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Children Of The Night is my actual first novel (many people seem to think Way Past Cool was the first). It's a story about Ryo, a 13-year-old West Oakland boy. and his homey, Chipmunk, who are sick of being poor and having nothing. Together they make a decision to work for a young crack dealer named Big Bird.


Like my story collection, Rats In The Trees, Children Of The Night portrays innercity kids in the late 1980's. This was a time when it was common for some crack-dealing 12-year-olds to have thousands of dollars in their pockets, a time when younger and younger kids were buying guns and using them on each other, a time when (just as now) a large segment of the U.S. white population were applauding (though usually not openly) the "self-cleaning ovens" of the inner cities.


It's interesting that a self-proclaimed "white, middle-aged reviewer" for The Washington Post, who had "never hung with the homeboys" (why, then, was he reviewing one of my books?) chose to dis me and my work by "exposing" the fact that Children Of The Night was published by Holloway House, a "Black-exploitation publisher," as if this book was something I should be ashamed of.


I am not in the least ashamed of this book. I am very disgusted with the sloppy printing, proofing and editing done by Holloway House, but what does it matter who published the book as long as its positive messages got out there on the shelves?


To me, the statements made by this self-described "white, middle-aged reviewer, who had never hung with the homeboys," are typical of a book reviewer with his own agenda. And I assume his agenda is that black kids are not supposed to know the truth about the odds stacked against their survival, and that anyone who tries to tell this truth is to be disrespected, discredited... and possibly disposed of.


But, despite the poorly-done printing I'm proud of this book. As far as I'm aware it's still in print and may be ordered through your local book store or from Amazon.com. It also seems to be widely available at many ghetto liquor stores. and I'm certainly not ashamed of that either. Here at least is one of my books in an affordable format that can be easily accessed by the kids I wrote it for.


Jess Mowry


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Excerpt


              The room smelled like money.

       A tall boy, about fourteen and wearing only jeans, waved them in with the muzzle of his Uzi carbine. His name was Greyhound, and he was totally totally black. He was also one of Big Bird's dudes who seemed to get off on carrying his gun; like he wanted to be sure everybody knew he had one. Ryo considered a moment; the dude had scared away most of the asshole dealer-kids who hung by the school gates... kids who sold for Big Bird mostly just smiled when you said no, offered Kools, and waited... so maybe that wasn't all bad?

       Ryo checked the gun, pretending not to. It was also a full auto. The TV always said that semi-auto assault rifles were the weapons of choice for dealers, but then the TV lied about a lot of things.

       Greyhound was super thin, every rib stark, jeans riding so low that curls of hair showed. He almost never talked, and when he did it was slow and different, like Buckwheat on the Little Rascals. Some of the kids said he'd run from a long ways away. There were a lot of little scars on his arms and chest. Ryo glanced down at his own left hand; there was something like that between his fingers. The summer before he'd gotten totally drunk and passed out with a cigarette there. Greyhound closed the door behind them and shot the heavy bolts. His obsidian eyes were distant like they usually were, but a flash deep down said that he remembered Ryo. Greyhound gave Ryo a faint smile that looked like it came from a distant place, too, then sat in a big old chair by the door, Uzi in his lap, and picked up a Ninja Turtles comic, tracing the words with a long bony finger and silently moving his lips.

       Then, Ryo and Chipmunk saw the money, and for a few seconds that's all Ryo could see. They stood and stared, mouths open like little kids.

       The room was small; about the same size as Ryo's apartment. the half near the door was almost in darkness, and the air was cool... that good friendly cool that made you want to hang inside the mall on scorcher days, except the rattlers wouldn't let you. All over the floor were bright nylon backpacks like Turtle had been wearing. They were different colors, and stuffed with money, some open, green and black bills sticking out. There was more money on the floor, stacks of it, kid-money, wrinkled and sweaty and torn. Some of the stacks had big rubber bands around them.

       "Fuuuuuuck," Chipmunk breathed.

       Ryo just went on staring. The smell of money filled his nostrils and beat at his brain. It wasn't quite like what had happened down on the street with Claw, but the scent was magic, and Ryo felt his knees give and heat flash between his legs.

       Two small boys sat on the bare boards surrounded by the money. They were maybe six or seven, one thin, one baby-fat chubby, wearing clean new jeans and rock-graphic tees, their big puppy-feet in new Nikes. Both had Walkmans clamped to their ears, Cokes on the floor beside them, and a big bag of Chee-tos plus some empty Pudding Snacks cups. They weren't playing. Both wore looks of little-kid concentration and carefully stacked the bills, trying to straighten and flatten out most of the wrinkles at the same time. Their little fingers gleamed black and shiny from the money.

       Ryo's mind started to work again, and he saw that the kids weren't really counting. They were just putting all the same size bills together by matching the pictures or something, black side always up. There was a mountain of ones, those in the saddest shape of all. The kids didn't even bother trying to stack them. There were also some big brown metal wastebaskets, like at school, only these were filled with coins.

       A kid-snicker came from across the room; funny, not smart-ass. "'Kay, dudes. Be puttin' your eyes back in your heads now, or I charge you fifty cents for the peek-out".

Ryo forced his eyes up from the money. After that, there didn't seem to be anything else in the world worth seeing!


