Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) continues this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!
Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Natasha Tarpley!
We Are Here: Place as a Character in The Harlem Charade
It’s easy to overlook a place. Walking the same sidewalks, or passing by the same buildings, houses, and stores every day, we tend to take the communities and neighborhoods where we live or spend time for granted. But sometimes a place isn’t content fading into the background; sometimes a place wants to be noticed, and it finds ways of getting our attention. The Harlem neighborhood in New York City, famously known as a mecca of African American arts and culture, definitely captured my attention and plays an essential role in the plot of my middle grade mystery, The Harlem Charade.
I lived in Harlem during the late 1990s and early 2000s, at a time when Harlem was undergoing major transformation as a result of a wave of gentrification (still happening today). Every week it seemed like more old businesses, structures, and long-time neighbors had disappeared and been replaced by new residents, new luxury apartment buildings, and corporate stores. One day, while walking up Malcolm X Boulevard, I felt compelled to look up at the scaffolding around a nearby construction site. Hanging there was a portrait by the street artist Brett Dizney, painted on a piece of scrap wood, of a Harlem resident and a quote about that person’s recollections of the neighborhood. I started seeing the portraits everywhere, popping up in surprising places, telling often overlooked stories, whispering, “we are here. We are here.”
Like many of the remnants of Harlem’s past, Brett Dizney’s portraits also eventually vanished, but they stayed in my memory for years afterwards, and became the inspiration for The Harlem Charade. In The Harlem Charade, Alex, Jin, and Elvin, the book’s three 12 year-old protagonists, must learn about Harlem’s history in order to save the neighborhood from a greedy politician who wants to turn it into a themed amusement park called, Harlem World. As I watched so much of Harlem’s past disappear, I started to think about all the stories of a community that get lost in the wake of new development—like Dizney’s portraits. What is worth preserving about a place, and who gets to decide?
In the book, I wanted my characters to not only wrestle with these questions, but also to create a scenario in which they were forced to look at, experience, and participate in their community in new ways. My hope was that The Harlem Charade would encourage readers, too, to explore their own neighborhoods, to identify the things that were valuable and worth preserving, and to play an active role in making their communities better.
After leaving Harlem in the 2000s, I returned to the South Side of Chicago, where I was born and raised, and now reside. This is an underserved area of the city that is much maligned (as Harlem once was)—reports of violence and poverty are staples on the nightly news. But it is also a place where thousands of African Americans settled after migrating from the South in search of a better life during the Great Migration. It is a place of parks, community gardens, people greeting you when you pass on the street, backyard barbeques, and families still striving to make a good life. In The Harlem Charade, I especially wanted to encourage kids who might live in neighborhoods that are considered unappealing by others, to learn about the history, the complexities, and, yes, the magic that exists in their communities.
Natasha Tarpley is the author of the best-selling picture book, I Love My Hair!, as well as other acclaimed titles for children and adults. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship among other awards. When she is not writing books, Ms. Tarpley can usually be found reading them. She has also taken up the cruel and unusual hobby of running marathons. Ms. Tarpley is the co-founder of Voonderbar! Media, a multicultural children’s book media company. She lives with her husband and the ghosts of two cats on the south side of Chicago.
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The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.
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