The plot: a discussion among a select group of the most improved students with guest, Jason A. Spencer-Edwards, the author known among middle schoolers and teenagers alike for his realistic fiction books which often tackle challenges and teach lessons of inner-city, urban youth.
The moral: to speak to this group of students, many who come from hard life circumstances, and to send them the message that they too, could be educated, rise through the ranks and be anything they set their minds to.
Though these elements of literature normally vary in Jason Spencer-Edwards’ books, the message told to the group of 28 students on Friday, November 4 was the same as those in his books: never let your circumstances dictate who you are, and, learn from your mistakes.
Spencer-Edwards is the self-published author of young adult literature books such as “Jiggy,” a story which looks into the life of a thirteen year old boy forced to adjust to his new environment and encounters many obstacles. His other book, “Patrol Boy,” tells the story of a gang lookout whose brush with the juvenile detention system causes him to straighten up.
The Laurelton, Queens-based author often finds inspiration from his own life. Experiences he went through in school growing up and the many lessons he learned, are frequently placed into his novels.
“I base each character off of people that I know, who I’ve encountered,” he told the students. “You know these people, you’ve seen these people before.”
His books are cautionary tales, written to persuade students to do the right thing. And his aim is always to create characters which students can relate to.
A former paralegal, Spencer-Edwards turned to writing ten years ago when his colleague, Katelin Gresseau, told him he should write about his feelings on materialism in young kids.
He also noticed that many students of color weren’t into reading books on the reading lists and convinced the Department of Education (DOE) to purchase his books through rigorous word-on-the-street marketing and community service. The DOE approved his books for reading lists and more than 50,000 copies of his books can be found all over public schools in the five boroughs and Long Island.
A York College graduate, he and Gresseau, each put up $25,000 to found JASP Publishing and put out the first book, “Jiggy.” And his next book, “Goof Proof,” is due out soon.
“What I liked about them is they all have a moral to them,” said Principal Doris Lee. “I like the fact that the endings were not all happy — some ended up in Juvenile detention, they lost their parents’ money — every ending was realistic and the reading level was one that all the kids could comprehend.”
“Now here’s a book that they could have access to and have a discussion about,” she added.
Village academy, part of the Brian Piccolo Middle School 53Q, opened three years ago to meet the needs of at-risk youth. Besides events like author readings, students are also exposed to other events such as college tours, with an aim to put students on the path to success.
Overall 276 students are part of Village Academy, and the school is comprised mainly of African American and Hispanic youth.
Spencer-Edwards sat comfortably at the head of the conference room table, enjoying lunch and a laid back conversation with the students. The small, intimate setting was an activity planned by Principal Lee as a celebration of the most-improved students’ hard work and their growth, particularly in literacy and math courses.
Spencer-Edwards fielded questions from the students, some about the choices he makes when writing a book and others, aiming to find out the author’s own life story.
The conversation touched topics ranging from college life to the writing process.
For one student, Sade Robinson, the books really hit home.
“I can refer to what he said, growing up I’ve seen people get beat up, hurt, that’s the same way that he felt as he was growing up as a kid,” she said.
Another, Christian Montgomery, learned that you should always choose your friends wisely, from reading “Don’t Sleep.”
“It felt good to meet someone who actually wrote a book and that we actually had a live conversation with them,” said Lamar Hawkins.
Spencer-Edwards urged the students to continue with their studies and stressed that paying attention to the writing process they are learning right now can help them become published authors.
“We want you to have this love of reading and don’t let it start or end with just me,” he said. “Read all kinds of books, all kinds of authors from different backgrounds, cultures and time periods, because we know that once you read, you’re going to be ahead of the game.”
Safiah Richardson was inspired by his visit and his words.
She had always wondered if she would ever meet the author to the book, “Jiggy” while she was reading it for class.
“Finally meeting someone that actually feels how I do — to write books — is good,” she said. “He inspires me to write my own.”