Teenage author drew on family experience to write ‘Land of the Free’

WALLENPAUPACK – Propelled by the impact of racism on his own family and reports of police brutality against the black community, 9th grader Justin Blanding is putting his passion for writing into action in hopes of making a difference .

The American Reading Company (ARC) recognized him with a contract to publish his book on the subject.

Blanding’s accomplishments were recognized by the school board on March 14, where he shared his book project. The novel, titled “Land of the Free”, is the story of a 15-year-old boy named Jamari Connor from the fictional small town of Laketown, Pennsylvania. ARC is currently helping Blanding develop the book.

In the story, Jamari is arrested and arrested, and experiences police brutality, putting him in the hospital.

“He was just a normal kid, but then he understands why change has to happen, because what happened to him is unfair.” Blanding said.

According to Blanding, the story will likely be aimed at middle and high school readers.

Blanding said that although the story is fiction, the experiences are loosely based on incidents suffered by his own family.

“The story is for so many people… family members I could name who were wrongfully abused by the police,” Blanding said. “It’s not talked about enough and I felt that if given the chance, I had to talk about it.”

Blanding’s parents, Jamel and Kimberly Blanding, as well as her grandmother Karen Tucker, were at the school board meeting. They were entirely supportive throughout the writing process, Blanding said. Blanding said he also received accolades from administrators, teachers and other students.

Blanding said his father always encouraged him to read to further his knowledge. As for writing, Blanding said he always found it to be a natural way to express himself.

He told the school board that it was an honor to appear before them because, “only two generations ago, my existence as a biracial child was banned by the land of the free.”

Saying he didn’t know at this point where the book might take him, he added, “Right now I just want to finish the book, and really send a message that when African American kids take this book, they can see the book it’s not just me, it’s a story for everyone… It’s a story of tragedy but it’s also a story of hope.”

“I have to be part of this change.” Blanding said.

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What inspired Blanding’s “Land of the Free”

“Justin is just one of the most inspirational students of my career,” Wallenpaupack School District English and Language Arts Supervisor Lisa Ussia said in an interview. “He is a born leader and an advocate for himself and others.”

Blanding, from Hawley, was in 6th grade when he was given the assignment to write a book. Ussia said at the time that it was a detective novel. Her teachers contacted her about her writing abilities, which led her to introduce him to the ARC. The company sent him a letter of congratulations for his efforts.

Meanwhile, Blanding said he felt inspired to focus on the national issue of racism. His own cousin Marcus-David Peters, he said, was shot by police in 2018 on a highway in Virginia. Peters, a secondary school teacher, was shot dead after police said he fled the site of a car crash. The local medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide.

National media coverage of incidents of racism motivated him, Blanding said, particularly the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed.

Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, while holding Floyd down in an attempt to stop him, drove his knee into Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner said Floyd died of cardiopulmonary arrest and described the manner of death as “homicide.” Chauvin was found guilty of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter.

Chauvin later pleaded “guilty” to violating Floyd’s civil rights. Former police officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao were charged and convicted of depriving Floyd of his right to medical care. Thao and Kueng were also found guilty of willfully failing to intervene and arrest Chauvin in the murder.

“Ever since I was 10 or 11, my parents always taught me to talk to the police in a certain way,” Blanding said, citing feelings of always working twice as hard and being “two times better” than the average person. “It’s for anything, any competition. I have to work twice as hard, be very nice just so I can be seen as an equal, on an equal footing,” Blanding said.

“At the end of the day, my parents want me to see another day. I was born with a threat on my back and they protect me at all costs.” The fly continued.

Whether it was a small town or a city, it was important to “make a change”. “At the end of the day, this is my city as much as anyone else’s city. We’re not going to run away.” He said.

Blanding cited an incident in the book, in which a security guard follows the main character Jamari and his brother out of fear that they are there to shoplift, due to a preconceived idea about the color of their skin.

“It’s called tribalism,” Blanding pointed out. “It’s just about identifying with who you feel most comfortable with. If you see someone who doesn’t like you, you feel threatened.”

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Blanding gained experience during his internship

Blanding, who is 15, said he “wrote part of the book” just for himself, but didn’t think about getting a publishing deal. “When I had the opportunity, it really came to fruition.” He said.

Ussia said she recommended Blanding and other students virtual internships with ARC in the summer of 2020.

The ARC, she said, partners with the school district to provide books at different reading levels and from different publishers, to help build classroom libraries and to store books in school libraries. The internship aims to help student writers to publish a book, while learning writing or editing techniques. Student books that ARC may choose to publish are then offered to school districts nationwide for their libraries.

Blanding chose to focus on the writing process during the internship.

Ussia said she was notified in March 2021 that the ARC was awarding Blanding a contract to publish the book. It comes with a stipend and the realization that her book will potentially appear in county schools, including her own. He was asked to share the acceptance letter with Blanding.

“After reviewing your book, ‘Land of the Free’, we would like to reward Blanding with an Award of Excellence. You have created such an exciting and well-crafted book that we would like to publish it to entertain and inform other students.” letter from Jane Highland, founder and CEO of American Reading Company, reads as follows. “You will be one of the few elite student authors we have published.”

“Many of our classroom libraries have been organized with the help of ARC to ensure that every student in our school district has the opportunity to see themselves represented in texts they can access, and we are proud that the story from Justin be included not only for our Wallenpaupack community but for many others.” Ussia said.

The book is still being edited, Blanding said, as well as expanded. He said he hopes the book will come out in time for the 2022-2023 school year.

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Blanding has been an advocate for black culture and history since her elementary school days

WAHS 9th grade Justin Blanding, with his parents Jamel and Kimberly Blanding, and right, his grandmother Karen Tucker, at the Wallenpaupack school board meeting on March 14.

Blanding has been involved in his school community since elementary school.

“In fourth grade, I wrote the school board a letter explaining why we should have Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” he said, adding that he repeated it in another letter when he was in fifth grade. In his second letter, he urged the school board to include more black history in the curriculum. “I did the same thing in seventh grade, and then finally the [Middle School] principal, Dr. Caruso, he really helped me talk to [district superintendent] Mr Gunuskey.”

Blanding said he then had meetings with the school administration about educational diversification.

“Finally it happened, it was the first year we had Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off,” he said.

Superintendent Keith Gunuskey recognized Blanding at the school board meeting for his contributions. In an interview, Gunuskey said that when Justin was in middle school and then college, he and other administrators met with Blanding a few times, during which he gave them ideas on how to make the district more inclusive.

Among his suggestions, in addition to incorporating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into the school calendar, were daily activities the district could use during Black History Month.

Blanding was also honored by the Greater Scranton MLK Commission, University of Scranton’s Office of Equity and Diversity with a Youth Leadership Award while in seventh grade. The commission offered to help, so Blanding approached them to work with the school district.

Gunuskey also thanked Blanding at the school board meeting for bringing the MLK Commission to the district. According to Gunuskey, the district was recognized as the 2022 Change Agent by the MLK Commission, and that the district was on board with Blanding’s efforts. Gunuskey said it was not “the end”, but “only the beginning”.

“Justin is a great student and an even better person,” Gunuskey said.

— Ashley Fontones contributed to this report.

Scott R. Banks