Local Author Finds Literary success
Leslie C. Youngblood of Rochester just had her second book published. It was selected by the Chicago Public Library ‘as one of the very best fiction books published for kids in 2021.’ She is now working on a new book
By John Addyman
How do you measure the expanse of love?
For Georgie, an 11-year-old girl in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the answer took some time in coming.
She was fielding a question from her 8-year-old sister, Peaches. They’re in their shared bedroom, thinking about their new father. Peaches wonders if her old dad, her biological father who has divorced their mom and has now remarried, still loves her.
“What if he runs out of love?” Peaches asks. She is concerned that all his love will be devoted to his new family.
“Love don’t run out like that,” Georgie answers. Peaches had asked the question before and now Georgie had an answer.
She tells Peaches that love doesn’t run out, like gasoline in a car.
No, love is like sky.
“If you keep driving and driving, gas will run out, right?” Georgie asks Peaches.
“That’s why we gotta go to the gas station,” Peaches responds, jumping from her bed to Georgie’s.
“Yep,” said Georgie. “But have you ever seen the sky run out? No matter how far we go?
“No, when we look up, there it is.”
George tells her that’s the kind of love their mom and original dad have for them. “Love like sky.”
“It never ends?” asks Peaches.
‘That was the voice’
That little conversation is a central gift that keeps on giving in Rochester writer Leslie C. Youngblood’s first hit book, “Love Like Sky,” published by Disney Hyperion in 2018.
And the love written on every page of that book, aimed at middle school kids and their parents, has opened up the sky for Youngblood, who is launching her career, which has been a long time coming, at the age of 55.
To hit the “launch” button on that shiny new career, Youngblood and Little, Brown Young Readers released her second novel, “Forever This Summer,” in July.
“That book is still so new,” she said in November. “It’s like a 4-month-old baby.”
Another book is coming, part of the deal with Little, Brown.
Youngblood, leaning heavily on southern family traditions, introduces Georgie in “Love Like Sky” as an important character. She first heard the voice of Georgie after the unspeakable tragedy of her brother’s murder in a robbery.
“When I was grieving for my brother, I was open to this little voice that just kept coming to me,” Youngblood said. “Georgie is one character in “Love Like Sky,” but I had never thought of making her a primary character. It was like that moment when a kid runs up and says, ‘Coach put me in, I can do it!’”
“That was the voice. She came to me and said I should write it in this book. That’s how that came about. Most people don’t trust that voice, but I did. I said to myself, ‘Hey, this voice is so strong.’ I finally trusted her to be the story,” she said.
Youngblood learned along the way what so many successful people have gone through, there’s a lot of work, a lot of rejection, a lot of different paths to take to find yourself.
Born in Bogalusa, Alabama, where her novels take place, she was brought to Rochester when she was 5 years old.
“My mom didn’t want me to go to school in Bogalusa because it was a very segregated town, it was known as ‘Klanstown USA,’’’ she said.
Young Leslie went to schools 17 and 6 in Rochester, and as part of the Urban-Suburban program, found herself attending West Irondequoit High School.
“We were living on Wilder Street. I had to travel downtown on a city bus, and then we took a bus out to Irondequoit. There were only a handful of black students at that time. We had something called the Embryo Club, similar to a black student union. Now that I think back, that was very radical. The founder, Mr. Duggins, knew we needed something. Some people were receptive about us being in West Irondequoit, some people were not, I didn’t have a choice in the matter, that’s where my mom wanted me to go,” she said.
Irondequoit is important to Youngblood.
“I made lifelong friends that I still keep in touch with,” she said. “My teacher, Mrs. Christoff, told me, ‘Hey, whatever you do, whatever career you choose, I think you should write.’ In her class, she set us in our seats alphabetically, but she always seated me in the front. Everybody could tell she really liked me. Mrs. Christoff passed away five years ago. I wish I could have told her how much I appreciated her.
‘I thought I was going to have a career in fashion design. I loved to write, but never did anyone tell me that was something to aspire to, to be a writer. I didn’t know any writers.’
“I thought I was going to have a career in fashion design. I loved to write, but never did anyone tell me that was something to aspire to, to be a writer. I didn’t know any writers.”
She saw the movie, “Mahogany,” “and there was Diana Ross playing a character called Tracy Chambers, a fashion designer. My mom could sew. I could sew. My grandma could sew. So it all came together. But when I told Mrs. Christoff about my fashion design dreams, she told me, ‘Maybe you can write for a fashion design team.’ I’ll never forget what she said.”
Youngblood then began a struggle to land a college degree. Mom shipped her to Atlanta and Morris Brown College. “I’d never been away from home before and here I am in Atlanta. I’m 19. Atlanta is booming and an explosive place to live. I had financial difficulties in college and ended up not finishing up at Morris Brown and went on this odyssey. It took me, to finish that four-year degree, approximately 11 to 12 years,” she said.
