What do you want readers to know about Long Walk to Cherry Gardens?
Long Walk to Cherry Gardens, the second in the literacy fiction series, is the story of a protagonist with whom they will make a deep emotional connection long after they close the book on the final chapter. In the story, an abandoned adolescent boy, Roderick Brissett, is growing up in Olympic Gardens, an emerging garrison in Kingston, Jamaica, during the 60s and early 70s. Cherry Gardens, an affluent neighborhood, becomes Roderick’s Valhalla, a metaphoric utopian society of his dreams. Set against the backdrop of a post-colonial and recently independent society, themes of class, race, culture, identity, kinship care, and education are examined to tell of the transforming power of love.
2. What fascinates you about Roderick?
My interest quickens; I am on the edge of my seat when Roderick enters any space. What is he going to say? What is he going to do? It is heartwarming and admirable to experience his inquisitiveness. He wants to know and is going to ask others. When answers are not forthcoming from folks he thinks should know, he puts on his detective hat, searches the crevices and corners, following every lead. This is when he puts both head and gut to work. Most children Roderick’s age just want to go to school, hang out with friends and play. But he sets goals and goes after them fiercely. Although selling on the streets is not a lofty goal for children, Roderick takes advantage of available resources as insignificant as stones to create beautiful and marketable Stone Art. Roderick is a resilient young boy with this uncanny way of balancing his feelings with the ebb and flow of daily life.
3. What is the most important lesson or lessons you have learned from writing these novels?
I have learned that writing is a disciplined process in which I set clear goals and carve out quality time. I wrote Long Walk to Cherry Gardens while commuting on the New York City subway, roundtrip, between home and school. During that time, my characters would tell me what to write against complex emotional arcs. As I got deeper into the human suffering through Roderick’s character, it became more apparent that children do not have the tools and must look to parents, teachers, and mentors for help. Childhood is sacrosanct, and children, including the child in adults, want their humanity validated. The rub happens when grownups like Aunt Hope, in Long Walk to Cherry Gardens, are less than empathetic. As a result, I research, observe and write accordingly.
4. You’ve had a long career in many artistic disciplines. What would you say to a young artist about how to create and sustain creative passion?
Go easy on yourself. Overnight success is a myth. Furthermore, The Arts are not static. It is a fluid process that changes as the world and cultures shift. Instead, be prepared to adapt to change. The artist’s journey has bumps and detours on the road. If you have sights on Hollywood, the Broadway stage, or Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry, guess what? The best talents descend on those regions in record numbers. They come from all over the world with tremendous skills. In order to distinguish yourself within this pool of talent, start by learning all you can about your craft; it is going to serve you in the end.
Regina King enjoyed her life but took it all in by paying attention to the directors when she was a child actor. Now, what she has done as a producer, director is highly regarded by the entertainment industry. Her ability to adapt to change continues to influence the trajectory of her life as a creative. I remember John Tesh, the broadcast journalist whose voice I just love to hear. One day, I saw an announcement that he was going to do a piano recital. Imagine how surprised I was but happy to know that he had another well-developed talent to unleash on the world.
Passion resides deep in that place inside of you where you feel excited about it all the time. Be honest about what you are feeling and why. Then go explore. I had to take inventory of my many interests in the arts and ask myself these questions: Which art forms am I passionate about investing my time, energy, and available resources? Am I in this for the money or the love and appreciation of art? Your “why” will keep your passion burning. In addition, what you do or how you serve can be shaped by or influenced by several of my areas of interest.
Here is how I sustain my creative passions of teaching, writing, and drama. I help young people to identify what they are drawn to in the wide-open fields of the arts. I work with students at different ages and stages of their development, from elementary to high school seniors. Whether I am teaching English Language Arts or Dramatic Arts, I co-create a classroom with my students that becomes an incubator for new energy, a safe place where they can be themselves, be vulnerable and bounce off the walls.
An elementary school student in my online English class sings her prose and informational passages. When she is ready, she asks me permission to dress up in costumes. She uses her imagination to connect with the theme or tone of a story and immerse herself in it.
Before the pandemic, I had written a play for a strong male lead. One student became absorbed by the role and wore his ankle-length coat to class over his school uniform for several weeks. He was attending a school that wears uniforms. However, this student was determined to take risks to channel his character and did.
