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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at NYU chapter.

“Mid-Air” is a middle-grade novel written in verse by author Alicia D. Williams, and illustrations by Danica Novgorodoff, that explores the sensitive soul of a young Black boy struggling to fit into a world that wants him to grow up tough. 

In a time when girls learn to be anything they want and express themselves however they choose, young boys, particularly young Black boys, struggle when they don’t fit into a stereotypical masculine mold, and need to be offered alternative ways of moving through the world that are equally accepted. “Mid-Air” offers an example of what one young sensitive Black boy can represent to a whole new generation of boys. 

It’s the last few months of eighth grade and Isaiah feels lost. He thought his summer was going to involve him and his boys, Drew and Darius, hanging out, doing wheelies, watching martial arts movies and breaking tons of Guinness World Records before high school. But now, Drew seems to be drifting from their friendship, and though he won’t admit it, Isaiah knows exactly why: Darius is gone.

A hit and run killed Darius during a record-breaking long wheelie when Isaiah should have been keeping watch, ready to warn: “CAR!” Now, Drew can barely look at Isaiah. But Isaiah, already quaking with grief and guilt, can’t lose two friends. So, he comes up with a plan to keep Drew and him together­­­—they can spend the summer breaking records, in honor of Darius.

But Drew is not the same since Darius was killed, and Isaiah isn’t enough for Drew anymore–not his taste in clothes, his love for rock music or his aversion to jumping off rooftops. If only Isaiah could be less sensitive, more tough, less weird, more cool, less him, things would be easier. But how much can Isaiah keep inside until he shatters wide open?

Alicia D. Williams is the author of “Genesis Begins Again,” which received Newbery and Kirkus Prize honors, was a William C. Morris Award finalist, and for which she won the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award for New Talent; and picture books “Jump at the Sun” and “The Talk” which was also a Coretta Scott King Honor book. An oral storyteller in the African American tradition, she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

What do you think novels written in verse convey that can’t be told in prose? Why did you choose to write in this form? 

That’s a good question! Both forms have the capacity to tell brilliant and intricately layered stories. While prose doesn’t have a word count limit, the verse novel is told with an economy of words. This sparse language allows for extra space on the page, and this space is like silence, and it lends itself for readers to read in between the lines. And while both forms offer imagery, elegance and details, the poems are whittled down, making use of every single word. I think writing picture books helped to prepare me for the verse form.

Truthfully, I didn’t set out to write a verse novel. In fact, the first several drafts were in prose. Eventually, the character Isaiah began to speak to me, and his voice dictated the form. And with each revision, I got a deeper insight of which emotions, secrets and fears he wanted to share and what information he chose to withhold.

Most authors and editors say writing the second book is harder than writing the first. What stumped you while drafting? 

Writing the second book for me was indeed the hardest. It seemed like the authors I debuted with were beyond their second novels and already on their thirds and fourths. So, first I had to stop comparing myself with others and honor that everyone has their own writing journey. Secondly, I had to accept that fear was holding me back. My first book, “Genesis Begins Again,” was very well received and I put extra pressure to create the same success, repeat whatever magic or appeal that was in my debut. This anxiety paralyzed my creativity. Once I accepted my fears, I was free to be brave and explore a new novel. 

The skateboarding techniques and terminology were described so well in this book. Have you ever skateboarded? What made you decide to tie this activity with Isaiah’s personality? 

I did a little [skating] when I was younger. I tried to do everything my big brother did, and he would sometimes let me play on his board. For “Mid-Air,” it was a natural decision to have Isaiah be a skateboarder because I’ve known boys who fit the demographic and was inspired by them. I’d watch skaters hang out, flip on their boards and it’s a joy to watch. They don’t necessarily look like the type who would be shooting baskets or making touchdowns. They seem to not go with the crowd and instead do their own thing. There’s something empowering about that. Skateboarding is a whole culture. And Isaiah’s the type of boy that is not often represented in literature. A Black nerd kid who likes rock music and the grunge look. One who is expected to hoop and be good at sports because he’s tall. Isaiah, like so many skaters, is a creative thinker, and boarding is one of those ways he can best express himself.  And I love the parallel of Isaiah being an underrepresented character, and skateboarding being an unrepresented sport.

