Readers of all ages, get ready to catch a rising star. David Barclay Moore’s electric debut, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, is a middle-grade must-read as vibrant and variant as the thrumming thoroughfare where it unfolds: Harlem’s 125th Street.
“If Harlem was a human body, then 125th would be its pumping heart, throbbing all the time,” writes Moore, who grew up in suburban Missouri and moved to Harlem in adulthood. There, he taught English and language arts, worked as a communications coordinator for Harlem Children’s Zone and other nonprofits, and strove to represent the community in photographs, film, and fiction.
“I’ve always been concerned about voices that are unheard, in our country, in our world,” Moore says. “Having lived and worked in Harlem for so many years, I encountered a lot of the effects of that underrepresentation firsthand.”
With The Stars Beneath Our Feet, “I wanted to give black kids another story that they could identify with. Not all black children live like Lolly,” he says of the book’s preteen protagonist, “but I wanted to speak to the experience of a certain segment of our population that does.”
Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul, a talented 12-year-old of Trinidadian descent, lives with his mother in the St. Nick projects. They’re grieving his older brother, Jermaine, who was shot and killed in a Bronx nightclub on Halloween.
“What I couldn’t get out of my skull was the thought of their rough, grimy hands all over my clean sneaks,” the book begins. “What I couldn’t get out of my heart was this joy-grabbing stone I felt there. Partly because of these two thugs trailing me now, but more because I knew Jermaine wouldn’t be here to protect my neck this time.
“He would never, ever be coming home,” Moore writes.
For Christmas, his mother’s girlfriend, Yvonne, a custodian at a famous toy store, comes home with two trash bags full of Lego bricks. Lolly’s long-term hobby is assembling kits, whose instructions he always follows to a T; but his best friend Vega thinks he should use his imagination this time.
An older friend, Steve, gives him an architecture book for inspiration.
“I feel really strongly about exposing yourself to different influences,” Moore says. “Oftentimes, it comes out in work that you do or how you relate to people, your outlook on life, so that’s one of my favorite ideas from the novel and a personal ideal for me. It’s one of the ways I approach my life and work.”
Building his own colorful, creative world becomes one way Lolly approaches his grief.
“I was creating my own new world and getting lost in it,” he writes. “Just being here with my Legos, building, I could almost feel my brother with me. Like he was actually in this room, watching over me. I could really feel someone.”
The project soon outgrows the apartment, and Lolly gets permission from Mr. Ali, a social worker at his after-school program, to rebuild in a vacant storage room. His creation attracts admirers and an imitator, Big Rose, a loner and savant.
All Moore’s characters are ample and essential. They are “vibrantly alive,” Kirkus writes in a starred review, “reconstituting the realness that is needed to bring diverse, complicated stories to the forefront of our shelves.”
“One of the things I was really involved with while writing,” Moore says, “was trying not to make it so much about the now—to write something that, years from now, children could read and benefit from. Something that deals with universal truths.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.