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Reviews

       I received Mowry's newest novel, (Way Past Cool) from his first major publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, as I was searching for a young adult author to speak at an American Library Association program addressing issues in multicultural publishing called "Connections -- YA Publishers, YA Librarians, YA Readers: Linking Multicultural Needs". In reply to my invitation, I received a plump, heavily taped package from Mowry's Oakland address. Inside were his two most recent books, and a two-page single spaced letter -- a most graceful decline of my invitation. It explained that he was too poor a speaker to accept, while eloquently addressing each of the panel's issues.

       Like his books, Mowry's letter moved me to tears. In it I saw a private, sensitive man, compelled to mirror in writing his alien world for outsiders to see, but unwilling to visit our reality, where four hundred librarians would simply spell discomfort. Were some of those librarians -- afraid to promote his gritty, violent, four-letter word-spattered books to the youth for whom they were intended -- part of the problem?

       In his letter, Mowry agreed that such librarians may be...

       "one of the main reasons why there are very few books for 'my' kids to read and relate to. I say one reason, because it is pretty obvious that to be young, male, and black in this society is to be an endangered species... Point of fact is that these kids are not supposed to be able to read...

       ....the issue goes much deeper... into the reality that there is an active and growing war on black males in this society. The Rodney King rebellion was actually us shaking the bars of our cages. One of the most deadly attitudes being drummed into our kids is this idea of "bad" and "cool", and that it's not "cool" to read...

       As I see it, we need black publishing and black distributing especially for our inner-city youth... books and reading material of every sort and subject, written for, and about black kids, and this we don't have."

       Most of the writers of the nearly thirty articles and reviews Mowry sent me are also deeply affected by his testaments. Way Past Cool stirred a Los Angeles Times reviewer "to a real anger. It's proof that literature is far from dead. Unless you are emotionally dead yourself, you simply cannot read about fourteen-year-old kids who are discussing Capt. Kirk one minute and talking about dirt naps -- their term for being killed -- or buying a new Uzi the next."

       If Mowry himself had not sent me his second book, Children of the Night, an original paperback from a small African-American publishing company, I would never have seen it. Enter Mowry's alternative universe, a West Oakland neighborhood where thirteen-year-old Ryo is luckier than many because he has a mother, Tracy, who loves him and surrounds him with other caring adults to compensate for his lack of a father. Tracy must work endless hours in Brownie's cafe, with little time off to spend with Ryo. During meals at the cafe, kind-hearted Vietnam veteran, Brownie, and his regular customers offer Ryo advice and support, marveling at his intelligence and common sense, which set him apart from his neighborhood peers.

       Of course Ryo cannot remain unaffected by his surroundings. Hanging out with his best friend, his "homey" Chipmunk, a fat boy who still manages to be an ace on a skateboard, Ryo begins to see no way out. Dressed in shabby clothes, he endures the sneers of rich white "squid kids" at the mall while window-shopping a skateboard he cannot afford. Far beyond recreation, a board is a safe way to navigate the dangerous streets. "There's all kinds of ways to be hungry," Ryo thinks. "An' money seem to be the only thing what fill you up." There is only one way to get the money to escape from his city cage with his mother -- by working for drug dealer Big Bird.

       Sensing Ryo's talents, sixteen-year-old Big Bird grooms him for inside work, giving special treatment that includes a ride in Big Bird's Piper Cub airplane, which is beyond Ryo's wildest dreams.

       Despite his bedazzlement, however, Ryo soon becomes disenchanted with Big Bird's "rock house", which speeds boys as young as eight into crack addiction. How else, though, can Ryo earn a hundred bucks a day toward his dream? It takes Chipmunk's death in a drug run to propel Ryo to destroy Big Bird and so save himself.

       Mowry believes that the pivotal age of thirteen is when most ghetto children fist begin to see "what is", the dreadful reality around them. Through the voice of cafe owner Brownie, Mowry rails against the traps confining these boys, tired of "having nothing, being nothing, and seeing nothing ahead". While mourning for Chipmunk and the other lost ones, the reader roots hard for Ryo, hoping he will be one of the survivors. Our hope is kept alive by Suntop, a nineteen-year-old pimp who hangs out at Brownie's. A fan of Elf Quest graphic novels, Suntop believes in magic, swearing that he makes magic happen, sometimes through his ladies the "Elf-Princesses", who bring happy moments to his dark world.

       When Ryo turns to Suntop for comfort after a crack-crazed friend is shot, the seventeen-year-old "Elf-Princess", Firefox, is part of Suntop's cure for Ryo's blues. Ryo's sexual awakening with Firefox is a ritual coming-of-age timed for the night before he discover's Chipmuk's death, giving Ryo the power to make a stand.

       Though Mowry strongly depicts drug lords as evil predators on the weak and innocent, Suntop's prostitutes and magic rituals -- really a form of positive thinking -- are just as clearly a force for good. Such values are part of what makes this inner-city world so foreign to the rest of us; we must be careful to judge that world by its own rules, not ours. As Brownie says, the problem is "people not believin' what's goin' on in places like this... as long as they can keep it in places like this".


Cathi Dunn MacRae, senior editor of Voice Of Youth Advocates (The Wilson Library Bulletin - September, 1992)