BFMY Special: Bluford Series Retrospective – Meet The Author

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The Bluford Series has touched many lives from the teens of 2002.  We all love Bluford. Its characters and the stories immerse us in the lives of the students of Bluford High School. We have to be very thankful for the team that put the series together from the writers (Anne Schraff, John Langan, Peggy Kern, D.M. Blackwell, Ben Ailrez, Karyn Langhorne Folan and Paul Langan) to the Publishers and creators, Townsend Press. They made our teenage years great and they are continuing to do so with the current generation.

Growing up with the series (starting with The Bully), It was a privilege to interview a member of the writing team. The following is an interview with Paul Langan author of ‘The Bully’, ‘The Gun’ and several other books in the series:

What is the Bluford Series in two words? 

Two words! Are you serious? So many responses come to mind at once. Here are a couple:

Struggle & Redemption, Real Life.

How did you become involved in the Series?

Back in 1997, I was working a non profit in Philadelphia coordinating a summer reading programme for 9th graders. The goal was to keep teens reading over the summer so their skills would be sharp for the next year. We got book recommendations from high school teachers and made the titles available for free, to our students. Guess what happened? The teens in my group said “no thanks!”  They didn’t want to read the books that teachers recommended, even though they were free. This made some teachers believe that the students didn’t want to read at all.

All of us at Townsend Press didn’t agree. We felt that perhaps the problem was the books, not the readers. We thought we if presented different books – stories that were real and meaningful to student we know – we’d get a different result.

This idea sparked the Bluford Series. It didn’t happen overnight. It took a few years of searching, writing, revising, and agonizing, to bring the books into the world. But bring them we did!

What were your motivations for becoming a part of the Series?

My initial motivation was simple: the create books that my students – 8th & 9th graders from Philadelphia – would WANT to read.  At the time, there were very few Young Adult books set in inner city America, let alone a series that featured non white protagonists. If you were a black or Latino teen, you simply were not represented in a series at all. This was unacceptable!

How could educators claim reading is relevant if they presented books in which their own students and communities did not exist? It was clear that publishers were ignoring inner city teen, and it was just as true that many teens were returning the favor – and ignoring the books that were published.

Another factor was access. In the late 90’s – and this is even truer now – there were few, if any, book stores in inner city Philadelphia. Economics plays a part here too. In parts of North or West Philly times were tough. If you’re worried about paying bills and keeping food on the table, there’s little available cash to spend on books. For some, the only option was libraries. But even they were underfunded too and they still are.

So the result of all these issues was that inner city America simply was off the publishing grid. Fantasy stories and science fiction were plentiful, but what about realistic fiction for urban youth? it was all but non-existent. My motivation with the Bluford Series was to change this AND let kids in cities nationwide know that their stories mattered. Their experiences are important and worthy of books. They deserve to be in print alongside other stories. they belong in the center of the action – not on the periphery. They belong on the covers, too.

So we published the Bluford Series and gave it out to schools in Philadelphia to see what readers thought, it was incredible! Schools couldn’t get enough books. They couldn’t keep them on the shelves. Teachers called saying they’ve never seen so many people reading and talking about books. It was, some said a reading revolution.  I think a part of the publishing world was asleep back then, and the Bluford Series helped wake it up. It also encouraged publishers to support other writers doing this work. Look around today and you’ll see many exciting books out there for diverse young adults. I think the Bluford Series helped us reach this point. This makes me proud.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself as well as your history within the series?

Everyone asks how is it that I can write these books. These questions often become more pointed when people learn I am a white guy. Many readers don’t know this and are surprised by it. I take this shock as a compliment. It means the stories ring true, and it also shows that some things are universal—they cut deeper than skin and go right to the heart, a truth you feel in your bones.

My truth is that I am the product of a single mom from North Philly. My father wasn’t present in my childhood, and I moved often enough to know what it was like to be the outsider in school, the new kid, the target of bullies. Eventually my mother married and had a second child. My new stepfather was a good man, but I had trouble as a teen accepting his authority. It took years but just as our relationship was really starting to grow, he died of a heart attack. I was 18 and forced suddenly to be the man of the house and something of a parent to my little sister.

There are more stories than I can fit here, but I can say that my personal experiences influence my writing. I am drawn to the struggles teens contend with each day. I am drawn to young adult characters who wrestle, like I did, with adult problems, who face situations where “the right” decision isn’t clear or easy or popular, who are in moments where each choice is a messy mix of good and bad. My characters aren’t perfect (who is?). They make mistakes. They can be hurtful, but even when they are wrong or mean, they have in them something redeeming and good. Look at all my books and you’ll see this playing out in different ways—with Tyray or Darrell or Martin or Darcy. This is life. As a writer, I felt I didn’t need to look to science fiction or fantasy to find epic struggles worthy of books. They are all around us. They fill the hallways of our schools. I try to write about them. I leave it to readers to tell me if I get it right.

Who are your writing (authors etc.) influences?

I think, for me, this is as much a question of what as it is who. If you ask me important influences in my writing, I’d say these:

Philadelphia. Philly teaches you a mindset, what we call a blue-collar sensibility. We root for underdogs and we honor “heart” and passion. This mindset is in the Bluford Series.

Early 90’s hip hop. The love of language, the narrative lens, the struggle on the streets, the storytelling all struck me at a time I was exploring the idea of writing. An example from1992: “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock & CL Smooth. It is like a Bluford novel rolled into 4 minutes, full of story and insight and melancholy—and beauty too.

