do, and I hope that changes. I don't know if what's going on in Ferguson will change that, but I do hope it at least continues that conversation, because it's just exhausting that this is still going on in 2014.
On the intended audience for the book
Everybody — but particularly, I want kids who see themselves in this book because it's hard to find books that are for them and about them. It's not a fairy tale, it's a reality and it's, you know, it's complicated. But I hope it's true.
TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
Before Coe Booth became a writer, she was a caseworker with Child Protective Services in New York City working with teenagers and families in crisis.
COE BOOTH: So I was the one who would remove children, unfortunately, and take them to foster homes. And a lot of times the foster parents would have children of their own. So I was always wondering what would it be like for those kids to have been new kids come and leave and come and leave and not want to attach to them?
VIGELAND: Coe Booth's new book "Kind Of Like Brothers" explores that question. It's a novel written for middle grade readers. It starts with the arrival of a new set of foster children in the home of 11-year-old Jarrett. He's been through this before many times but always with babies. This time is a little different. A young girl named Treasure is brought to the house late one night along with her 12-year-old brother Kevon.
BOOTH: It's really hard for Jarrett to share his room with this kid who he, you know, views as a stranger. And all of a sudden, he's supposed to be like a brother to this guy. And it's really hard for him, especially Kevon who is so much better at everything than Jarrett is. He's so much cooler, and it just drives my character crazy.
VIGELAND: (Laughter) It certainly does. The parents in this story - the foster parent here, the mother is in a strained relationship involving a lot of yelling frustration. And, of course, Jarrett feels like she loves all these foster babies more than she loves him. I'd like you to read from chapter 37, near the end of the book, where he expresses to her in no uncertain terms.
BOOTH: (Reading) Sometimes I feel like you care more about the babies than me. I mean, maybe when I was little, you loved me more, but now you don't even have time for me. They come first all the time. Mom gasped. Is that the way you really feel? She was looking at me like it was the first time she ever saw me. I'm sorry, I mumbled real fast. I didn't mean to. I shouldn't have said anything. No, no. Mom wiped the tears from her cheek. I'm the one who should be sorry. I know it's hard for you - all these babies around all the time. But they need me, and I don't know, maybe I need them too.
VIGELAND: Coe Booth reading from her new novel "Kind Of Like Brothers." You know, I wondered how did you get inside the head of young boys? And I know you've done it in previous books, but I imagine that would be a challenge for anyone of the fairer sex. How did you make sure this rang true?
BOOTH: I think in every grown woman, there is an 11-year-old boy. And no, I'm just joking.
BOOTH: I don't know. I have nephews that I've - they don't know it, but I've been spying on them while I was writing this book. And a lot of my book is set in a community center much like the community center that my nieces and nephews go to. I would just hang out there for a little while. I was the creepy lady, like, writing notes as the kids were running around.
VIGELAND: You have some advice that is weaved throughout this book from, you know, men at the center to some of the younger boys even about how to deal with police that they have interactions with. Can you just review for us a little bit about that scene in the book?
BOOTH: Well, the scene in the book begins with Jarrett kind of walking up and seeing a counselor at the center getting stopped and frisked for no reason and it really disturbs him. He's just really angry. That afternoon, a guy comes over to the center and he conducts man group where the boys get to ask questions and of course the stop and frisk comes up. And he just tell them, he's like I'm going to keep it real with you guys, you know, you black and latino boys are going to get stopped a lot. And it doesn't matter what you do or what you didn't do, it's just because of who you are. And in the meantime, I need to teach you what to do when the cops stop you, not if - when they stop you. And so they kind of run through drills. He's telling them what to say and what not to do so that they don't get hurt or get shot. Even Jarrett at the end of that scene realizes that what the guy is teaching them is really important and that this is not a joke.
VIGELAND: You know, I have to tell you in the environment we are in right at this moment, that rang very true to me.
BOOTH: When I see the situation that's going on in Ferguson, it does remind me of the book because I think any parent or anybody who is dealing with young black boys, as is what's happening in the community center in this book. I think every single community center has had this conversation with their boys. And it's just so sad that we have to do this, but we do. And I hope that changes. I don't know if what's going on in Ferguson will change that, but I do hope it at least continues the conversation because it's just - it's exhausting, you know, that this is still going on in 2014.
VIGELAND: What are you are hoping this novel brings to your readers lives? You know, this is a book about a particular population. Who were you trying to reach?
BOOTH: Everybody. But particularly, I want kids who see themselves in this book because it's so hard to find books that are for them and about them. It's not a fairytale. It's reality and it's, you know, it's complicated. But I hope it's true.
VIGELAND: Coe Booth is the author of "Kind Of Like Brothers," which will appear on bookshelves this coming Tuesday. Coe, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
BOOTH: Thank you for having me.
VIGELAND: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Arun Rath is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a fantastic week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.