Reckoning with family legacy is often a fraught process.
That has been particularly true for blues musician Shawn Amos.
Musically known as “The Reverend” Shawn Amos, he has attempted to reconcile his troubled family history throughout his creative career via his moving 2005 album “Thank You Shirl-ee May” (inspired by his mother, two years after her suicide) and songs such as 2015’s “Hollywood Blues.” The latter provided the title for his recently issued compilation “Hollywood Blues: Songs and Stories from the Family Tree (1997-2022).”
“In a weird way,” Amos said, that song is “almost a rough draft” of his new book “Cookies & Milk,” a warm, 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 chanteuse, is not a surprise. That he wrote it for middle-grade kids is.
“Your first job is to make middle-schoolers excited to read,” he said, describing the challenge of writing for young adults. “You make them want to turn the page. These are generally the first full-length novels that a kid will read, (and) also the first book they buy on their own instead of having purchased for them. So I took that seriously.
“Also, there was a catharsis that was happening for me, and it was personal.”
Like many children’s books, “Cookies & Milk” is rooted in complex themes. Amos explored those in grittier detail in “Cookies & Milk: Scenes from a ’70s Hollywood Childhood,” a four-part series of essays published on Huffington Post in 2011 that was optioned for a possible play or movie that was never made. Looking back at how his story unexpectedly morphed into a children’s novel, Amos said he was surprised to discover fiction made it easier for him to embrace deeper truths.
“It was sort of everyone’s story but my own in a way,” he explained, referring to his Huffington Post essays.
“I talked about my father, I talked about my mother, and their experience of moving to Hollywood and how they sat in this lineage of Black excellence. But I really hadn’t written myself into that. To write myself as a character in my own story was the piece I was missing 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, I found it easier to write myself into my own story and to tell a happy chapter (that’s part) of a larger story.”
Now based in Texas, where he relocated after his divorce several years ago to be closer to his kids, he started contemplating “generational patterns” within his own family and, more broadly, “within the Black male experience.”
He thought about the Famous Amos cookie shop his father launched in the mid-1970s, and how the openness they shared there was “a real bright spot in a childhood that wasn’t so bright,” thanks to his mother’s health and financial woes that forced Wally Amos to sell his Famous Amos cookie company in the 1980s.
“A lot of the pain and the darkness that was part of that Huffington Post series was really absent in the context of being in that store,” Amos mused.
He wrote the treatment for the book “in a whirlwind” two years ago, when COVID-19 was starting to spread. By summer 2020, the country was rocked by social justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and studios began calling for “more Black-centric content.” Laurence Fishburne’s production company recently announced a deal with Disney to develop “Cookies & Milk” into an animated series.
“Cookies & Milk” is discreetly grounded in the cracked-sidewalk nether regions of 1970s Hollywood, and narrated with smart-alecky sass by Amos’ alter ego, 11-year-old aspiring harmonica player Ellis Johnson (named after Amos’ real-life son), shortly after his parents’ divorce.
His mother has left him for the summer with his father, an exasperating Willy Wonka-like character in Ellis’ eyes (“If Willy Wonka was tall, skinny, Black, and had a salt-and-pepper beard”) whose beat-up Rambler smells like brown sugar and cocoa, courtesy of the wrinkled paper bags of homemade cookies he hands out to Ellis and friends. (Ellis admiringly confides to the reader, “I could eat his cookies and nothing else.”)
The music of Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Howlin’ Wolf, the Jackson 5, and especially Muddy Waters pulses hopefully in the background as they rush to open the shop in an empty A-frame littered with cigarette butts, peeling paint and rooftop pigeon poop. Sweet cookies and a multiracial tribe of friends counterbalance a surreal encounter with a racist drunk and Ellis’ uncertainty about his family and future.
The cast of vivid characters includes Ellis’ cane-thwacking Grandma Ruby — “a mean old woman” in real life, Amos said, who was also fiercely protective and his “only connection” to his Black Southern roots.
“She was from Tallahassee. She was the only person I ever knew and saw like her, just her energy and her being, what she said. Because everything else was disconnected [when] my parents moved to Southern California and they did their best to remake themselves, like most people do when they move to LA. … That idea of reinvention is really apparent in Ellis’ character, who really wants to reinvent himself. Ruby was my display 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 spies vintage family photos in the dining room of his best friend Alex’s house — white ancestors dressed in Puritan clothing, framed in a wall display that seems as fantastic as a museum. Ellis has never had anything like that. Neither did Amos.
“I learned a lot about my history through blues,” Amos said. “That’s why I play blues. Playing blues was the first time I actually felt connected to my history in any way.”
In the book, which Amos called “a love letter to music,” Ellis also feels a primal connection as he learns his way around the harmonica.
“The harmonica is like an orchestra in your pocket,” he marvels to the reader, and his embodiment of the joy of musicmaking provides some of the book’s most joyful passages. Amos plans to bring his guitar to his reading at Vroman’s Bookstore Saturday morning.
“I would love to find a way to bring the storytelling that the book’s representative of and my songs into closer proximity,” he says. “Traveling around with my acoustic guitar, which I haven’t done in years, and playing one song at these bookstores after reading a chapter from the book is really helpful. It’s helping me to unearth some ideas.”
Blues musician Shawn Amos discusses “Cookies & Milk”
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday, June 25
WHERE: Vroman’s Bookstore Paseo, 695 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena
COST: Free admission; masks are strongly encouraged