“All around us are ascendant women like 20-something Leslie Youngblood, customer service people, clerks and cashiers, bartenders and servers who work full shifts and then go to class and many manage a child as well, to get that degree and it takes an eternity,” she said. “I did night school and held two or three jobs.”
Then her friend, Nettie, handed her a copy of James Baldwin’s novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
“I read that book and everything fell together. This is no exaggeration. It changed my life. The very next day I changed my major. After all those years, I changed from fashion marketing to creative writing with a concentration on African-American studies and I have never regretted it,” she said. “I’ve always thanked Nettie for that. That’s pretty much how I set my sights on being a writer, a novelist, at that moment.”
She graduated from Georgia State University with a BA degree in English with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in African-American studies.
Her first job was as an assistant editor at the Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine. She had done some stories for the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, which got her the interview at the Tribune.
“I was in the interview and one of the assistant editors had a question and needed to interrupt my interview with the editor. They had a picture and they didn’t know who the person was. I asked to see the picture, and it was Wole Soyinka, I knew him off the bat: he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So they said, ‘Maybe she knows something,’” she recalled.
Youngblood next took a job as the communications secretary to the president of Morehouse College, and was now writing short stories outside of work.
“I was fascinated with that, pursuing a writing career. Every time I’d open a book, I’d read the acknowledgements and I repeatedly saw ‘MFA’ (Master of Fine Arts) and I said, ‘Hey, maybe I need to get one of these MFAs.’ I gathered my short stories and started to submit them. I left my cushy job at Morehouse College and received a full ride at Georgia State University’s English Department, where they offered me a full fellowship to attend; but, I ended up choosing University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which also offered me a chance to attend with a fellowship,” she said.
“At UNC Greensboro, for the first time, I was in school without the worry of finances. I had housing. I could really just concentrate on writing. I did that for two years straight and I was where I was supposed to be. That led to a lectureship,” she added.
She traveled to Ghana twice to teach and chaperone UNC students, but realized she needed to be on a tenure track to have a secure future. Lincoln University offered her exactly that and she moved again to teach in Missouri.
On Christmas Eve 2009 her brother Samuel Griffin was killed. She came back to Rochester and had to come to grips with a lot of things.
“I was already writing and had some successes with short stories, had won a few contests, I was working on novels,” she said. “The story of “Love Like Sky,” that voice, that young 11-year-old girl who was really close to her siblings, that voice came to me when I was grieving. I will always believe that it came to me then because I just needed that, missing my brother and that sibling connection, that concept of loving someone like the sky…that’s how I dealt with, still deal with, losing someone you love so suddenly. He was one of my biggest supporters.”
Youngblood went through the angst of the trial of the accused murderer and returned to Lincoln University and her teaching job.
“It was way too soon,” she said. “I couldn’t maintain my composure in my creative writing class. The first time I tried to teach my creative writing class, I told my students I was sorry about being emotional, and then I started to cry. But that allowed students to open up and understand that your writing could be cathartic.
“After that class, a student came up to me and she said, ‘I lost my twin brother just over the new year. Someone shot him, and this is my last year. My mom says that I should finish it out. If you can do it, I can do it.’ Oh my God, we just cried together. I had decided in my spirit, too, that this would be my last year at Lincoln. I just wasn’t going to be able to give my students everything that I could give, so it was time for me to step away. At my student’s graduation, in full regalia, she stepped out of line and gave me a hug. It was a wonderful moment. She said ‘Thank you.’ That was my last semester at Lincoln University. I resigned. I was dedicated to get my book to publishing. I had started “Love Like Sky.”
‘That was the moment’
Back in Rochester, Youngblood lived off her savings for a while and worked wherever she could find a job and still have time to write, the post office, customer service, “anything I could do to just stay home and write and I could focus, focus, focus,” she said.
She finished “Love Like Sky.”
Laura Peagram, a friend, asked Youngblood to bring “Love Like Sky” to the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference to get some advice. She took that advice, and within three months she accomplished something that she had been pursuing for years, she landed an agent, John Rudolph.
“That was a moment,” she said.
Some more polishing was due, then Rudolph and his staff got to work.
“At this point, I was working customer service somewhere downtown and I had my phone nearby. He called and said, ‘Hey, we got a bite.’ The first bite was Disney. We actually had a mini-auction because another publisher had also chimed in. I chose Disney because of the name brand and the editor, Laura Schreiber, actually loved the book,” she said.
Disney sent the first of four advance checks and Youngblood knew she was on her way: she was officially a writer.
Disney sent the first of four advance checks and Youngblood knew she was on her way: she was officially a writer.
