Black History Month – An Interview with Chrystal D. Giles, Author of Take Back the Block; On Writing Gentrification, Activism, and Cool Protagonists

Our Friend is Here! Black History Month – An Interview with Chrystal D. Giles, Author of Take Back the Block; On Writing Gentrification, Activism, and Cool Protagonists

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.

If you love middle-grade stories that tackle social justice and activism, then friend, meet Take Back the Block. You may have seen me yelling and proclaiming my eternal love for this book; a book about a young Black boy who comes face-to-face with his neighbourhood at risk of gentrification. I love this book with my whole heart, and it’s a book that I will be recommending (or, have been recommending!) for many years to come.

Take Back the Block is an incredible book – and if you haven’t read it yet but you’re interested, then I’m pleased to tell you that I have Chrystal D. Giles, author of Take Back the Block. After I finished reading her book, I absolutely had to have Chrystal visit us – her book was so good and I wanted to know more about her creative process! Chrystal visits us as an elephant, holding up a sign that says ‘take back the block!’

And because I want you all to read this book, I’m going to introduce this book to you all. Commit the book cover to memory, friends, because you will want to pick this up next time you visit a bookstore or library!

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles

Brand-new kicks, ripped denim shorts, royal-blue Supreme tee—Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That—and hanging out with the crew (his best friends since little kid days) and playing video games—is what Wes wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a powerful developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks—the neighborhood Wes has lived in his whole life, everything changes. The grown-ups are supposed to have all the answers. But all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known without a fight. He’s always been good at puzzles and he knows there must be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it…before it’s too late?

Exploring community, social justice, family and friendship with an irresistibly deft and relatable touch, Take Back the Block introduces Wes, a 6th grader readers will fall in love with and asks what it means to belong, to a place and a movement, and to fight for a cause you believe in.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Bookshop | Blackwells | Book Depository

Author Interview: Chrystal D. Giles

CW: Hello Chrystal! A huge and warm welcome to The Quiet Pond; it’s so awesome to finally have you visiting us here today and I am so excited to talk to you about your debut! But first, for all our friends who are just meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Chrystal: Hi CW! I’m so happy to be here; thanks so much for having me!

I’m an author of books for young people. I was born, raised, and reside in Charlotte, NC. I am a wife and mother to an awesome five-year-old son.

My journey to being a writer is a little unconventional and honestly not something I ever predicted for myself. My formal education is in accounting and I’ve worked in various areas of finance throughout my adult life. I did have a deep love of books as a young child that was reignited when I started preparing for my son’s birth in 2015. Soon after he was born, I became very passionate about finding books that represented him and Black families like ours. I was sad to realize that there just weren’t very many books that reflected us, so I took a huge chance and set out to write stories with Black children at the center.

CW: Take Back the Block, your stunning middle-grade debut, released earlier this year. Congratulations! What I loved about Take Back the Block was how you explored gentrification – which is quite a big but important topic – and wrote this really approachable story that breaks down why it’s a topic we should care about. Is there a particular place or community that has inspired Take Back the Block and its focus on gentrification?

Chrystal: Thank you, that means a lot!

In short, no and yes. Kensington Oaks (where the story is set) is not a real neighborhood and I can’t say it’s directly based on a real place. It is however, based on a combination of neighborhoods in my hometown of Charlotte, NC. 

My city, like many cities across America, is experiencing gentrification and the displacement of marginalized people. Years ago, I started to notice whole communities being wiped away, I really became troubled by the thought of what happens to the children and families when these neighborhoods are transformed.
I couldn’t get that worry out of my mind so I decided to write a story that centered on the up-close view of a community fighting to remain whole.

CW: What I also really liked in Take Back the Block is that you brilliantly interweave all these different parts of the main character’s life into one cohesive and holistic story – we see subplots that explore friendships and how they change over time, police violence, family life, and also the main character’s growth and learning. What was the place you were writing from when you wrote and explored these different topics?

Chrystal: I really worked hard at weaving in so many components. While editing an early draft of this story I asked one of my critique partners if I was trying to do too much. She very earnestly said, “No!”

I wrote this story from a place of frustration, anger, and sadness but also from a place of obligation, hope, and joy. It was such a complicated combination of emotions and quite honestly, it is a true picture of the Black American experience.

Black people don’t have the privilege to exist inside of a silo with one problem; we are often maneuvering through and managing many different challenges at once, all while trying to remain hopeful

CW: Wes Henderson, the main character of Take Back the Block, is probably the coolest main character I’ve read in a long time and I think readers will love him as much as I did! What did you enjoy the most when writing from Wes’s perspective?

Chrystal: I’m so happy Wes resonated with you! I really enjoyed adding each layer to his personality and then writing with each of those perspectives in mind. And while Wes is definitely cool, he’s also flawed, which I love. 

I layered his personality by starting at his core. I knew he needed to be a light-hearted character with a certain amount of funny and style. I also wanted to make him a reluctant activist–a regular kid, with regular kid concerns. Wes also has a certain amount of privilege in comparison to his friends, and before he comes to that realization he has moments of selfishness.

I hope all those layers make him appear on the page as a fully realized character.

CW: Activism is a huge focus point in Take Back the Block and I really enjoyed Wes’s journey as a young activist. What does activism mean to you personally?

Chrystal: I believe activism is frontline work at dismantling oppressive systems. I know that feels large and huge and like it should only be reserved for a certain level of service but the truth is, we can all serve our communities without stamping that work with a title.

As a Black person, activism and the act of speaking out against injustice is something that is deeply ingrained in our culture. And while I still struggle to call myself an activist, I do serve my community and have since I was a young person. Writing this story actually helped me find more value in that service.

CW: I feel like the ‘hearts’ of Take Back the Block were (1) activism and (2) Wes being a young kid going through young kid things and I loved how, combined, the story was so down-to-earth. What do you hope readers, especially young budding activists, take away from Take Back the Block?

Chrystal: I hope this story inspires readers to walk away with the knowledge that their voice matters! It doesn’t take a huge cause or a large group—it takes one person, one voice. Don’t be afraid to speak up, speak out, take action!

CW: Take Back the Block is, again, truly such a spectacular debut, and I am so excited to see what you write next! What are you working on? Can you give us any hints?WIPs?

Chrystal: I am editing a stand-alone contemporary middle-grade novel out in 2022 with Random House. It isn’t titled yet, but I will give you a little hint…it is inspired by Takari’s character from Take Back the Block and the main character is trying to figure out his next move in a new place.

CW: This is a question I like to ask all my guests! What is a food that feels like ‘home’ to you – wherever or whoever that may be?

Chrystal: I love this question! And I have so many…hmmm, I’d have to pick a couple Southern classics, grits and cornbread.

About the Author

Chrystal D. Giles is a children’s book author and champion for diversity and representation in children’s literature. Her middle-grade debut, Take Back the Block, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and Kids’ Indie Next Pick. Chrystal was a 2018 We Need Diverse Books mentee, and her poem “Dimples” appears in the poetry anthology Thanku: Poems of Gratitude (Millbrook). Chrystal lives outside Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and son.

Find Chrystal on: Website | Twitter | Instagram

2 thoughts on “Black History Month – An Interview with Chrystal D. Giles, Author of Take Back the Block; On Writing Gentrification, Activism, and Cool Protagonists

  1. I really need to read this book. There are several neighborhoods in my area facing challenges from gentrification and I feel at such a loss about how to support the displaced communities. I don’t expect Take Back the Block to give me all the answers, but maybe it will give me new ideas!

    Liked by 1 person

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