Comic books, Stephen King novels, The Lord of the Rings—all stuff I read in middle school to distract me from my personal troubles. I remember in fifth grade lying to my mother and saying I had the flu so I could skip school and read Tolkien’s The Return of the King. I stayed up all night waiting for those hobbits to toss that ring into the fire!

Later influences include two creative writing teachers who pushed me in very different ways. One, Irene Feinberg, was a childhood survivor of the Holocaust. Her arm still bore the number that had been tattooed on her by the Nazis. Her hair was coiled in a silvery bun on her head that, if unwrapped, reached down to the ground. Her captors had once shaved her head, so in defiance she’d vowed never to cut it again. She knew I struggled in school and she kept an eye out for me. The whole time I knew she had been through the worst of humanity and yet—despite all the horror she’d experienced—she was able to find joy and beauty in the world. It was a lesson that I think informs each book I write. My second teacher, Justin Cronin, is a successful novelist today. His class focused on the craft of storytelling and really pushed me to dig into characters and scenes and situations to make them resonate for readers. I am blessed to have had such powerful teachers.

Nonfiction influences include Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), Geoffrey Canada (Fist Stick Knife Gun), Ron Suskind (Hope in the Unseen), and Jonathan Kozol (Savage Inequalities). Each writer focuses on the challenges young people endure in inner city America. These writers have famously captured some of the backdrop you’ll see playing out in Bluford High School. They also argue that our youth deserve more from the schools and communities that serve them. I share this belief and try to make that case in the Bluford Series.

What were your direction for the series? And How does it differ from other books you’ve written?

 The Bluford Series books were the first books I wrote. I started off just editing and assisting with them. But when my publisher decided to do a story about bullying, I tried my hand at writing one. This became The Bully, and it is still the most popular book in the series. As the books became more and more successful, I kept expanding them. Today there are millions in print, but there are still so many stories that have not been told, books waiting to be written. I think the initial mission for the Bluford Series still holds, and I see many characters who are waiting impatiently to take the stage. I want to give them that chance, and I am happy to work with other great writers who have joined Team Bluford to help me do this. I have other stories I want to tell that may take me out of the Bluford Series for a time too. We’ll see.

What is your favourite thing about what you do?

First off, I am blessed to have a job that allows me to tell stories for a living. This is a good gig to have! I enjoy the stories I write. I root and ache for the characters and look forward to seeing them grow and change (though I feel guilty for what I put them through). There is an exhilaration, too, when you dig deep as a writer and reach a moment when you’re connecting with something bigger than yourself—the moment in which the story is singing its own truth and you as a writer are trying to get out of the way. Not every writing day is like this (some are excruciatingly difficult), but when they are, it is an indescribable magic.

But more than all this is the response from readers. I have seen so many open up about their wounds and experiences, the scars they carry—and their hopes too. When I started writing, I had no idea readers would connect so powerfully with the books. But when readers start telling you about what they have seen or endured or what they now imagine as possible, it is holy and sacred. I feel so privileged to do this work. There are millions of young people out there who need to know they aren’t alone, who have witnessed things no one should have to see, or who are just looking for a connection that is real, that makes them feel something true and authentic. For those kids, the Bluford Series is a comfort. For others, Bluford is a catalyst that makes them want to keep reading or even start writing a book of their own!

When I start a new Bluford novel, I say a kind of prayer that the story will go into the world and do some good. I recently returned from a school visit where one teacher said that the Bluford Series delivers hope to teens who are struggling. As a former struggling teen, I almost fell over when she said those words. That is definitely my favorite thing. Writing books that matter for readers that matter. For this writer, it doesn’t get any better.

Do you have any books that you have released outside the series?

I have no novels outside the Bluford Series—yet. I have published essays and written an anti-bullying book, and my writing appears in number of textbooks as well.

Where would our readers be able to purchase your books as well as the Bluford Series? 

The easiest place to go is through my publisher, Townsend Press. But the books are also available through B&N (Barns & Nobles), Amazon, etc. Bluford eBooks are also available through them, as well as through GooglePlay and the iBookstore.

What words of wisdom would you offer young writers and fans of the Bluford Series?

Observe, listen, watch, read, and write. For subject matter, start with what is important to you. Your passion and knowledge will motivate you and be apparent to your readers. Remember, writing is an art. Your challenge is to create stories that are so vivid and real that readers can see them in their minds. It takes practice to get good at this. So read writers that do this for you. And then write, write, write! You cannot succeed unless you show up and start working.

What can we expect from you and the Bluford Series in the future?

The Bluford Series, as readers know, is very much still in progress. Characters are going through high school, and most of them are sophomores and juniors. Many are in the midst of unresolved conflicts that are still unfolding. Future books will explore these conflicts and go deeper, introducing new characters and carrying ideas further. Hakeem and Darcy, Cooper and Tarah, Martin and Vicky—all of them have more stories to tell. Stay tuned.

There you have it. The words of the man who is a part of Townsend Press and is one of the must influential books series in the US. With a little probing maybe they will bring their stories to the teens of Europe, who knows.

For more information about… you know what? I’ll let Mr Langan tell you .

Do you have any social media pages you want to share? 

I do, but I confess I find those pages distracting. All writing comes from the same source, right? So if you are writing for Twitter and Facebook, you’re not writing your book. I often go for weeks at a time without looking at my Twitter or Facebook pages. But you can find me on Twitter at @paul_langan. You can also find a page for me on Goodreads. There are 100,000 Bluford Series fans scattered on different FB pages, but there is an official Bluford FB page 

There you have it. That worked out quite nicely. You have the info now go check it out! 

Oh note: I haven’t finished the Retrospective yet. There is still a bit more to come. Stay tuned.

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