A 15-year-old gets mixed up in dangerous activities in this gritty urban drama, partially inspired by real events. After Erica’s parents split up and her mother takes her to live in St. Louis, Erica feels like a fish out of water, part of a small white minority in her new school. Her only refuge is the video camera her father gave her. Then Erica meets Kalvin, the so-called Knockout King, is swept up by his dangerous charm, and starts filming the activities of his “TKO” club, a gang of middle-schoolers who assault random passersby with the intention of knocking them out: “One hit or quit.” As events spiral out of control, with people getting hurt and the authorities cracking down, Erica has to choose between her new relationship and friends, and doing the right thing. Neri (Ghetto Cowboy) skillfully portrays the moral and emotional turmoil of a teen desperate for acceptance, and the repercussions of making hard decisions. Racial and social undercurrents further give this story an intense, thought-provoking edge. -Publishers Weekly
More about the author: G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King honor winning author of “Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty.” He is also the recipient of the International Reading Association’s Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award for his debut book “Chess Rumble.” His novel “Ghetto Cowboy” won an ALA Odyssey Honor and the Horace Mann Upstanders Award. His work has been honored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, Antioch University, the Cybils, and the Eisners. An award-winning filmmaker and new media producer from Los Angeles, he also taught animation and storytelling to inner-city youth. Now living in Tampa, Florida, with his wife and their daughter, Neri writes for teens and children. His first picture book “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” came out earlier this year. You can follow Greg Neri on his website, Twitter, and Facebook page.
1. Describe your book in a sentence or two. As a gang of urban teenagers known as the TKO Club makes random attacks on bystanders, Erica, who is dating the club leader, wrestles with her dark side and “good kid” identity. What started off as a way to connect with other teens turns deadly when one of the targets of the game dies and Erica is forced to face up to her involvement in the crime.
2. What was your inspiration for writing “Knockout Games”? While visiting a middle school in St. Louis, I stumbled across then unknown world of the Knockout Game, where some of these kids were randomly attacking strangers for fun. It wasn’t a gang thing but some sort of social dare, led by an older kid called the Knockout King. It reminded me of a bizarre combination of Oliver Twist, Lord of the Flies and Fight Club. The more stories I heard about this, the more incredible it became. Nobody knew about it then, so I was compelled to write about it. St. Louis as well as many urban centers around the country are reeling from issues like teen violence. I wanted to explore it in depth and as real as I could capture it to get past the sensational headlines. Schools need to deal with these topics and I see my books as one way to tackle them head on in order to open up a dialogue. And its working.
3. What kind of research did you have to do to make sure your characters were authentic? I’ve spent time in St. Louis and knew people involved there. I talked to cops and juvie specialists who worked these cases, the principal at the school that was ground zero in the case and mostly, just spending time with the kids around there. Carrie Dietz, the YA specialist at SLPL was a big help, connecting me to the story and making sure I was on track. She deals with a lot of these schools and has brought me out several times to do school visits.
4. How did you come to incorporate the diverse elements in your book? In real life, most of the kids engaged in this game were black. I made one of the main characters white because I didn’t want white people to write it off as a ‘black thing’. I wanted to show these kids were human and not so different than you despite what they were doing. I was also very interested in exploring mixed race couples and how that affected the larger groups. It gave plenty of opportunity to talk about race and gender issues and things that are going on now in Ferguson.
5. How does the diversity in your book relate to your life? I’ve spent a lot of time with inner city youth and feel compelled to tell their stories. I am a person of color so these stories come naturally to me as does the voice. I am also in a mixed race relationship and wanted to explore that as an element of the story. I hadn’t seen that in a book before.
6. What are some of your favorite YA books about diverse characters? I love books by Sharon G Flake, Coe Booth, Matt de la Pena. Recent favorites include “Boxers & Saints” and “The Shadow Hero” by Gene Luen Yang,
“Take What You Can Carry” by Kevin Pyle, and “Skim” by Mariko Tamaki.
7. What areas of diversity do you want to draw attention to or do you feel are underrepresented in books? All my books seek to capture the voice of underrepresented inner city youth both black and brown, boy and girl. There are amazing and compelling stories happening in urban areas that aren’t being reported. Stories that deal with race, class, poverty, gentrification, violence. These stories need to be told because these are realities that are being buried by the media’s obsession with wealth and fantasy. People need to know the truth. I try to get past the headlines and show the humanity of it all.
Interested in the book? Make sure to read a Discussion Recap at We Heart YA and The Reading Date’s “5 Rounds with Knockout Games – Why You Should Read It.”