[Image description: A mixed-media paper/photo/foil collage featuring a child wearing a toy astronaut helmet and holding a rocket ship before landscape of lights and stars. Next to them, text reads: “He wondered about all the people there and what they were doing.” From The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, by Brontez Purnell & Elise R. Peterson.]
In this post: Celebrating Black boyhood in children’s literature with agency, complexity, and vulnerability.
FTC Disclosure: Dottir Press sent me a free advance copy of The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett so I could test it with my kids – my 6-year-old loves it. Books For Littles(BFL) is free and accessible for readers who can’t afford a paywall.
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The following text is excerpted from my interview with Brontez Purnell
Maker Spotlight: An Interview With Brontez Purnell
Author, musician, dancer, and director
[Image description: A hand-colored photo & paper collage featuring a young Black boy proudly presenting a freshly-caught fish. He’s surrounded by photographs of ducks in a pond and fluffy yellow and pink flowers. Text reads “Jacuzzi had just turned 11.” From The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, by Brontez Purnell & Elise R. Peterson.]
Even in our sadness, anger, or times of difficulty, we deserve the right to exist.
I’ve seen Black boys portrayed many different ways and I think we should have a million different portrayals of young Black boys and kids in general. It breaks up the burden of Black boyhood being this monolith or that there is only a handful of ways to portray a Black boy worthy of respect.
All my sons deserve respect! Good, bad, down-right criminal, and beyond. Understanding their stories is what brings our humanity back to us.
I’ve seen stories about us revised, rewritten, turned on its head, and sold back to us by people who I know have no intention in mind but ‘selling a Black product to its intended buyers.’
In the world of entertainment, I feel like all portrayals of Black manhood have to support a character that’s either really handsome, really funny, or really tough. I still have yet to see the overwhelming representation of what we actually are: very vulnerable and very complicated.
If the people who actually lived the life aren’t the ones writing, then we are doomed.
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[Image description: A hand-colored photo & paper collage featuring a mother feeding her baby and smiling. A wall of photographs and paintings fill the wall behind them. Text reads “‘Mama has to hurry, baby,’ she said, zipping by to put Jamaal down in his crib and change out of her work clothes. She always had the same routine. She tidied up the apartment here and there, gave Jamaal a bath, and prepared bottles for him. Then she headed up food for Jacuzzi, kissed him on the forehead, and asked about his day. ‘Mama’s leaving in a bit– I’m going to feed Jamaal, then you have to look after him,’ she said. ‘You are Mama’s big boy.'” From The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, by Brontez Purnell & Elise R. Peterson.]
I wanted a story that laid outside the margins of the nuclear family.
I know so many people who grew up as some form of latch-key kid, but I never found a lot of amazing literature around the subject. Of the literature that exists, the subject is rendered super abject.
I wanted to show a kid (particularly a young Black kid) whose existence on paper may seem a bit less than ideal but in practice, he is actually loved, accounted for, and has a sense of purpose in his life—despite his angst.
In a non-idealized childhood, some of us have to deal with the themes of adulthood well before our years. There are places where the talk does seem very frank or forward. I wanted to showcase a child as he reconciles being put into this very adult task of childcare while still working out the trouble of his own preadolescent psyche.
I put no special societal tax on two-parent families because as we know there are plenty of two-parent homes that are just as tumultuous than a single-parent home—if not more. I think all families (single or two-parent) should simply make their children understand that there are billions of people in the world and there are people different than them and that’s okay.
You might also like: Diverse Family Constellations In Children’s Books
[Image description: A hand-colored photo & paper collage featuring a young boy bundled up in a jacket and knit cap surrounded by falling legos and a bunk bed. Text reads “‘Jacuzzi considered the dense collection of multicolored plastic at his feet and decided it was a strange art installation, meant to be displayed on the floor.” From The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, by Brontez Purnell & Elise R. Peterson.
My mother had the very basic sex talk with me when I was about six.
I knew at that age that ‘conceived’ meant ‘to impregnate.’ We left it at that. Having this knowledge didn’t destroy my childhood.
There’s nothing in Jacuzzi that feels ‘risky’ or ‘challenging’ to me. How far anyone else goes with the explanation of how Jacuzzi was conceived is pretty much up to the parents reading this book. I don’t know if I was really hoping this book would spark any specific conversations.
Jacuzzi, himself, is a very real character. He is dealing with adverse yet common issues—so common that his story very much has the right to exist. Also, to be quite clear, this book is just as much for adults who feel like they never had their story of childhood represented as it is for children.
You might also like: Stop Lying To Your Kids About White Supremacy
[Image description: A hand-colored photo & paper collage featuring a baby sitting in a brightly colored quilt next to a pot of blooming flowers. The baby holds a bottle and looks up as if listening. Text reads “Jacuzzi looked at lil’ Jamaal. He smelled him. (He liked the way babies smelled.) ‘You’re my only friend,’ he whispered to the baby’s little head.” From The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, by Brontez Purnell & Elise R. Peterson.]
These topics are expressed closer to the way a child feels it: you can tell that something unfair is happening but you don’t have the language to explain it yet.
I know the voices of boys who had older family members in jail, and those of fathers urging sons to ‘be good and follow the rules’—those are the voices Jacuzzi hears at that age. The inequality of the prison system was a later conversation in my experience.
We experience classism, racism, and homophobia well before we have the language to explain it.
We make internal choices about these things before we even know we are making them. Boys like Jacuzzi can tell that something is not right—his self is his only vindication—and he daydreams about places and other states of being that are more ‘right.’
I don’t think the book explicitly confronts sex for pleasure or the prison pipeline. If anyone has a problem with the story they should make it a point to go fight income inequality or the prison industrial complex—two major societal factors that this child is experiencing—not the story of this kid.
To be honest, I think that if a person picking up this book has no conscience around the inequality of the prison industrial complex, a children’s book isn’t what they need to be reading to pull them up to speed.
You might also like: Where Babies Come From – Inclusive Kids Books About Sex & Reproduction
[Image description: An illustration & paper collage featuring the water deity Mami Wata (rough translation: Wisdom of the Ocean) accompanied by a large snake (a symbol of divinity). Text reads “Jacuzzi had taken out a library book about a god in Africa that controlled the wind and rain and this sparked an idea in his head.” From The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett, by Brontez Purnell & Elise R. Peterson.]
More by the makers of The Nightlife Of Jacuzzi Gaskett
Does your community offer books to reflect Jacuzzi’s experience?
If not, donate a book to your local library. Many don’t often have a budget to put stories by #OwnVoices makers such as Brontez Purnell, Elise R. Peterson, and small publishers like Dottir Press on the shelves.
What keeps me up at night?
Bills, crazy roommates, and mental worry for my life and my friends – will life ever not be fucked up? But even in my stress I take the fact of my worry as proof that I’m still very much alive, and I’m grateful for that.
I’m really excited for dinner later.
– Excerpted from an interview with Brontez Purnell via Dottir Press.
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