There was a student who hated literature but loved and excelled at sports. What did I do? I wrote a play about sports so he could access literature through a sports theme.
My bossy students get roles of producer and director. It is a pleasure to experience them developing leadership skills. I recall one 7th Grader saying to her peers, “Please leave your ego at the door.” My talkers make the best poets and orators, and do I encourage them.
These are some of the ways that I nurture creativity in my students, and I, too, get the satisfaction of watching and growing with them.
I retired from teaching in the public school to have a more hands-on approach in a smaller specialized setting. Now interventions are more immediate, and I get to make adjustments in real-time. Additionally, my Literacy Gateway Institute educational solutions framework allows me to teach a younger demographic because we have to start early.
5. What are you working on now?
I am working on the third novel in the Roderick Brissett literacy fiction series. My collection of Short Plays About Sports for Young Actors, which uses sports to teach literature, is forthcoming. Parents and guardians can look forward to Wings: Role Playing To Awaken Your Teacher Mentor, a collection of short plays to help them develop co-teaching skills. A book of praise poems is also in the offing.
6. Brawta: You’ve also written many non-fiction books such as Stories To Heal Your Life So You Can Help Your Child Succeed. Are there any crossover themes in Long Walk to Cherry Gardens?
Yes. Education and what it means to children, especially boys, who are failing at higher rates than our girls is a central theme. Parents are asking, “How can I help my child to succeed? How do I do that?”
Through Literacy Gateway Institute (LGI), I provide parents and teachers with a new system to define the parent-teacher partnership and co-teaching model. One of the LGIs solutions was writing these academic wellness non-fiction books and providing professional development for teachers and co-teaching skills training for parents. Stories to Heal Your Life So You Can Help Your Child Succeed focuses on the psyche of parents as in Chapter 5, “Never Too Old To Learn” and Chapter 33, “Adaptability.” Both reveal some problems parents face and give them strategies to adjust. Back in the 1960s, during the period of Long Walk to Cherry Gardens, some parents could not meet with the teacher, let alone, co-teach. For many parents, it is still problematic in 2021. Working with parents and children in the same space during the Covid-19 pandemic, where the regular classroom is no longer the physical space, further exposed the need for innovative approaches to learning.
It is much easier for everyone to meet using the LGI model. Educating the parent along with the child is the new ethos. In Long Walk to Cherry Gardens, in Roderick’s case, his aunty couldn’t make it to school, so the neighbor did it for her. Whether the story is set in 1960s Jamaica or is a real experience in immigrant communities in Brooklyn, New York, parents feel the same anxieties about their children’s education. I see many children in my classroom who are living in the United States without their parents. That is why I started Literacy Gateway Institute. The problems are universal, but our approach has to be unique. For example, LGI’s curricula, wellness tools, and books can be tailored to the unique problems experienced in a specific cultural group. Our co-teaching model helps us crossover kinship care themes, child labor, advocacy, mindfulness education, self-care, integrity, resilience, literacy, and hope. There are so many themes that intersect in both my fiction and non-fiction works. My book publishing list is a long one.
About the Author
Andrene Bonner is an educator, playwright, and author of four non-fiction books about student resilience and the parent-teacher partnership. No Life in Olympic Gardens and Long Walk to Cherry Gardens, the first two in her literacy fiction series, tell the story of a boy’s heartrending search for identity and education. She is a Westchester Black Scholars Motivating Teacher of the Year and founder of Literacy Gateway Institute, an educational solutions business. She trains parents to become co-teachers and develops literacy curricula and wellness tools. Firelight is her collection of Black Historical and Cultural Dramas that includes: Ruby, a full-length musical that teaches the Harlem Renaissance, Blue Mountain Queen, a dramatic play about a 17th-century female freedom fighter, Nanny of the Maroons, and Room One Eighty: The Forgotten Students of Outerbrook High, a play about a boy in a struggle to help turn his failing high school around and escape the dark side. Bonner holds a Master of Science in Education, a Master of Arts in Language and Literacy, and a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts, Dance, and Directing. She is an alumna of the Lincoln Center Education Learning Labs for Artists and Educators. Bonner served on the board of the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival and currently serves on the board of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre West.