Shawn Amos Weaves Music and Memories Through Middle-Grades Novel ‘Cookies & Milk’ + Album
Photo by Fred Siegel
No one’s got a recipe for music quite like Shawn Amos, from his ever-evolving blend of sounds and styles to the complex flavors in the life story that inspires it all.
In Cookies & Milk, a new book for middle-grades readers, Amos finds a new way to tell that story through the lens of Ellis, an 11-year-old boy who, like Amos himself at that age, navigates life in 1970s Hollywood as he helps his dad open a chocolate-chip cookie store.
In Amos’ case, “dad” is Wally “Famous” Amos, and the musician wanted to tell that story as much as his own — for his own family, but for larger reasons, too.
“Aside from my father’s long historical record, there is virtually no recorded history of my family,” Amos says. “This is true for so many Black families in America. We have virtually no evidence of our past. And the narrative that does exist often gets co-opted or stolen by others. This is true for much of my father’s story. I wanted to reclaim a bit of his story and leave evidence of our larger family’s existence. I think I’ve been doing this for decades in smaller ways.”
Songs, of course, are one of those ways, and after he finished writing Cookies & Milk, Amos dove into archiving his recordings, poring through tapes of demos and fragments. As he listened back to the songs, some of which he hadn’t heard in 25 years, he noticed some common threads.
“I was struck at how long I have been dealing with the same themes of Black families, Black acceptance, hidden Black shame,” he says. He collected some of his past songs, and added a new one, to a Cookies & Milk companion album called Hollywood Blues: Stories and Songs from The Family Tree (1997-2022), which he calls a “map of my family journey.” The 18 in the collection songs reference his family members featured in the book, but also wider experiences. “The ‘Family Tree’ in the title is both my own and the broader Black family,” Amos says.
Newly written for Hollywood Blues is a song called “Everybody Wants to Be My Friend,” which features Keb’Mo’ on dobro. The song echoes its topic with a cheerful surface that masks something more somber just below.
“The new song is a masked version of my own childhood where I was the one Black friend for everyone,” Amos explains. “White, westside L.A. liberals love having a Black friend. And I loved being their one Black friend until the isolation became too much. … It does real damage to grow up without anyone who looks like you. I’m still undoing the damage. Ellis, in the book, has the same struggle. I hope his story and my songs help people undo the damage a lot earlier than it took me.”
Earlier this month, Disney Television Animation announced it is making an original animated series from the book, with Amos and actor Laurence Fishburne among the executive producers.
To tell you more about Cookies & Milk, I thought I’d call on an expert in middle-grades fiction, one who happens to live with me. My daughter, Nora Chandler, is a sixth-grader who loves books, especially when they tackle difficult topics. (She loves cookies, too, so the title immediately drew her in.) Here is her review.
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Hi! I’m Nora, and I’m going to talk to you about the newly released Cookies & Milk book, Shawn Amos’ debut kids novel. I’ll be sharing a summary and quick review of this book, but I promise not to give away any major spoilers.
Here’s a quick summary: 11-year-old Ellis Johnson moves in with his dad in the “Divorced Dads’ Bungalow” for the summer before middle school. Ellis helps his dad strive to open the world’s first chocolate chip cookie store (which isn’t the first wild idea Ellis’ dad has had) with help from his family and friends, but there are some mishaps and stumbling blocks (not to mention familial challenges and mysteries) along the way. This book is based on Shawn Amos’ (son to Wally “Famous” Amos) own childhood and contains great, well-drawn art by Robert Paul Jr.
Here are some of the things I liked best about Cookies & Milk:
1. This book has AWESOME imagery! The descriptions of how things look are really well done. For example, when a parking lot gets painted, the author does a great job of telling you how it looks, but also letting you imagine a little bit of it on your own. Also, the mishaps the characters get themselves into are really easy and fun to see in your head, and in scenes when there is darkness, it’s easy to imagine how the rooms look in darkness.
2. Cookies & Milk contains really good messages. For example, the book goes into racism and the challenges of being a Black kid in places where there aren’t many Black people. It also shows how important hair is to the Black community. Family is another key message in the book, as Ellis has some familial challenges and mysteries that are a huge part of the book. Friendship is also mentioned in the form of Ellis’ best friend, as well as new ones Ellis makes. Another key message in the book is youth, as Ellis gets into a lot of fun mishaps and adventures. Ellis is very youthful and positive.
I would recommend this book to anyone who can read chapter books with over 150 pages and follow a plot line and story, but this book was made with middle-graders in mind and I think it will resonate strongly with kids in middle school or late elementary.
Well, I hope you guys check out this book. Have a great day!
Cookies & Milk was published May 24 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.