The Dandiest Life: Hear Our Voices Author Interview with Tracy Occomy Crowder

Illustration of with the Chicago skyline and lake with the Tu Books logo, book title, and Kirkus Reviews quote: "An engaging novel drawing strength from its rich narrative voice and celebrating Black historical luminaries."

This Q&A with author Tracy Occomy Crowder and Owner & CEO of The Dandiest Life, LLC Elizabeth Mobley originally appeared on The Dandiest Life Blog. Tracy’s debut middle grade novel Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key is available wherever books are sold!

Tracy Occomy Crowder is a community organizer who has worked to address issues of racial equity across Illinois for the past thirty years, particularly in housing and education. In this work, she brought recess back to Chicago Public Schools. As an author, she enjoys creating work steeped in African-American history, culture, struggles, and human foibles as well as share unknown historical facts with humor and everyday experiences. This is Tracy’s first middle grade novel.

Elizabeth Anne Greer (Mobley), affectionately known as, “The Melanated Neurodivergent Medical Momma”, is the Owner & CEO of The Dandiest Life, LLC.  The Dandiest Life Is a company that specializes in helping individual persons and their families (or businesses) navigate the Special Education system, the work environment, or the community at large  in which they live,  through providing supportive measures by way of coaching and one-on-one family and individual trainings sessions. 

2008 was an interesting time for many in the Black community! Some were extremely excited and proud to be Black, while many were living in fear. With former President Barack Obama running for the Presidency at the time, there was great ugliness to be seen, yet inspiration to be spread. Why did you set the book in this era? What are your greatest reflections?

I started writing Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key in 2016 when my son, Malik, was learning to read. He loved reading adventure books so, knowing that representation matters, I started looking for books that both involved a Black boy protagonist that captured a sense of adventure and intrigue while also providing a somewhat light and fun read. At the time, I was struggling to find books with that delicate balance so I used my own love of mystery to write Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key about Malik and boys like him. So, originally, the book took place in 2016 when I was writing it and the historical element focused on Monty discovering the rich history and tradition of Black horse groomers, trainers, cowboys and a 19th Century Black horse jockey in particular who is known to be the number one horse jockey in American history. 

I decided to change the period when Monty had his adventure to 2008 as I continued to develop the book because I was looking for a way to dig deeper into not just the horse tradition in the Black community, but larger community and political issues that were both specific to Washington Park but universal enough that all readers could relate to. Obama’s presidency and the Olympic Games are well-known across the world, so that seemed to be the best setting for the book to draw readers in. 

Montgomery is a tenacious, brilliant, and inquisitive young Black child, who, in the heart of 2008, was witnessing great things happening all around him! I was preparing for my senior year of high school and trying to decide if I would be able to make a positive impact on the school and local community. Here we see Monty looking to gain a sense of freedom and independence, acceptance from his friends, and a deeper understanding of the things and world around him. May I ask who Monty represents in your life?

Monty definitely represents Malik, who was eight years old when I was writing the book! One day, we were having fun playing tennis on the sidewalk in the backyard when the ball rolled into the ground cover and I thought, wow, what if I reached into the ground cover and, instead of finding the tennis ball I found something mysterious?! This was the beginning of me formulating the plot for the mystery I had been contemplating writing. Malik was an energetic and curious child at the time, much like Monty, and had a carefree spirit. 

Monty also represents all children of color in challenged communities. At the time I started writing the book, I had been reflecting on the fact that my husband and I would not allow Malik to wander around the neighborhood on his own the way that we did at nine years old growing up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. This lack of physical freedom for children had been weighing heavily on my mind as my organization supported Black and Latina mother-leaders in Chicago to win the return of recess to Chicago Public Schools in 2012. One issue that came up constantly during that conversation was the safety of young people and what could happen to them if they went outside for an extended period. Our advocacy campaign was centered around the necessity for kids to be able to be kids and the fact that school might be the safest place for them to be outside.

As I was reading this book, Monty found himself in yet another position: being made fun of by young children he considers friends. In communities everywhere, especially in Black communities, I found that this heavy teasing happened far too often, and it could lead children to making choices that indeed would impact their home lives. In the case of Monty, his decision took him on an interesting, educational, fun, and ghost-filled adventure, but this is not always the case. Can you share more about this dynamic/or the paradigm of falling under peer pressure, young people seeking more, and the desire to find a community within a community?

