Quill and Quire

Gary R. Gray, Jr.

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Gary R. Gray, Jr.’s I’m From inspires readers to share their stories

It wasn’t until Gary R. Gray, Jr. did a workshop in high school with his cousin, poet and author, Shauntay Grant that his connection to poetry grew into something much deeper: a sense of freedom. The freedom to talk about his community and the freedom to write like he speaks. No poetic form has nurtured this more for him than spoken word; Gray loves a non-structured poem.

Gray grew up in the majority-Black community of Preston, Nova Scotia. He spent most of his life there which gave him a deep sense of belonging. However, when Gray started teaching grades 2 and 3 internationally (in Kuwait, Singapore, the Philippines, and currently Vietnam), that sense of belonging was taken away.

It’s fitting that Gray’s debut picture book, I’m From (Tundra Books, out now), which follows a young boy as he creates a vivid tapestry of where he’s from, brings together what Gray holds most dear: poetry, community, and voice. “I really wanted to think of a way to put a lot of my story into a book,” he says. “To not only share my story but also open up windows for other kids to share where they’re from.”

For Gray, where one is from is far more than a location. There’s so much about an individual, mainly young children, that we constantly miss. “It’s important that children understand we are very complicated humans. We can have so many things that make us who we are,” Gray says. “It can be the fun things, like the foods we like, as well as some of the hard stuff – losing someone we love or being bullied. It’s okay that all those things make us who we are.”

Illustration: Oge Mora

As a Black Canadian male elementary teacher, words play a significant role in how and when Gray feels safe. He’s constantly thinking about the words people share with him, and the words he shares with other people. “As a teacher, one of the things I try to communicate with younger students is that our words have meaning,” he says. “They can influence a situation, a relationship, a community, the world. It’s so important that we are mindful of our words.”

Writing I’m From also spoke to the need of these kids – who are from so many different places, whose parents are from so many different places – to have stories with diverse people. “The least I can do as a Black male educator is to try to give them stories from a different perspective. Because, believe it or not, I am still one of the only Black male teachers they may ever have.”

Gray believes unequivocally that writing is a form of liberation. “That’s how I find my freedom, and that’s how I want to give back to specifically young, Black children. That’s who I write for,” Gray says. “I do think notebooks and stubby pencils can be a form of liberation and freedom for anybody.”

With so much happening in the world, Gray feels we need to be kinder and allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes. “If we aren’t constantly reminding ourselves of the things that make us feel good, that is, telling ourselves that it’s going to be okay, finding the people to encourage us, life can be hard,” Gray says. “It’s very important that we find the time to spend with joy and beauty, take care of who we are as human beings, because we get one chance.”

Gray hopes I’m From reminds readers of the importance of their unique identities. “We are made up of so many different layers, and all those layers make us who we are; scratches can be beautiful,” he says. “Sometimes they hurt, but they can make us beautiful people.”

Photo Credit: Eugene Perez and Erika Quitoriano