LJ is the author of the Blacktop series, which centers on the lives of different teens and the troubles they face both on and off the basketball court. The first two books in the series are about Justin and Janae, and we’re excited to learn more about them.
If you’re looking for even more sports-themed YA books to add to your collection, consider sticking this series at the top of your to-read list!
What were you most excited about when writing the first two books in the Blacktop series?
I’m really, really excited to challenge the way we think about athletes. Our sports heroes are often made one-dimensional; if you’re a basketball player, fans typically don’t want you to be anything else. And because so many popular athletes are people of color, there’s an unspoken message about what it means to be black or brown: we’re only allowed to be one thing. If we love basketball, we’re not allowed to love philosophy because…that’s weird? The whole one-dimensional thing doesn’t make much sense. A few years ago, I remember people being shocked (shocked!) that LeBron James read books during the playoffs. But of course he reads books! He’s not a basketball-playing cyborg; he’s a person with a variety of interests.
So writing the first two books was so much fun because I got to write about kids we don’t normally think of as basketball players: gamers, extreme introverts, activists, suppliers of fake-magic, former child TV stars. I wanted to watch them bring all of their experiences and talents and weirdness to the court and write about what happened.
I saw on your Amazon profile that you’ve played—and learned a lot from—basketball. What did you pull from your own basketball experience for the Blacktop series?
A lot of times, games aren’t really about the final score. They’re about friendship or love or courage or forgiveness or even pettiness. Sometimes, you can have a whole conversation in a game and not say a word. When I was a kid, I’d play basketball with my dad on the weekends, and the games were never about winning or losing. If I was mad at him, I would take cheap shots at his ribs. If he was mad at me, he’d post me up really aggressively. But if we liked each other, we just fooled around. The game was just a conduit for our emotions.
Tell us more about Justin and Janae! What do you find most compelling about each of them?
It’s kind of funny that Justin and Janae end up on the same team because they are so, so different. It wouldn’t surprise me if they actually hated each other in some alternate universe. In Book 1, Justin’s just had a life-altering growth spurt. Normally, he’s a gamer and bookworm, happy to daydream at home, but now that he’s tall he wants a new identity. Except he has no idea what that identity should be. A basketball player? A “cool kid”? Savior of the neighborhood? I often found myself rooting for Justin, because he’s such a sweet kid, but then I’d get annoyed at how hard he was trying to be things he wasn’t. He’s kind of lost his sense of self, and he spends Book 1 trying to find it.
Janae couldn’t be more different. She knows exactly who she is (a bad-ass basketball player) and what she wants (to play college basketball). She’s dedicated her whole life to hoop and has gotten really good and beating boys who underestimate her. But one day her dreams are crushed, and she has to figure out what to do with her life. What will she do without basketball? I know so many people like Janae, who have their dreams dashed and then have to work to find a new dream. Sometimes I hated watching her go through all of her challenges, but I also liked watching her figure things out and become a better person.
I saw in your Penguin Teen interview that you are working on the next book in the series. Can you tell us a little more about Frank and the challenges he will face?
Frank’s always in some kind of trouble. Until recently, it’s been small stuff – tagging, cutting class, stealing. He’s often angry and he doesn’t know why. But he’s just gotten into some big trouble and, because the judge was lenient, Frank’s decided to clean up his act. Except everyday seems to present a new opportunity to slip back into his old, troublemaking self and he doesn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, he falls in love unexpectedly. Because he considers himself a lady’s man, he doesn’t know how to deal with all the emotions that come with love. It’s all new territory for Frank – being a good guy, being in love – and Book 3 is the story of him trying to navigate it.
What are some of your favorite sports-themed books and movies that you would recommend to teenagers?
Hoop Dreams – Maybe one of the best movies of all time, sports or not. It’s an eye-opening documentary about the struggle of two teenagers from Chicago who dream of becoming college basketball players. It was the first movie that showed me how hard it really is to “make it.”
When We Were Kings – I cry every time I watch this documentary. It’s the story of Muhammed Ali and George Foreman’s famous Rumble in the Jungle in 1978. I was 12 or 13 when I watched it, and besides learning about the fight, I learned elements of black history I never knew, like Ali’s activism, and James Brown’s music and even some of the political history of the Congo.
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson – As a kid, Iverson was one of my favorite basketball players, but this documentary focuses on a fight he had in high school, before he became a global celebrity. It insightfully discusses race, class and the criminal justice system.
Do you think you will stick with sports-themed books or are you interested in experimenting with other genres?
Running out of space, but yes I plan to write other genres! I’m working on some short stories/novel about…I don’t really know what they’re about yet. Mostly immigration, family, love and loss. There’s probably gonna be fantasy in there, somehow. Basic story stuff, I guess.
What books by or about people of color or people from First/Native Nations are you looking forward to this year? Or that have already came out this year?
Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Your Is Not Yours and Mariko Tamaki’s Saving Montgomery Sole look amazing. I’m trying to get into fantasy, magical realism and the paranormal, so I’m pretty juiced about these. And Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn is set in NYC in the summer of 1977, and the idea of disco balls and bell bottoms on fire has me all kinds of excited.
LJ Alonge has played pick-up basketball in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, Kenya, South Africa and Australia. Basketball’s always helped him learn about his community, settle conflicts, and make friends from all walks of life. He’s never intimidated by the guy wearing a headband and arm sleeve; those guys usually aren’t very good. As a kid, he dreamed of dunking from the free throw line. Now, his favorite thing to do is make bank shots. Don’t forget to call “bank!” You can connect with him on twitter @lanre_ak.