I believe it’s natural for children to look for belonging and acceptance as they make their way in this world. It’s up to community to be able to embrace them as best we can and provide outlets and practices like restorative justice to be able to work through confrontation and conflict amongst children. In Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key, I wanted to show the journey of Monty as a young boy who started out believing that acceptance by his friends, which he thought centered around having physical independence, and the fame of the Olympics coming to his area were the most important things, the treasures in his life, to understanding that being embraced by the community and his neighbors had the most value of all. 

Monty’s parents remind me of my own! The parents that are fierce, loving, steadfast, yet stoic. Each one with such a distinct personality, it can not be missed and there is no time for disrespect. Yet as a child, you are deeply searching for your path and self-actualization separate from those that raised you. Monty’s parents work very hard sacrificing their time and energy to provide all that they have for Monty so that he has beautiful experiences that keep him active, and allow him to have a full, safe, and beautiful life. Are Monty’s patterns based on any particular people in your life? Personally, Monty’s folks remind me of how my parents and those of my friends make sure to keep us busy to protect us from the inner city in which I grew up. (For reference, I grew up in Forrest Creek & Capitol Heights, Maryland, considered the Hood-of-the-Hood in Prince George’s County before we relocated to Martinsburg, WV a rural-ish suburb because the commuter train to leC MARC is the last stop).

Monty’s parents definitely represent my husband and me! It’s true that there’s that delicate balance between protecting and guiding a child through life and allowing them to explore, make their own mistakes and learn from them, and make their own way. Experience is, after all, the best teacher. There’s no perfect way to achieve that balance. I think providing the framework of physical safety is part of it and it’s a learning process. As you go along, you learn what your individual child needs to become self-reliant, even if it means you stepping back a bit to let them soar.

Have you always wanted to be an author? If yes, where did your initial love of literature and words on a page come from? (I am a firm believer that parents and adults who can read would help society as a whole by sharing the love of words and reading with others. We can achieve this by first teaching the fundamentals and mechanics of reading. Any person, especially children, can grow into a lover of books and novels. Reading is the gateway to knowledge and knowledge can never be taken.)

On writing: I have not always wanted to be an author, although I’ve always loved to tell stories. I got interested in writing as I was researching my own family history and trying to reimagine my ancestors’ experiences and bring the family history to life. I also knew that I came from a family tradition of writing stories about the lives of Black people as my grandmother, Marita Bonner Occomy, wrote stories, plays, and essays during the Harlem Renaissance and, as a young adult, I dove into and was inspired by her writing. As I mentioned before, I ended up writing Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key based on our experiences with my son and his reading journey and entered the New Vision Award contest three years after writing the book, then won the opportunity to work with Lee & Low and Tu Books to publish it. 

My instinct in the writing process is organic and involves jumping in and getting started with some language that I think will draw people into the story and going from there. I do a lot of writing, reading out loud, then rewriting to see if things “sound right” or if I’m getting my point across. I also do a lot of research so, when I experience writers block, I do more research and come back to the story to give it more depth and detail and have a fresher perspective. I’ve learned in working with my editor, however, a couple of planning/outlining techniques that aren’t as organic, but force me to plot out where things are headed and give the story and the character development some structure. If necessary, I can change course as I write, but the outline establishes a good framework and foundation for the story.  

On developing a love of reading, I agree that it’s up to adults and those around us to support and foster that excitement and passion. My sister taught me how to read one summer when I was three and, once I mastered it, I never looked back. Understanding how to connect reading to something that children are passionate about will engage them and is key to jump-starting the journey to becoming a reading lover. In the case of our son, seeing what he was excited about reading gave my husband and I a good idea of what we could focus on to get him engaged.

This novel would make an excellent addition to libraries across the US, especially to those school libraries in places similar to where I went to school. A book like this would offer additional chances of excitement in learning, and a teacher could easily use this book in an intersectional way to increase interest in other subject areas. What are your hopes for Monty and the discoveries that arise from the reading, Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key? Is there a sequel or series to come? (As I am working through this book, I would love to “watch” through reading as Monty grows up!) 