According to Booklist, “Mid-Air” tackles the “depiction of Black boyhood.” Were there any difficult scenes for you to write emotionally? 

Many scenes were hard to write because I wanted to use my characters to say what I was actually feeling, which meant many drafts were full of finger-pointing and on-point messages. I was angry, confused, and grieving, and all of these emotions needed to come out. In “Mid-Air,” Isaiah experiences a traumatic incident, and he could not process his feelings because boys are too often told to “be tough.” This conflict within himself and tension between his parents and his friend Drew. And finding a way to reckon with what happened to him and find a way to speak about it was hard on me; it was as if I was experiencing the trauma myself.

Your book emphasizes how “young boys struggle when they don’t fit in a stereotypical masculine mold and need to be offered alternative ways of moving through the world that are equally accepted.” Why do you think it is important to get “Mid-Air” in the hands of readers who are living in this world? 

Messaging for girls continues to expand and strongly encourages them to be anything they want to be, as they rightly should. Yet we raise boys to be strong and tough, don’t cry, be a man’s man and those messages remain the same, year after year. And when boys do try to expand the definition of masculinity beyond toxicity, they are accused of being soft or week, with attacks on their sexual identity even. The world constantly tells boys, and girls, who they should be and when kids submit to these narrow boundaries, they deny parts of themselves. Why do boys, girls—any of us—be pressured to hide ourselves for someone else who is hiding their self? We get lost emulating others and forget who we truly are or dream of being. I hope to give boys—and all my readers—the courage to be their authentic selves.

How does your experience as “an oral storyteller in the African American tradition” help your identity as an author? How do you think this applies to this book? 

I recall sitting in my graduate school’s lecture hall listening to a powerful storyteller, and the audience was wowed. The dean asked, “How can one capture that energy and put it on the page?” The storyteller couldn’t quite answer the question because it is a hard one to answer. Oral storytellers use body movement, facial expression, vocal range and expression, and eye focus to present dynamic and entertaining stories. While my processes may be different from project to project, me connecting with my characters, in the end, is the same. I aim to be present in the scene as a witness and write from there. With “Genesis Begins Again,” I was so close to the character that it was as if I became her and was living day-to-day with her emotions. I have to have a strong connection to the subject matter in order to write it. It’s true for even oral storytelling. The folktale had to resonate with me in order for me to be a teller of it. Same with my one-woman shows where I reenacted historical events and people. These experiences led me to think deeply on the stories I tell, how I tell them, and when to tell them. And as with other griots, storytelling for me is a spiritual practice. 

What are some important lessons you hope your writing conveys to a younger generation, especially if they have never picked up one of your books? 

It seems like my messages have all been the same. And that’s probably because of what storytelling has meant to me and what it has done for me. Books offered me laughter when I wanted to cry, healing when I was full of shame, and friendship when I felt lonely. Judy Blume and Maya Angelou offered me hope. And it is my goal to offer others that same gift. And my messages revolve around finding worth and value within ourselves: You are enough just as you are. You are not alone. You are stronger than you think. Be brave to define yourself for yourself. Define beauty for yourself. You don’t have to subscribe to the labels or boxes that people or society wants to assign to you. Be you. And I deeply hope my readers feel seen.

Thank you Alicia D. Williams for answering my questions! I have begun to read poetry-in-verse novels this year and they are so empowering to read. Thank you Beth Parker from Beth Parker PR for sending me an ARC of this highly praised “must-read” book.

Sabrina Blandon is an English major at NYU with a minor in creative writing. Avid reader herself and literary advocate, she has interviewed over 60 authors from New York Times bestselling ones to debut authors for Her Author Spotlight blog series for Her Campus NYU and Her Campus Hofstra. She loves exploring everything New York City has to offer and is a major foodie.