Since his time in grade school, local author Ronnie Sidney noticed a shortage of books relating to the daily issues faced by children of color.
“When people read the books, I want them to feel the pain,” he said. “I want your stomach to hurt because if that’s how you feel just reading about it, just imagine what it’s like for people that are living it. That’s everyday pain for them.”
Many of his unique needs as a black special education student were overlooked. Today, the unlikely Virginia Commonwealth University graduate dedicates himself to diversifying the bookshelves of future students.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of books with black characters in them, and I think that’s why I didn’t like to read a lot,” said the 33-year-old, who grew up in Essex County.
This year, Sidney released his third graphic novel for young adults, “Rest in Peace RaShawn.” Geared toward high school students, the book touches on gangs, stereotypes and violence.
He wrote it amid the well-publicized fatal shootings of several young African-Americans, including Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castille and Trayvon Martin. He said he wanted “to tell the whole story” and make readers empathize with the characters.
“I was just an emotional wreck with that,” Sidney said. “Some people were like, ‘Don’t do it. It’s going to be a lightning rod book, and it’s going to make people mad.’”
In his first two books, “Nelson Beats the Odds” and then “Tameka’s New Dress,” Sidney discussed special education, bullying and abusive homes. He said all of three books carry a theme of resilience.
Although RuthE Tobey, his middle school special education teacher, said English was easily his hardest subject, Sidney’s first book became an Amazon best-seller.
“When he left me after seventh grade and headed to the high school, he wasn’t there yet,” said Tobey. “The irony now is that he’s writing fabulous books.”
Sidney called his first book semiautobiographical, using his middle name, Nelson, for the protagonist. Sidney based the character on his own struggles in school after he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in third grade at Tappahannock Elementary School.
As a child, when Sidney was placed in special education classes, he felt shame and embarrassment — already recognizing the stigma attached to special education in elementary school.
“I knew I was in special ed; I didn’t know what ADHD was,” he said. “I just thought something was wrong with me. I was just so ashamed of it I didn’t want to talk about it.”
He hid his diagnosis from his peers. Every day, he arrived late so his friends wouldn’t see him enter.
“He was always late to class, and for some reason, I didn’t push it,” Tobey said.
Sidney attended special education classes until ninth grade. At Essex High School, he was placed in the self-contained section of the school’s special education program.
In self-contained special education, the curriculum is completely separated from the rest of the school’s population. He fought to opt out.
“It was always like fighting against the current in school,” Sidney said.
Although he prevailed and was allowed to attend regular classes, he was placed in a lower track reserved for students the school didn’t expect to pursue higher education.
Sidney was not interested in his classes. His GPA fell. He graduated with a 1.8, not enough to attend a four-year institution.
“He was always obviously very bright, but school came very, very hard for him,” Tobey said.
Sidney said his GPA reflected his effort, not his intelligence.
“I thought high school was going to be a new start, but it turned out to be a tragic start,” he said. “I just felt like the school gave up on me and I gave up on them. That’s the recipe for a 1.8 GPA.”
But he still wanted to go to college, so he enrolled in J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College before transferring to Old Dominion University after a year. He graduated with a human services degree.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he worked as a counselor for the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw. Four years later, Sidney decided to pursue his master’s in social work from his sister’s alma mater, VCU.
During his time at the regional jail, he developed a therapeutic program called Creative Medicine: Healing Through Words.
Creative Medicine encourages participants to express themselves through writing, from poetry to prose.
“When I work in the prison, I see some really exceptional kids, smart kids, and they made bad decisions because they felt like they didn’t have options,” he said.
The program started out free, but Sidney has since turned it into his business, and he speaks about it at seminars across the country. He published his graphic novels through Creative Medicine LLC, illustrating with an independent artist.
In his search for an illustrator, Sidney wanted someone with experience bringing diverse characters to life. He said his choice of names, hairstyles and complexions sought to reaffirm and normalize underrepresented groups.
In “Tameka’s New Dress,” he modeled the social worker after his sister Cherlanda Sidney-Ross, who works for the Virginia Department of Social Services.
“It’s important to be able to see in print, whether it be a magazine or a book, someone who looks like you or has gone through similar experiences,” Sidney-Ross said.
“I’ve seen youth struggle with identity issues and being bullied ... just trying to find themselves. To have an outlet or someone to talk to is important.”
In addition to managing Creative Medicine, Sidney works as an outpatient therapist and mentors young people like rising Virginia Union University freshman Isaiah Taylor.
Taylor, 18, said he plans to major in entrepreneur management while playing for VUU’s football team en route to opening his own athletic facility.
He said Sidney’s story inspires him and that other young people could benefit from reading his mentor’s books.
“These books could actually help children see that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be,” Taylor said. “Maybe when they get older, they’ll take a stand.”
Sidney recently appeared on Reddit after he created a meme with his picture. It stated, “Spent 7 years in special ed., graduating with a 1.8 GPA. A teacher said I wasn’t going to college. Now I’m a VCU grad and best-selling author.”
After nine days, a site moderator decided to close the comment section after an influx of racist remarks. “Unfortunately, some minds are closed,” Sidney said.
“Someone left a review on my Amazon and said RaShawn deserved to die,” he added. “It was a fictional person who was shot and killed. In some ways, it just makes more people stuck in their ways.”
That’s one reason why Sidney said his books target young people.
“Their parents may not change, their grandparents are definitely who they are,” said Sidney. “I think we can really start making books address issues that these kids are going through and experiencing, but don’t have the platform to talk about it.”
The other reason revolves around Sidney’s belief in unlocking every child’s potential. He said his current and future books are tasked with helping “as many struggling kids as possible.”
“You have this seed that has all this great potential packed inside,” he said. “And you know some of those seeds are going to develop into flowers.”