Rdealing with family legacy is often a tense process.
That has been particularly true for blues musician Shawn Amos.
Known musically as “The Reverend” Shawn Amos, he has attempted to reconcile his troubled family history throughout his creative career through his poignant 2005 album “Thank You Shirl-ee May” (inspired by his mother, two years after his suicide) and songs like 2015’s “Hollywood Blues.” The latter provided the title for his recently released compilation “Hollywood Blues: Songs and Stories from the Family Tree (1997-2022)”.
“In a weird way,” Amos said, that song is “almost a draft” of his new book “Cookies & Milk,” a warm and witty novel published in May by Little, Brown.
That Amos fictionalized his rocky upbringing as the son of Wally “Famous” Amos, a flashy talent agent turned chocolate chip cookie entrepreneur, and Shirley Ellis, a mentally ill former nightclub singer, is not a surprise. That he wrote it for middle graders is.
“Your first job is to get high school students excited about reading,” she said, describing the challenge of writing for young adults. “You make them want to turn the page. These are usually the first full-length novels a child will read, (and) also the first book they buy on their own instead of buying it for themselves. So I took it seriously.
“Also, I was having a catharsis, and it was personal.”
Like many children’s books, “Cookies & Milk” is rooted in complex themes. Amos explored them in more detail in “Cookies & Milk: Scenes from a ’70s Hollywood Childhood,” a four-part series of essays published in the Huffington Post in 2011 that was cast in a possible play or movie that was never made. . Recalling how her story was unexpectedly transformed into a children’s novel, Amos said she was surprised to find that fiction made it easier for her to embrace deeper truths.
“It was kind of an everyone but mine story in a way,” she explained, referring to her Huffington Post essays.
“I talked about my father, I talked about my mother and her experience of moving to Hollywood and how they sat in this lineage of black excellence. But I hadn’t really written myself into it. Writing myself as a character in my own story was the missing piece before, and frankly, the piece I wasn’t brave enough to do in an adult book. But in the context of a middle grade book, it was easier for me to include myself in my own story and tell a happy chapter (which is part) of a larger story.”
Now based in Texas, where she moved after her divorce several years ago to be closer to her children, she began to contemplate “generational patterns” within her own family and, more broadly, “within the black male experience.” “.
He thought of the Famous Amos cookie shop his father opened in the mid-1970s, and how their shared opening there was “a real bright spot in a childhood that wasn’t so bright,” thanks to financial and job problems. his mother’s health that forced Wally Amos to sell his Famous Amos cookie company in the 1980s.
“So much of the pain and darkness that was part of that Huffington Post series was really missing in the context of being in that store,” Amos reflected.
He wrote the book treatment “in a whirlwind” two years ago, when COVID-19 was beginning to spread. By the summer of 2020, the country was rocked by social justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and studios began calling for “more black-focused content.” Laurence Fishburne’s production company recently announced a deal with Disney to turn “Cookies & Milk” into an animated series.
“Cookies & Milk” is quietly set in the nether regions of cracked 1970s Hollywood sidewalks, and narrated with know-it-all cheekiness by Amos’s alter ego, 11-year-old aspiring harmonica player Ellis Johnson (named after Amos in real life). son), shortly after his parents’ divorce.
His mother has left him for the summer with his father, an infuriating Willy Wonka-like character in Ellis’s eyes (“If only Willy Wonka were tall, skinny, black, and had a gray beard”) whose beating Rambler smells of brown sugar and cocoa, courtesy of the crumpled paper bags of homemade cookies he hands out to Ellis and her friends. (Ellis admiringly confesses to the reader, “I could eat your cookies and nothing else.”)
Music from Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Howlin’ Wolf, the Jackson 5 and especially Muddy Waters plays in the background as they rush to open the store to an empty A-frame littered with cigarette butts, peeling paint and a roof. pigeon poop Sweet cookies and a multiracial tribe of friends counter a surreal encounter with a racist drunk and Ellis’s uncertainty about her family and his future.
The cast of vivid characters includes Ellis’s cane-banging Grandma Ruby, “a mean old lady” in real life, Amos said, who was also fiercely protective and her “only connection” to her black Southern roots.
“She was from Tallahassee. She was the only person I met and saw as her, just her energy and her being, what she said. Because everything else was disconnected. [when] my parents moved to southern california and did their best to get back on their feet, like most people do when they move to los angeles. … That idea of reinvention is very evident in the character of Ellis, who really wants to reinvent himself. Ruby was my sample of blackness in a world where there wasn’t much of that for me to see.”
Amos said a scene was cut from an early draft in which Ellis sees old family photos in the dining room of his best friend Alex’s house: white ancestors dressed in Puritan clothing, framed on a wall that looks so fantastical. like a museum. Ellis has never had anything like it. Neither does Amos.
“I learned a lot about my history through the blues,” Amos said. “That’s why I play the blues. Playing the blues was the first time I really felt connected to my story in any way.”
In the book, which Amos called “a love letter to music,” Ellis also feels a primal connection as he learns to play the harmonica.
“The harmonica is like an orchestra in your pocket,” he marvels at the reader, and his embodiment of the joy of making music provides some of the happiest passages in the book. Amos plans to bring his guitar to his reading at Vroman’s bookstore on Saturday morning.
“I would love to find a way to bring the narrative that the book and my songs represent closer together,” he says. “Traveling with my acoustic guitar, something I haven’t done in years, and playing a song in these bookstores after reading a chapter of the book is really helpful. It’s helping me discover some ideas.”
Blues musician Shawn Amos talks about “Cookies & Milk”
WHEN: 11:00 Saturday June 25
WHERE: Vroman’s Paseo Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena
COST: Free pass; The use of masks is strongly recommended.