Q&A With Brontez Purnell on The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett

What inspired you to create The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett?

Well, I basically know and knew so many people who grew up as some form of latch-key kid, but I never found a lot of amazing literature around the subject. Of the literature that exists, the subject is rendered super abject. I wanted to show a kid (particularly a young Black kid) whose existence on paper may seem a bit less than ideal but in practice, he is actually loved, accounted for, and has a sense of purpose in his life—despite his angst. I wanted to move to a story that laid outside the margins of the normal nuclear family.

What single takeaway do you want kids to get from your story?

Even in our sadness, anger, or times of difficulty, we deserve the right to exist.

What makes Jacuzzi’s story different from what we find on an ordinary kid's book?

There are places where the talk does seem very frank or forward. I did that to illustrate that in a non-idealized childhood, some of us have to deal with the themes of adulthood well before our years. I wanted to showcase a child as he reconciles being put into this very adult task of childcare while still working out the trouble of his own pre-adolescent psyche.

Your story challenges the dominant (adult, white, wealthy, two-parent) narrative and tailors it for a child’s gaze—capturing the whimsy and acceptance of the frustrating world grown-ups leave kids to navigate. What risks are you taking in doing this, and what challenges are you inviting parents to confront in themselves?

There’s nothing in Jacuzzi  that feels “risky” or “challenging” to me. Jacuzzi, himself, is a very real character. He is dealing with adverse yet common issues—so common that his story very much has the right to exist. If anyone has a problem with the story they should make it a point to go fight income inequality or the prison industrial complex—two major societal factors that this child is experiencing—not the story of this kid.   

In one spread, we learn about Jacuzzi’s nickname: “His name was ‘Jacuzzi,’ because that was where he was conceived.” What conversations are you hoping this will spark between parents and kids?

I don’t know if I was really hoping for anything. My mother had the very basic sex talk with me when I was about six. I knew at that age that “conceived” meant “to impregnate.” We left it at that. Having this knowledge didn’t destroy my childhood. How far anyone else goes with the explanation is pretty much up to the parents reading this book. Also, to be quite clear, this book is just as much for adults who feel like they never had their story of childhood represented as it is for children.

In the passage where Jacuzzi talks to his dad on the phone, his dad says, “I did bad things, son. You go to school and don’t be like your daddy.” Are you nervous about white & non-Black parents of color reading this passage and using it to reinforce the narrative that Black men are jailed because of personal choices, rather than a biased system?

Not really. To be honest, I think that if a person picking up this book has no conscience around the inequality of the prison industrial complex, a children’s book isn’t what they need to be reading to pull them up to speed. I know the voices of boys who had older family members in jail and those of fathers urging sons to “be good and follow the rules”—those are the voices Jacuzzi hears at that age. The inequality of the prison system was a later conversation in my experience.

How does the narrative in Jacuzzi’s story counter the narrative of childism—that kids aren’t old enough to handle talks about sex for pleasure, the prison pipeline, internalized classism, and stories without full closure and shiny happy endings?

I don’t think the book explicitly confronts sex for pleasure or the prison pipeline. In fact, I think these topics are expressed in the story closer to the way a child feels it: you can tell that something unfair is happening but you don’t have the language to explain it yet. We experience classism, racism, and homophobia well before we have the language to explain it. We make internal choices about these things before we even know we are making them. Boys like Jacuzzi can tell that something is not right—his self is his only vindication—and he daydreams about places and other states of being that are more “right.”

How do you feel about the way Black boys are portrayed in kidlit? What common misconceptions keep popping up?

This question feels unanswerable in some ways. I’ve seen Black boys portrayed many different ways and I think we should have a million different portrayals of young Black boys and kids in general. It breaks up the burden of Black boyhood being this monolith or that there is only a handful of ways to portray a Black boy worthy of respect. All my sons deserve respect! Good, bad, down-right criminal, and beyond. Understanding their stories is what brings our humanity back to us. I mostly only have the problem with secularized race in children’s book where the Black boy is put there out of a need for diversity and something about his personal identity is stripped or lacking. That said, I do feel that even a narrow or dull portrayal has its value.

Why is it important to have responsible representation and books written by people of color with lived experience?

Simple accurate representation politics. I’ve seen stories about us revised, rewritten, turned on its head, and sold back to us by people who I know have no intention in mind but “selling a Black product to its intended buyers.” In the world of entertainment, I feel like all portrayals of Black manhood have to support a character that’s either really handsome, really funny, or really tough. I still have yet to see the overwhelming representation of what we actually are: very vulnerable and very complicated. If the people who actually lived the life aren’t the ones writing, then we are doomed.

What keeps you up at night—either with excitement for the future, or worries?

Bills, crazy roommates, and mental worry for my life and my friends, will life ever not be fucked up? But even in my stress I take the fact of my worry as proof that I’m still very much alive, and I’m grateful for that. I’m really excited for dinner later.

How can two-parent families (or anyone with more resources) support single-parents and kids with a parent in prison?

I think all families (single or two-parent) should simply make their children understand that there are billions of people in the world and there are people different than them and that’s okay. I put no special societal tax on two-parent families because as we know there are plenty of two-parent homes that are just as tumultuous than a single-parent home—if not more.

How can our readers follow and support the work you’re doing?

My Instagram or email me brontez1@gmail.com. And buy the book!

Jennifer Baumgardner