Joy Interviews the Magnificent Crystal Allen

I’ve known Houston author Crystal Allen for a while now, and she is not only one of my favorite humans but also incredibly talented, funny, generous, and all-around wonderful. Her books -- award-winning (including the Bluebonnet Award) middle grade and young reader fiction-- are hugely popular and her school visits are a thing of wonder. Ben and I had the good fortune to accompany her on a day of school events recently. Crystal teaches her student audience the basics of telling a story and does so with humor and wit and an infectious enthusiasm. Her characters are equally dynamic and often side-splittingly funny, but her commitment to creating stories with African American characters and their families is serious business, as you will see in our interview below.

I invite all of you reading this to read everything that Crystal has written. Start with LAMAR and move on to LAURA LINE and then to the MYA series, the third installment of which arrives this coming October from Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins. I am certain you will be as big a fan as we are!

Here’s our interview!

Joy: I fell in insta-love with your first middle grade novel, HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON HIM A BUBBA-SIZED TROPHY. The novel is funny and endearing and Lamar is both sharp-tongued and big-hearted, and as you know I adore this book, its heart and its humor. Plus there’s bowling! Can you tell us a little about how and why you created Lamar and what about him has appealed so winningly to so many readers?

Crystal: Oh Mylanta! I created Lamar out of a desire to provide a character of color doing something where race did not drive the story. I wanted readers of all backgrounds to laugh, cry, and relate to Lamar as he worked his way through life's challenges. I believe he appeals to many because Lamar is so transparent. What you see is ALL you get! And watching him try to turn his life from "dud to stud" is just so funny. I also believe it was important that my readers see Lamar's consequences for his actions, even if they understood why he did what he did.

Joy: As you just touched on above, you and I have talked at length about the books you write and the sense of responsibility you feel as an African-American author writing African-American characters. Can you speak some more to that? And perhaps address that within the context of the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS and #ownvoices movements that are so important in the kidlit universe?

Crystal: I've lived in several states, but spent a majority of my young life growing up on a farm in Indiana. As a child, the first book I remember receiving from the school librarian was CHARLOTTE'S WEB (CW). Of course, most people will agree that CW is a very good book. In looking back at that time, I believe that librarian was trying to give me a book that looked like me, and that was the best she could do since there were no books about little African American girls living on a farm at that time. I will forever be grateful to that librarian for her efforts, and reading CW definitely made a difference in my life, but now it's time for me to make a difference in a child's life. As an African-American author, I want to give children an opportunity to see themselves in stories that actually reflect their lives. I want to write stories with young African-American children at the center, portraying themselves as normal, everyday, kids, doing normal, everyday things. All children need to know that they matter, and that their ethnicity can be portrayed in a positive way. I write contemporary fiction because that's the talent God gave to me. I want to use that talent to give boys and girls choices in their reading stacks. I want to use the distinct sounds of life the way I know it, and the way I hear it, and hopefully, my readers will know, hear, and understand my words.

Joy: Speaking of portraying identity in positive ways, your novel THE LAURA LINE deals with a main character whose grandmother has what she believes to be a former slave shack on her property, but of course, like all your novels, the book also deals with middle-school life, friends, and family. You have observed that the theme of the book is ‘Love Yourself. Love your Line.’ Tell us about that.

Crystal: I was around 11 years old when I first spotted that shack on grandma's farm. It was so well-hidden, fenced in by a family of trees. I asked my mom about it, and she told me that was her very first house, built by her male cousins, just for her. Mom took my hand, and said, "Come on, I've been waiting for this day to show you that house." It was crazy hot outside, and I really didn't want to be in the heat, but curiosity kept me walking. Mom and I stepped over barb-wired fencing, into the pig pen, around pig-made mud puddles, before we reached that little house, completely shaded by strong, tall trees. Mom climbed the steps, and couldn't get the door opened. As she jiggled the door, I looked around, and spotted a graveyard with wooden crosses, partially covered with twigs, webs, and...I'm not sure what else because to me, that was my cue to leave. I ran out of that pigpen, and never went back. Years later, my grandmother sold the farm, and a construction company came in and flattened that little house. That hurt me so badly. I remember thinking, "If I had only cared more, to be curious about my own history, and if I had loved my family more to see what things they left for me to see. How could that have changed my life?" I never knew what my mom wanted me to see, or what things were left there for me to pass on to my children. We never talked about that little house, or that day, again. I think maybe, she was waiting on me to start the conversation.

So, THE LAURA LINE was created to pay respect to all the women in "my line," the love inside that little house, and all of the historic things that I missed out on seeing, and maybe having. My heart's desire is that through my experience, and my words, I hope all girls, all readers, will understand the importance of loving themselves, and loving their ancestry line.

Joy: Switching gears a bit but staying on the theme of girl characters who believe in themselves, of course you know I’m also in love with your MYA TIBBS chapter book series. For those who aren’t familiar with the wonderful Mya, tell us a little about her and about your goals for this ongoing series-- which, by the way, is a huge store and school favorite!

Crystal: I'm in love with that fun-loving little cowgirl, too! Mya Tibbs is a boot-scootin', yippee-ki-yay kind of nine year old girl who loves everything country and western! She's loyal to her friends and family, loves her school, and does her best to make good decisions. However, those good decisions usually don't happen right away, leaving room for a hilarious journey lead by the Magnificent Mya Tibbs!

Joy: Well, Mya is certainly loveable and also very funny! You recently were honored with the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor in Children’s Writing, which obviously is well-deserved. Tell us about writing ‘funny’ -- about how you do it, why humor is important to you in your writing, and anything else you want to say about the topic!

Crystal: First, let me say that receiving the Sid Fleischman Award is an honor that I cannot describe in words. I'm full of words, but can't find the ones to describe this. I look at that trophy (and shine it) every day, realizing that it represents success for me. And I'm so grateful.

'Writing Funny' is so much fun. Sometimes I just crack myself up at the expense of my characters, and they can't do anything about it! That's what makes it even funnier! To me, humor is best served as a side dish, and so I try to give my readers giggles throughout the story. Humor is so universal that it can attract the avid reader, and the 'not so often' reader because most people love to laugh. To me, it's about writing a wonderful story, and then adding humor where there be potential for disaster. It's important for me to understand my character's personality, and the situation he/she faces before determining when is appropriate, and what kind of humor. To me, hurt and humor are brother and sister. I've managed to combine both of these emotions in my stories, and one always compliments the other. For instance, in 'Lamar,' he is definitely a funny guy, but when his brother gives him a horrible beat-down, and Lamar's holding that yellow-posted note that is now damaged, and that piece of paper reminds him of his mom's funeral - most people, who have previously laughed with him, are not hurting.

So, in writing humor, to me, it is knowing when to be funny, and when to keep a scene serious. It's understanding the possibilities for humor in your story by knowing your character, what he/she wants, why he/she can't get it, and ultimately, how he/she figures out how to resolve everything in a way that represents the character's personality!

Joy: What’s coming next for the fabulous Crystal Allen?

Crystal: The Magnificent Mya Tibbs 3 - MYA IN THE MIDDLE will launch in October of this year! Yee-haw!!!

Joy: Thank you so very much, Crystal!! We look forward to putting all your books in all of our customers’ hands!

How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy Cover Image
ISBN: 9780061992735
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Balzer + Bray - August 14th, 2012

The Laura Line Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062490216
Availability: BACKORDERED
Published: Balzer + Bray - June 7th, 2016

The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Mya in the Middle Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062839398
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Balzer + Bray - October 16th, 2018

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