‘Emery Jones’: the adventures of a scientific whiz kid
Seattle author and National Book Award winner Charles Johnson has written a children’s book with his daughter Elisheba Johnson. “The Adventures of Emery Jones” features an African-American science prodigy who is bullied because he’s different.
Seattle Times staff reporter
There’s a new kid in town and he’s a boy science wonder. He can outfit his house with enough gadgets to be the envy of Bill Gates and travel through time, build a multilingual robot and deck the house out with solar panels.
But unlike the heroes of most young adult books, Emery Jones, hero of “The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder: Bending Time” (Booktrope, $9.99), is African American. Emery also knows what it’s like to be the target of bullies and to not fit into the classroom with his peers.
The book is the creation of National Book Award winner Charles Johnson and his daughter Elisheba Johnson, a Cornish College of the Arts fine-art graduate who works for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. Dedicated to Elisheba’s son, Emery Spearman, 22 months, the Johnsons hope their book will show children of color that there are others who have been bullied and prevailed and that being talented and smart is a wonderful thing.
“I want a voice for children of color,’’ Elisheba Johnson said. “Sometimes we just don’t see a lot of people who look like us, who are smart, funny, someone we can see ourselves in.”
“Black child prodigies are out there, but we don’t have one in our literature,’’ her father said.
Positive role models, they say, are needed.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund report, the “state of black children in America is grim,” with black babies being more than twice as likely as whites to die before their first birthdays and to have a greater risk of funneling into the prison or juvenile justice pipeline than their white counterparts.
Johnson, a novelist, essayist and emeritus professor at the University of Washington, bristles when he speaks of movies where African Americans are portrayed as victims. Emery may be bullied, but he’s no victim.
The hero of the book is a skinny kid with an Astrodome-size brain. He’s picked on by the ne’er-do-well Chippy Payne; not understood by Mr. Tiplightly, his teacher at Moms Mabley Elementary or, for that matter, his parents. But even so, Emery prevails, forming a friendship with pigtailed Gabby, whose ultimate worries are that repercussions from the adventures might keep her from advancing to Redd Fox Middle School.
When Gabby and Emery discuss leaving Chippy, the bully, in the Triassic period where he’s threatened by dinosaurs, Emery tells Gabby how painful it’s been to be bullied.
Her response could be the lament of any gifted child.
“All our lives people made us feel bad because something was different about us. We were the crooked nails people always tried to hammer down,” she says.
Compassion for Chippy wins out, and the two friends come to understand that his bullying comes from his insecurity and being mistreated at home.
Some of the story is based on fact, Charles Johnson said. Both father and daughter remember being bullied as kids. And an incident where Chippy sees his father eating from a dumpster was inspired by a painful memory. When Charles Johnson was with a friend as a youth, he laughed when he saw a man doing that very thing.
“When Emery says, ‘Knowledge is all you have,’ I heard that from a Holocaust survivor,” Johnson said.
“Knowledge is delicious like food is delicious,’’ he said.
Johnson, who early in his career was a cartoonist, illustrated the book and fills a website (emerysadventures.com) with other Emery cartoons. (Readers can purchase the book from the website and at Ravenna Third Place Books.) In the meantime, the Johnsons are planning another adventure for Emery. This time the boy wonder is in junior high and experiences love for the first time.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org