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Dante, Pook, and Wyatt, 8th-graders in a rundown West Oakland, California school plagued by guns, gangs, drugs and violence -- not to mention many inept or indifferent teachers -- don't have many choices in life. Dante, 13, was born to a crack-addicted mother and needs an expensive heart operation if he hopes to reach 30. Pook is newly 14, and though handsome and muscular, with a dream of becoming a doctor, is an outcast because he’s gay; the only gay dude in this school -- at least the only obvious one -- but he’s not in the least afraid to fight back against haters and bullies. Wyatt, 13, is mammothly fat, though his biggest handicap in this inner city environment is being intelligent. 

Dante’s father, though loving, is an engineer on a tugboat and often absent from Dante’s life, but Wyatt’s single mother, who owns a little waterfront cafe and lives downstairs in Dante’s building, provides ample mothering and most of Dante’s meals; while Wyatt’s younger brother, Cheo, provides a little brother figure. Pook, whose crack-addicted parents are mostly indifferent to him, usually cribs with Dante; and all the boys have known each other for most of their lives.
All the boys know the odds are against them and they have few choices in life: they are trapped in an evil Babylon which is ruled by hate, violence and greed; an environment which, both blatantly and subtly, encourages young black men to fight or kill or exploit each other while discouraging any dreams they may have of someday getting out. The elusive magic formula for escaping to a better place and making their dreams come true is mostly composed of money, and the only people around them who seem to have any money are hustlers, drug-dealers, and gun-toting thugs. 

Nevertheless, and thanks mostly to Dante’s strong father and Wyatt’s formidable but caring mother, the boys have thus far managed to stay as basically good as they can. This becomes obvious when they take in  Radgi, a homeless, alley-dwelling 12-year-old.

Then, real hope of money appears when Dante and Pook witness a major drug deal on the waterfront at night... a deal that goes bad when cops appear and chase Air Touch, a 17-year-old crack-dealer sent by his boss to make the buy. Air Touch, fleeing in his Dodge Viper, throws his gun and a suitcase-sized package out the window where they tumble out of sight beneath a parked truck. Confident because he’s clean,  Air Touch pulls over, even though with his powerful car he might have gotten away. But, his thuggish bluster soon crumbles when he finds that the cops want the drug money and aren’t enforcing the law. Finding no money, they Rodney King Air Touch and leave him unconscious in the gutter, their final insult a parking ticket. Dante and Pook, lying beneath another parked truck, snatch up the gun and the package, believing the latter to be full of cash.

But their hopes are soon dashed when, arriving home and getting Wyatt to share their fortune, they discover that Air Touch had already made the buy and, instead of bundles of bills, the package contains pure cocaine just off a ship. At first they consider flushing it down the toilet, but then Dante begins to speculate how much money it might be worth. Enough for his heart operation? Enough to put Pook through medical school? Enough for Wyatt to go to college? 

Pook and Wyatt are hesitant... Wyatt more than Pook. If they did manage to sell the coke, it would likely be cooked into more crack which would end up back in their ‘hood. But Dante argues what’s the difference between paper or powder? Don’t people kill each other for money? Isn’t money evil, despite the fact that you need it to be able to have any choices in life? For the first time in their lives, the boys’ friendship is put to a test. Finally, though Wyatt is still reluctant and Pook remains troubled, an agreement is reached that Dante will try to find a buyer... but, if this becomes too dangerous, they will flush the stuff and try for the best of the choices they have.

And of course it does become dangerous... VERY dangerous. Not only for Dante, but also for all of his friends.


Unlike Six Out Seven, Babylon Boyz does have a gay character, who was based upon the friend of one of my sons. Babylon Boyz was published in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster in 1997, and seems to be doing fairly well. It is currently available in hardcover and trade-paper format besides the Kindle Special Edition.

But, once again, I came up against the fact that the mainstream publishing industry will not publish "just stories" black books, or books in which black characters -- especially young black males -- do not behave as they are (apparently) expected to.

Despite the fact that Babylon Boyz was doing well, Simon & Schuster rejected my next manuscript, titled Skeleton Key, on the grounds that it would "feed stereotypes."

I found this fascinating because S&S was "delighted" to publish Babylon Boyz, a novel that contains three murders, a brutal beating (by cops), a rape, and a gritty sex-scene with no love between the participants, as well as (duh!) guns, gangs, drugs, and violence.

This, apparently to their way of thinking, did not "feed stereotypes,"  while a novel such as Skeleton Key, portraying a young black male working out his problems, not entirely peacefully or within the letter of the law, but without packing a gun or killing anyone -- and with the help of a ghost! -- does "feed stereotypes."

It was also interesting that following the rejection of Skeleton Key I was invited by S&S to submit a story for an anthology against censorship in Young-Adult literature.

I declined.

Yet another interesting thing about Babylon Boyz is that while most reviewers applaud Pook as a "strong, gay, basketball-playing black male," not one of them seems to have picked up on the obvious fact that Pook hates basketball. Additionally, no (I assume white) reviewer to my knowledge ever mentions Dante's good, strong, hardworking father, or if he is mentioned, no reviewer has ever displayed any accurate knowledge about him.

This is a classic example of black kids -- even fictional black kids... even fictional gay black kids -- being forced into roles that white American society wants and expects them to play.

