Fresh Voices: Kelly J. Baptist

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Kelly J. Baptist, author of Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero!

What’s it like being a debut novelist? 

It’s very exciting to be a debut novelist! It kind of feels like I’m bringing a new baby into the world, so there’s a lot of joy and anticipation in seeing the great things that baby will do out in the world.

What inspired you to write ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO?

Isaiah is a continuation story; he first appeared in The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn, a short story in the Flying Lessons  and Other Stories anthology. I was originally inspired to write the story because I wanted to explore the gradual steps that might occur on the path to homelessness, and how a kid would process and chronicle that journey.

What were the challenges of reshaping your short story “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” from FLYING LESSONS into the novel?

Isaiah has had quite a journey! He started in 2011 as a full novel-in-progress, to transforming to a short story, and stretched out to a full-length novel again. One challenge with that was that since the short story was out, there were certain things that I could not change: names of people/places, things that had already happened, etc. Also, I had to juggle moving the novel forward from where the short story left off as well as crafting a story that could stand on its own, in case there are readers who haven’t read the short story.

Isaiah has a strong connection to poetry. Do you have a connection to poetry as well? What made you decide to include that element in the book?

Yes! I love poetry, and that is probably the kind of writing I did first as a young girl. Lots and lots of poems to my parents and friends. I loved rhyming words, and would often make handmade cards featuring my poetry. I think I get all of that from my father, who also loves poetry! I wanted Isaiah to express himself through poetry in the book because it shows he is connected to his father by their mutual love for words, but that he has his own style and own voice in that he loves poetry and his dad loved the story format.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

The most difficult part about writing Isaiah was plotting out where I wanted the story to go. I was used to writing by the seat of my pants (pantser!), but with Isaiah, I found it helpful to give myself more direction. The easiest part was continuing with Isaiah’s voice. I had the advantage of being able to listen to the audio narration of Chronicles, masterfully done by Adam Lazarre White. Listening to the short story always helped me stay in tune with Isaiah.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I think I identify with Isaiah’s mom the most. I haven’t been in her exact shoes, but I know what it’s like to have to grieve or be stressed and overwhelmed, but still have kids depending on you to be strong and hold it together.  I wrote her character the way I did not for her to be judged, but for readers to put themselves in her shoes and imagine how such a huge loss can really knock you down. I also identify with Sneaky, because like him, I did not play when it came to money when I was a kid. I had a little candy hustle at school, and I made two dollars a week gathering the trash at home!

There are many heroes in the novel.  Not just Isaiah.  How do you want your readers to think about the concept of “hero”?

I want readers to remember that heroes aren’t just the ones who do something big to “save the day”. Heroes save the small moments, like Ms. Marlee in the reflection room, Mr. Shephard at the library, and Rock at the barbershop. A kid is a hero when he or she goes from being someone’s foe to being a friend. Being resilient and persevering when giving up seems easier is definitely hero activity!

What do you want young readers today to take away from this story?

I want young readers to take away that everyone’s story is important; everyone deserves to exist and be treated with respect. You never know what someone else is dealing with, but if you take the time to learn their story, you will likely discover that you have much more in common than you think!

What are you currently reading?

I have a habit of reading multiple books at once. Right now, it’s Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams, House Arrest by K.A. Holt, and Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. My kids and I are listening to the audiobook version of Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee.

What are you currently writing?

I’m currently writing a middle grade novel-in-verse and a middle grade contemporary, as well as working on a few picture books.

Kelly J. Baptist

Kelly J. Baptist won the Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Memorial Fellowship for her YA novel-in-progress, Young. While visiting the Kerlan Collection, Kelly had the privilege of studying the dialogue techniques of the great Walter Dean Myers. Fast-forward a few years, and Kelly was fortunate enough to meet Myers at a literary event in Florida. A native of southwest Michigan, Kelly enjoys life with her five children, who give her plenty of inspiration for writing. Though her busy family life often results in having to type with one hand, Kelly is committed to using the written word to inspire and transform lives. Find her online at kellyiswrite.com.