Vashti Harrison was chosen as the cover artist and submitted a portfolio of choices to Disney, which chose what it liked.
“I had input on my cover: they had to consult with me,” Youngblood said. “The initial cover, when they sent it to me, I told them I liked it. But I was intimidated. Then I slept on it. And I said, ‘I really don’t like it’. Georgie was such a tiny girl on the cover. Her hair was different. It just wasn’t the Georgie I saw. The cover Disney chose made the book more ‘generic.’”
Youngblood got back to her editor at Disney, who also slept on it and the next morning, agreed with her.
Harrison sent her the nine different cover designs she’d painted and Youngblood found Georgie sweetly staring up from one of them, a little girl with big expressive eyes and a band-aid on her knee.
And the book rolled out in 2019. Awards rolled in. Scholastic Books put “Love Like Sky” on its book fair listing for five years. Georgie was now sharing her voice with many middle-schoolers and their parents and teachers.
It’s a voice that is a blend of the families Youngblood knows so well in Bogalusa and Rochester.
“The joy of my family propelled my writing because they are the people that when we’re just talking, we love to make people laugh. The way we remember people who have gone on is to tell stories.
Even when I was in Bogalusa, I did not know, as a child, what they must have been going through as far as racism. When they told us stories, it was never centered as ‘Oh, we’re having such a hard time.’ No, it was happiness, joy. It doesn’t mean that all the stories were always pleasant, it means that they knew how to tell us what they wanted us to know in a way that empowered us,” she said.
“Love is like sky. I’ve had kids come up to me and say, ‘I love my dad like the sky.’ That means everything to me,” Youngblood said.
More in store
The wider Youngblood family, all the sisters and brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, blends particularly well on evenings with a meal that begins with some Bogalusa seafood gumbo. There’s no TV those nights, just talking.
“I bring a lot of that to ‘Forever This Summer,’” she said.
Here Georgie isn’t a character, this is her book, telling a tale of two great adventures she’s decided to make her own.
“Forever This Summer” came out in July and Youngblood had a new publisher, Little, Brown, with more interest in her books now.
Georgie sorts through a lot of things young girls must figure out in “Forever This Summer,” including how to deal with her street-wise friend Markie, who is a very free spirit.
Links to family are front and center in “Forever This Summer,” with grandmother Vie being submerged in Alzheimer’s disease, just as Youngblood’s real grandmother had.
Links to family are front and center, too, in this book, with everyone grappling with grandmother and matriarch Vie, who is being submerged in Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s a bully that snatches memories away and doesn’t give them back,” Youngblood said. “It’s such a heavy subject. It is a kid’s book and I wanted to give them a rallying point.”
That instance falls near the end of the book and provides some relief in a beautiful moment.
“I took the most positive story I’ve heard, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s or dementia, when I would sit with her, she would always hear children singing and would always ask me, ‘Do you hear the children singing?’ And I would tell her, ‘Yes I do.’”
“Forever This Summer” is full of strong characters, and give Youngblood credit for painting the dimensions around those characters well enough that you could walk the streets with them and feel what the inside of the family-owned diner must be like. You see the folks who are along the way and understand fully the it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child concept.
Youngblood has more in store for her readers as this career of hers takes off.
“I have a lot going on in my life and I love it,” she said.
She attends conferences and book signings, speaking about her books. She attends children’s book fairs, does social media as well as virtual author visits, school visits, virtual teaching, workshops and conference presentations.
“I love the idea of adults reading with their children. I never had that with my mom. She didn’t have that kind of time. Now there’s a mother and daughter book club, “Beautifully Made,” that has featured both of my books in Rochester. The moms and daughters come together to read. I want to do more of that,” she said. “Monroe Community College English professor Tokea Graham was responsible for the Women’s Foundation of the Genesee Valley purchasing more than 900 copies of “Love Like Sky” in 2019 for their Voices of Experience after-school reading program.”
Youngblood said she wants to share her love for writing, reading, and just getting people older than 40 and 50 to understand they still have a story to tell, and they need to tell it.
She recently worked on e-books about Constance Mitchell and Dr. Walter Cooper for use in Monroe County schools. And just after Thanksgiving, Youngblood found out that “Forever This Summer” was chosen by the Chicago Public Library “as one of the very best fiction books published for kids in fourth through eighth grades in 2021.”
“Maya Angelou said, ‘Tell your story before you leave this earth, you shouldn’t die with a story inside you.’ I believe that,” said Youngblood. “People need encouragement to do that and I believe that’s one of my callings because I was not going to quit until I got published. That doesn’t mean you have to be published. Doesn’t mean you have to have a New York Times bestselling book.
Doesn’t mean you have to be published by Little, Brown or Disney. It means you tell your story. You pass your story on. Your story can help someone and I believe in that.”
Just listen to the Georgie inside you.