Alumni Profile / Greg Neri: A voice for urban teens

G. Neri (illustration by Jesse Joshua Watson, courtesy of Greg Neri)

Editor's note: This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the fall 2014 issue of UC Santa Cruz Review magazine.

Greg Neri (Cowell '87, theater arts and film) was 21 when life as he knew it ground to a halt.

Instead of days filled with acting, painting, filmmaking, and studies at UC Santa Cruz, Neri lay on his dorm room bed unable to move, read, or even listen to music without the world spinning vertiginously around him. What had seemed like a case of the flu was diagnosed as Meniere's Disease, a chronic inner-ear disorder that causes severe dizziness, nausea, and hearing loss.

Today, Neri, an award-winning author of teen novels, describes the illness as a turning point where he not only decided to view the disease as a metaphor about focus and life balance but also vowed not to pursue any job that didn't have meaning.

"I learned you can never take anything for granted, so why should I waste time doing anything meaningless?" says Neri, who beat the illness after a three-year battle. "It forced me to become a very practical dreamer."

That practical dream now includes a list of popular, reality-based Young Adult and Middle Grade novels—books like Knockout Games, which deals with an urban sport that involves teens attacking unsuspecting strangers; Ghetto Cowboy, about a hidden, inner-city black cowboy culture; and Chess Rumble, which delves into the street chess scene.

They are books that appeal to kids who don't like reading, to urban teens whose worlds are narrow and rough. They are the kinds of books, librarians tell Neri, that are among those most often stolen from library shelves.

Neri smiles as he related that fact while on a visit to Santa Cruz from his home in Florida. It's the kind of accolade he can appreciate.

Neri's life has always been what he calls "off the highway." A talented but introspective artist and filmmaker, he went to work with his brother in the nascent world of online digital media after several years of working in Hollywood. With clients like Disney and Mercedes Benz, he was excited by the challenge of the then-unknown world of the Internet. But he also wanted more, and he began teaching animation is L.A.'s inner-city schools.

Beneath the street-tough exterior of the kids he worked with, says the now 50-year-old Neri, he saw a vulnerability and innocence caused by a lack of exposure to the wider world.

"I started to see young people worth saving," says Neri. "It was about exposing them to other possibilities."

The chance to do just that happened when Neri's wife received a professorship in Tampa, Fla. Neri quit his L.A. job, moved east, and dug out a film script he'd written about the life of an 11-year-old gang-banger named Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, who'd been shot in 1994 on Chicago's South Side. The resulting graphic novel, Yummy, won a Coretta Scott King Award and was also honored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Other books blossomed.

A chance encounter with a paddle-out for a young surfer who had died and the discovery of the underworld of wave-riding drug smugglers resulted in the book Surf Mules. A visit to an inner-city school in St. Louis began a conversation with a librarian about the so-called Knockout game, where kids attacked random strangers on the street.

"All these stories, true stories, started coming at me," Neri says of the book's genesis. "It was like a cross between Lord of the Flies and Oliver Twist. By the next day, I knew I had to write it."

Because Neri's stories are based in reality, he spends long hours on research and also makes it a point to travel to each book's locale. For his upcoming picture book on Johnny Cash, for instance, Neri drove the lonely dirt road to Cash's childhood home in Dyess, Ark., retraced Cash's long walk to town, and found himself at a family gathering to celebrate what would have been Cash's 80th birthday.

"To capture the truth, you have to see the light. You have to know how the air smells, how people talk, the words they use," Neri says.

His novels are about outsiders, about people trying to find their place in the world. They're the stories that resonate with urban youth, he says.

"You can't put Jane Austen in front of these kids because, socially and culturally, they won't recognize the voice," says Neri. "But the way I write, kids recognize that voice. They say, 'This book is about me. It's about my world.'"

"Greg stands out because he has a very fresh take on fiction," says his agent Edward Necarsulmer IV of Dunow, Carson & Lerner Literary Agency in New York City. "What he does is get people to come face-to-face with, and really acknowledge, the way we live our lives now."

That uncommon approach, Neri says, was born at UC Santa Cruz, where the emphasis was not on grades but on risk-taking and pursuing your passion.

"UC Santa Cruz opened my eyes to all these different ways of thinking about the world and all its diverse people," Neri says. "It made me independently minded."

It's the same message Neri delivers to his young readers, many of whom have never read a book before his. Neri, who writes under the pen name G. Neri, tells the story of a troublesome fifth-grader who got hold of his free-verse novella Chess Rumble. The young man went on to discover jazz poet Langston Hughes and Shakespeare. Later, he was accepted into a highly competitive creative arts magnet school on the strength of the poetry he wrote.

"My lesson to kids is: If you're open to taking a chance and walking down a different path, some really amazing things can happen," Neri says. "You never know what's around the next bend."