As Hollywood happenstance would have it, the catalyst for Jay Coles’ poetic and poignant debut YA novel, Tyler Johnson Was Here, can be traced back to a beloved sitcom spinoff about fictional, historically black Hillman College.
“A major plot point in A Different World is poverty and hardship in America,” Coles says. “That really resonated with me growing up. Even the title projected that there’s this other side of the world that black people can experience. I think it’s a show of black success, it’s a show of black hope, black love, and it’s also really encouraging.”
Knowing that a different world existed outside of his community of poverty and gang violence inspired Coles as a burgeoning writer. In the wake of the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, he cataloged major events, influences, and issues in both his private life and public existence and began to write a book about twin black brothers Marvin and Tyler Johnson, seniors in high school.After Tyler is shot by police at a party, Marvin's view of reality changes as he reassess his academic future and realizes the power and responsibility of his own voice.
Coles, who is 22, created Marvin as a realistic, three-dimensional representation of what it means to be black in America instead of a stereotype born from two-dimensional ignorance. “I didn’t want Marvin to be how the world views blackness,” he says. “I wanted to show that there is this other side of blackness—poetic and beautiful and that we’re all different." Sure, Marvin is darker than Tyler's medium brown or his mixed-race friend Ivy. But Coles also wanted to show that there is a spectrum of contrasts of what defines blackness in the black community: Marvin thrives on academia and ’90s hip hop; Tyler is athletic and social; Ivy has an affinity for skateboarding and engineering.
This message of contrast and challenged stereotypes extends from content to cover. Honored to be included in designing the book’s art, Coles was adamant about one thing. “I wanted this to be something people pick up no matter what the content is. I didn’t want people to see the cover and think, ‘Oh this is another police brutality book,’ or ‘This is another book about racism.’ ”
When the team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers delivered the final art, Coles was brought to tears. An ethereal, white background with painterly florals in pink, white, and purple overlap a young black man dressed in white. He looks over his shoulder with a multifaceted expression that is proud, frightened, vulnerable, and defiant.
“I was so blown away. The importance of the cover is that there’s this contrast of how society viewsblackness—how we’re viewed as thugs or angry or really aggressive—with this lighter, softer aspect that goes back to Marvin’s poetic voice as well,” Coles says. “So both Tyler and Marvin are on the cover. That softness from Marvin and his voice, and then that actual representation of Tyler in the hoodie. It was perfect. I’m still obsessed.”
Before being a debut author tasked with signing a box of hardcover novels, Coles was and is a composer. Having tackled the drums, electric guitar, baritone euphonium, and bassoon as a kid, composing classical music became a form of escape and cathartic storytelling.
“Recently I was commissioned by a high school in Minnesota to write a band piece inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement,” he explains. “After they premiered that they told me how impactful it was for their black students to hear music by a black composer about the black experience. That was encouraging for me to hear, because it affirmed why I’m not only an author, but I’m also a composer. I want to put content out there for those who are readers, those who are musicians, and those who are both.”
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator, hand-letterer, and shark enthusiast currently surveying the States for his next East Coast home.