I would love for Monty to be entrenched in the schools and will be focusing some attention on doing school visits, especially here in Chicago. To support that effort, my publishing company, Lee & Low, has created a Teachers Guide. I’m also interested in sharing the important Black history captured in the book as well as the need to organize around things that are important to both young and adult readers. In terms of the next book, a sequel is definitely something I’m thinking about but also entertaining some non-fiction ideas for children around some of the themes in the book.

This book does many things for my spirit: it reignites the innocence in me; it reminds me of the little Black girl that I once was and that still resides within me, the little Black children I am raising, and those that I am teaching. They, as I always like to share with those I come into contact with, are deserving of a rich and wholesome story full of wonder, intrigue, Black Black Black Culture, a full household with both parents or multiple loving caregivers, an imagination or creative spirit, and a community that cares for you! What emotions were you personally seeking to evoke from the reader?

You’re hitting the nail on the head with this question! In this book I wanted to create a balance of emotions for the reader through the lens of exploring the meaning of community. Community is both a location where bad things can happen and where there really are things to worry about, as well as a place, both physical and in our hearts and minds, where we are grounded and confident, can feel the freedom to be ourselves, exist within the love of our families, can be curious, inquisitive and can explore—even if that exploration doesn’t take us outside our homes or yards. And, finally, community is a place where we find joy and wonder in everyday things and the people around us.

If you could share anything with your audience, the reader of this interview, or other community organizers and people who are actively seeking to irradiate racial disparities and increase self-love and self-actualization within the Black community (through infusing grace, humor, and unknown facts, and challenges and foibles of the human race), what would that be?

I believe that there are three key ways to address racial disparities and bring about self-love in the Black community and all marginalized communities. First, there is the effort to make social change and transform the systems that have historically harmed our communities and reflect back damaging messages about who we are. Then, replacing those systems with positive information, history, and messages about who we are. And, finally, figuring out how we treat each other as individuals, especially young people, on a daily basis, learning how to view those in our community and other communities as unique “treasures,” and treating each other as if we are the most precious things on earth.

Likewise, for Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key, my goal was to create a backdrop of some of the social issues in Chicago that get resolved with community change while uplifting the rich history and tradition of Black people in Washington Park mastering the various endeavors around horses that are not just part of Black history, but American History. In Monty, I tried to create a strong and memorable individual character that people can relate to by using humor and paradoxes that exist within us all so people can feel that connection to him and really root for him. 

I like to call myself a Professional Agitator, in addition to homeschooling and the work I do through my LLC and Friends Family Civitan Club, I founded a 501c3 Non-Profit.  Working in the capacity of Community Action Initiative, we are mission-focused with measurable outcomes primarily serving Black (BIPOC) veterans and those that are disabled/neurodivergent. I love my community and those around me. In this work, similarly to you, identifying those that are so often overlooked, face racial disparities, and working with them on a path forward is imperative to the wellbeing of our community as a whole! Our motto is Seen, Respected, and Valued especially those that have been overlooked, ignored, and marginalized. How do you approach your community action work and education? And now that you are an New Visions Award-winning author, how do you combine those two efforts? It is fantastic! Congratulations by the way!

At my organization, we are working primarily with Black and Latina mothers and grandmothers in challenged communities to address equity issues of importance to them like bringing recess back to schools in their communities, addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, and children and family mental health. We start with the premise that those impacted by various systems are experts in their own lives and are the very ones who should be at the decision-making table to create change around those systems. These fierce and powerful women are real-life versions of Ms. Jenkins in Montgomery and the Case of the Golden Key, and her character is modeled after them. I use both the work that I do, what I have learned about social movements over the years, and Black history that I’ve researched to create the context and background for my writing. 

To be an award-winning author is to be an artist who produces works of critical acclaim, beloved by many. It is a production of the written word, not drawn or painted. Yet, you can produce great imagery through written expression. It is great work that does not let the reader down! You create opportunities for the reader to have an experience—to learn, to grow, to have fun. The emotional journey that one experiences when reading is what I thoroughly enjoy when reading. What is your ultimate goal when writing and who do you write for when you’re actively in the writing process?

I am very focused on writing about Black history and the struggles in the Black community, but through characters who portray universal themes and emotions. Again, I truly believe that Black history is American history so feel like I’m writing for everyone.