Murder, guns, drugs, violence. Caldecott Award-winning author Sharon G. Flake leaves no holds barred in her newest book for teen readers, Bang!. This eye-opening novel follows an inner-city boy, Mann Martin, as he struggles to overcome the loss of his younger brother and his fear of life on the streets. BookPage reached Flake at her home in Pittsburgh to find out more about the inspiration and message behind this haunting coming-of-age story.
BookPage: What motivated you to write Bang!?
Sharon Flake: Like a lot of U.S. cities, Pittsburgh goes through seasons where there seem to be a lot of killings in the inner city. Two years ago, this was the case. It made me sad, and I wanted to do something about it, so I started writing a short story about a boy who would solve the problem. It didn't work well, so I dropped the idea. Then a year later the shootings started again, and Bang! was born.
BP: Are any of the characters or incidents in the book based on your own life experience?
SF: The incidents and characters are all made up. But as an African American, I grieve, as many of us do, especially for what is happening to our boys in regards to violence and murder. So it is not such a big leap to take their hurt and give it a face.
BP: There is quite a bit of death and loss in the book. What message are you trying to send to your readers regarding this?
SF: Bang! is what happens when the six o'clock news goes off. Night after night we watch the news and see families who have lost loved ones via violence. We eat our dinner, shake our heads and keep on moving. But for families that have lost loved ones, life is never the same. Bang! is a reminder that what is happening is not right and that we should be speaking up about it, and a reminder to me that those who are lost should not be so easily forgotten.
A little while back, I was speaking to a friend who is a principal in a Philadelphia school. One of her students had been murdered. She had gathered students in the auditorium to talk about it. She asked if anyone had known anyone else who had been shot. She said almost every hand went up. That's when I started asking students the same question after I read a chapter of Bang! to them. It stunned me no matter the city, many hands would go up, sometimes all of them. Some black, some white, some Hispanic. It let me know that there are many, many students in our schools who are grieving, or angry, at the very least hurting over loss, and I wondered, who is talking them through their pain? I'm hoping that Bang! will do that, as well as provide a platform for them to discuss the issue of violence and what it does to individuals and families.
BP: Mann is also good at drawing and painting. Why did you make him an artist?
SF: Writing isn't just about what you think should happen, it's about what your characters tell you should happen. I follow their lead mostly. But this I will say, I believe that there are no boxes for inner-city youth. That they are as big, as deep and as wide as we as writers make them, and we as parents and people believe them to be. So I am always writing characters that I hope readers see and say, Yeah, somebody living there can do that.
BP: One of your characters poses an interesting question in the book, asking why kids like him should work hard or go to school when they're going to die young anyway. Do you think this is the thought process of inner-city kids today? If so, what do you think can be done to change that?
SF: These are hard times for kids: shootings, parents and strangers taking off with kids, tsunamis, 9/11. Many of them, in the city and elsewhere, think, What is the point? I think you change that by letting them know that you will protect them. That you will keep them safe. You do that by trying to provide a stable home, whether you are a single parent or not. You do that by engaging them in activities . . . so they know you care. You do that by dreaming a future for them and with them, saying, When you go to college, When you finish ninth grade and volunteer for the summer, When you . . . It's scary out here, even for parents, but kids look to us to be a lifeboat, and it only takes one lifeboat to give you hope that you can make it to shore even though the waters are rough and rocky.