Feels like home

Local author finds success with debut novel
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Michael Hanlon

Leslie C. Youngblood didn’t set out to write a middle-grade novel. But Georgie, the character of an eleven-year-old girl, insisted on inserting herself into her adult literary fiction. She showed up in Youngblood’s first published short story in 1990 and even made an appearance in her MFA thesis. Georgie wanted to be heard. Youngblood says that it was as if G-baby (Georgie’s nickname) was telling her, “Every time I’m a secondary character I steal the show!”

It was time to give G-Baby and her six-year-old sister, Peaches, the spotlight. They have that spotlight now in Youngblood’s debut novel, Love Like Sky.

Youngblood grew up in the Nineteenth Ward of Rochester but spent many years away. She worked as a columnist and assistant editor for Atlanta Tribune: the Magazine in the 1990s. Then she was the communication secretary for the office of the president of Morehouse College until she resigned in 2003 to pursue an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. After lecturing for a time at Greensboro and then Mississippi State University, Youngblood became an assistant professor of creative writing at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. But in 2013 she felt a deep need to write full time.

“I resigned when I realized that I was becoming a ‘teacher who writes’ instead of a ‘writer who teaches.’ I took customer service gigs so that the writing would be the priority. I couldn’t make it a priority while I was teaching. Some writers can do both; I hadn’t mastered that.”

She moved back home to Rochester in 2015 to work on Love Like Sky.

In the spring of 2016, Youngblood attended the Color of Children’s Literature Conference and finished her manuscript of Love Like Sky. By July of that year she had secured an agent. They sent it out to the well-respected Disney-Hyperion publishing house, and it landed on the desk of senior editor Laura Schreiber in the winter of 2017.

“It’s so rare to meet a character and be introduced to a voice that feels like a kid you knew when you were a kid. They felt like people I knew,” says Schreiber. “I felt like they were real-life characters, so consequently their struggles and their pain and triumphs felt so real.”

Disney-Hyperion published the book in November 2018, and it now sits on bookstore shelves across the country.

Love Like Sky’s main character, G-Baby, is navigating life in a “blended-up” family where the parents are divorced and remarried. There’s a new stepsister (Tangie), a new house, and new family challenges. But through it all G-Baby and Peaches share a love that helps them both through the transition. G-Baby contemplates what sisterhood means when Peaches asks:

“‘…do you think Tangie don’t like us ’cause her real sister’s in heaven?’

That question almost knocked me off the bed. Took me a minute to figure out what to say, since I’m supposed to have all the answers. That’s what it means to be a big sister, and why I want one of my very own.”

The bond between siblings is a compelling theme in Youngblood’s book and is rooted in her own relationship with her brother Samuel C. Griffin. Griffin was murdered in 2010, and the writing process was a way for her to cope with her grief.

“There was that need to connect with siblings, and G-baby was saying ‘Put me in! Put me in!’ It wasn’t autobiographical, and it wasn’t about my brother, but I do think that sibling connection is there.”

Love Like Sky gives the reader a peek into the inner workings of a tween mind as G-Baby deals with everything a typical girl her age faces every day—difficult friendships, first crushes, and a little bit of adventure, too. The book also touches on some tough topics, including current events like the murder of Trayvon Martin, serious illness, divorce, and grief. Youngblood handles the entire book with a skill and tenderness that makes the book a joy to read for all ages.

Monroe Community College Professor Tokeya Graham read an early copy of the book. “It made me cry. I was blown away,” Graham says with true emotion. “The themes are universal. So many families are blending, and many families have experienced loss.”

Graham also points out that Love Like Sky appeals to adult as well as young readers. “The best coming-of-age stories are the ones that take us back to where we were or even where we are.”

Schreiber agrees. “As adults we’re empathizing with the main character, G-baby, and her dreams and her relationships and everything that she cares about, but we’re also kind of seeing her through the adult perspective. And the adult characters are strong, and we’re empathizing with them as adults and how they feel toward their children. I feel like it’s universal, and no matter where you are, you find an emotional touch point with all of the characters. It’s just a powerful family story.”

Youngblood and Disney just closed their first foreign rights deal, and Youngblood is finishing the second book in the Love Like Sky series. The book is scheduled for release at the end of 2019 and, while it is a sequel, it can be read as a stand-alone novel, too. Graham also says that the Women’s Foundation of Genesee Valley purchased 600 copies for girls participating in its “Voices of Experiences” after-school reading program.

Youngblood worked hard for the day she would see her book released by a leading publishing house and didn’t doubt that someday she’d see her work come to fruition.

“I’ve wanted it for so long, and now that it is here it feels like home.”

Christine Green is a freelance writer, teacher, and writing coach. Visit christinejgreen.com to learn more.

Categories: Christine Green, Current Issue – Grow