Jess Mowry


Some Reviews

School Library Journal

       When 14-year-old Dante and his friends find a suitcase full of cocaine, they face an excruciating decision: whether to flush the stuff, or to sell it. Selling the cocaine would bring the money they all desperately need, particularly Dante, who was born with a bad heart because his mother was a crack addict, but they know it would also add to the drug problems already affecting their Oakland, CA, neighborhood.
       Racist white cops and exploitative adults who get rich by playing off of these needy, often homeless kids all add to this affecting story that revolves around the ills of contemporary society. With its realistic, gritty dialogue; violent deaths; and semi-explicit sex scenes, this is definitely a book for mature teens; those readers will find authentic, unforgettable characters and descriptions that make the boys and their community come alive.
       Set among the rough streets of a modern Babylon, this is ultimately a story about family, friendship, love, and of kids living in poverty and victimized by drugs but still trying to make the right choices in their lives.

Beth Wright: Edythe Dyer Community Library, Hampden, ME


Publisher's Weekly

       The author of Way Past Cool offers another piercing view of inner-city life in this hard-hitting, suspenseful novel set in Oakland, Calif.
       Dante, born to a mother on crack, has a bad heart but his father can't afford the operation he needs; Pook wants to become a doctor; and Wyatt, whose mother owns a restaurant, weighs about 300 pounds. They've been friends since childhood, and all three want nothing more than to escape their crime-ridden neighborhood, where everyone around them seems like "little black ants... waitin' to get stepped on an' too stupid to see it."
        The boys cannot find a route to their dreams -- until they discover two packets of cocaine worth thousands of dollars. The moral dilemma that arises from their find is only one of the issues explored in this fast-paced, increasingly tense drama. Others include Pook's homosexuality, the homelessness of a younger boy the trio befriends and the ineffectiveness of a local rehab center run by a psycho-babbling counselor.
       Using dialogue that feels so genuine it nearly jumps off the page, Mowry personalizes the ghetto experience while clearly defining the conflicts, strengths and vulnerabilities of his characters, major and minor. His powerful images of violence and survival illuminate shadowy corners of contemporary urban America.



       It's still too rare that there's a good gay-positive young adult novel: it's a treat that there have been six in just the first few months of the year, books written from varied perspectives and for a range of ages, but each suitable for either the straight kid willing to read of tolerance, or the lesbian or gay kid yearning for some validation. Fierce is a good word for Babylon Boyz by Jess Mowry (Simon & Schuster, $16, hardcover), a truly unique book in the genre of Young Adult novels -- its center is a fourteen-year-old black gay basketball player, acclaimed for his prowess on the floor, looked up to by the homies, determined to make his way out of the ghetto and into a medical career. Pook, the hero, is a complex character whose homo-ness is as natural as can be.

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Booklist: Youth

       Jess Mowry, author of the fine adult novel Way Past Cool (1992), injects new life into one of YA fiction's standard formulas: the alternative family under attack from a hostile world. Here that world is Babylon, an inner-city neighborhood in Oakland, and the family consists of three boys as alienated from their peers as they are from mainstream society: Pook, whose nimble athleticism and well-cut body make his open avowal of homosexuality all the more inexplicable to most of his homophobic classmates; Dante, whose damaged heart is a death certificate waiting to happen unless prohibitively expensive surgery can be performed; and Wyatt, who is so fat he can hide a handgun under the folds of his belly. All three harbor dreams of escaping Babylon, and those dreams seem within reach when the boys recover a cocaine-filled suitcase discarded by a dealer on the run.
       As the story unfolds, we watch the boys, struggling over whether to sell the drugs, move from exhilaration at simply having a choice to acceptance of the difficulty of making it. What drives this novel isn't the melodramatic and sadly familiar elements of its plot but the striking individuality of its cast. Each of the boys rises above the stereotypical aspects of his character to become, not emblems of hard life in the ghetto, but vivid reminders that we are all more than the sum of our situations. Behind every incident, including some relatively explicit sex scenes, is the conviction that details matter. Mowry ends his novel with neither triumph nor tragedy, but with an affirming vision of three boys prepared to get on with the all-too-grown-up business of making choices.

Bill Ott


San Francisco Chronicle, June 29,1997: Gritty but uplifting stories about Black males

       Parents and teachers looking for books that focus on the challenges faced by young Black boys will find gritty but uplifting tails in No Turning Back and Babylon Boyz.      

       ...In a groundbreaking effort, Oakland writer Jess Mowry gives us Pook -- a gay Black basketball-playing 14-year-old who is one of the major characters in Babylon Boyz. Moreover, Pook has homies who look up to him. They admire his hoop skills and the fact that he is determined to become a doctor. But for Pook and his crew, the path to glory is littered with obstacles ranging from broken homes to indifferent teachers and drug-dealing thugs. When circumstances present them with a cache of cocaine they can convert into big bucks, the boys face a moral dilemma. Do they destroy it and dash their dreams of escape, or sell it and add to their already nightmarish existence? Written in a fierce hip-hop cadence, Babylon Boyz is sure to fuel the eubonics debate. The seemingly ever-ready equation of drugs, violence and Black males is also likely to draw critics. But Mowry is to be applauded for crafting a complex, Black, urban gay teen whose sexuality is as natural as his breathing. In the mix that is young adult literature, Babylon Boyz definitely deserves a place.

Evelyn C. White