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Author of youth-oriented books shares insights, lessons

Greg Neri (who publishes as G. Neri), an award-winning author of books for young people, started out as a reluctant reader. It’s a literary background he shares with much of his audience that also provides a key to opening their minds to the world of books.

“When I was their age, I wasn’t a reader. I was into comic books,” the Temple Terrace resident said. “I loved art.”

His interest in drawing and visual storytelling eventually led to a revelation of what a book could be.

“It just looked like this block of letters,” said Neri. “Then the librarian gave me this book called ‘The Phantom Tollbooth.’”

The children’s adventure story, written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, captured Neri’s imagination.

“I didn’t know you could do a book like this. It was fun. That kind of opened my eyes.”

That experience enlightened Neri to a basic literary principle. “There’s a book for everyone,” he said. “What happened to me happens with others.”

It also set him upon the path of reading for pleasure and eventually becoming a writer. His first published book was the graphic novel, “Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty.” Far from being an adolescent fairy-tale adventure, “Yummy” is a fact-based story depicting the life and demise of 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer of Chicago, whose criminal activities ranged from car theft to the 1994 killing of a 14-year-old girl. Gang members who did not appreciate the increased scrutiny from police that the pre-teen generated eventually murdered him.

Neri’s storytelling recognizes the nuance of character within people, and in “Yummy” he gives consideration to the crimes committed upon Sandifer, as well as those he perpetrated on his community.

“I’m trying to get readers to see the real person inside a character,” he said. “You can’t just write somebody off.”

The result is a cautionary tale giving readers an opportunity to gauge their own situations and implications of the choices they make. The book was recognized in 2011 by the American Library Association with the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award.

That narrative template, combined with real-life situations, characterizes many of Neri’s subsequent books. “Ghetto Cowboy,” illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson, tells the story of a troubled seventh-grader whose apparent abandonment by his mother leads to a relationship with his estranged father while bonding with horses and learning the cowboy way of life in modern-day Philadelphia. Neri says inspiration for the book came from news reports of the city’s urban horsemen and their mentoring of local youths.

The book “Knockout Games,” is a novel that was written before the term became part of America’s news cycle. The expression refers to randomly attacking someone with the aim of knocking him or her out with a single blow. Neri learned about the practice from some of his readers.

“I get along so well with these urban teens and get invited to schools all over the country,” he said. “When I showed up in St. Louis, it turned out to be ground zero for this game. I had no idea, and as soon as we started talking, these stories started coming out.”

Not all of Neri’s books deal with young lives at their grimmest. “Surf Mules” is drawn from his experiences while growing up around Southern California’s surfing culture and chronicles the adventures of two buddies on a post-high school, cross-country drug run. It is a relatively light-hearted tale, but like his other books, it deals with subject matter that kids know more about than parents might wish.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” is Neri’s biography of the American music legend and is illustrated by A.G. Ford.

“I write about outsiders, people who are trying to find out how they fit into the world,” Neri said. “Johnny Cash is the ultimate outsider.”

After living in Florida since 2003 when his wife took a job at the University of South Florida, Neri has begun delving into southern culture for inspiration. His next book, “Tru & Nelle,” is a fictionalized account of the childhood friendship between authors Truman Capote and Harper Lee, who grew up together in Monroeville, Alabama.

“It’s kind of like Huck Finn meets the Hardy Boys,” he said.

The pending release has attracted attention with the recent publication of Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”

The appeal of Neri’s writing with young readers crosses cultural, class and international borders. He attributes that to tapping into the universal appeal of relating to readers on an emotional level.

“I was invited last year to go to Russia near Siberia with my book ‘Ghetto Cowboy,’” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘There’s no whiter place on earth than Siberia. What are we going to talk about?’”

It turned out those concerns were unwarranted.

“Not only did they love the book, they totally connected with the book even though there were no common cultural references,” Neri said.

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