Courtesy of Michael Allen
After Michael Allen and his brother Gilbert read a feature on their unique life story that sensationalized their lives in a small-town newspaper, the brothers made a pact to tell their experience in their own way when they felt the time was right.
That time came last year with the release of “Brotherly Love,” a children’s book Michael, who is now the principal of Oakton Elementary School in Evanston/Skokie School District 65, and Gilbert penned together. The book centers on the brothers’ story growing up as Black men in poverty with drug-addicted parents and rising up to become a school principal and social worker.
“I remember growing up and not being able to go in libraries and get books of characters that look like me,” Gilbert Allen said. “Me and Michael wanted to put our voice out there as people of color to help young people know there’s other people going through similar things they’re going through and inspire hope in them.”
While the entirety of the book is rooted in facts, the full context isn’t always there — something that will change in the pair’s upcoming young adult novel, where they plan to go deeper into the concepts they introduce in “Brotherly Love.”
After being told to focus on athletics rather than academics while he was growing up, Gilbert Allen said he felt it was important to show young Black children examples of Black people as scholars.
For Michael Allen, their story is one of Black love and the sacrifices they made for each other because of it, he said.
“That’s the reason we talk openly about systemic racism — naming, holding space for it and recognizing it has an impact on all of our lives,” he said. “We’re hoping that young people can understand how to take hope out of the sky and put it on their tables and their seats, just making it very tangible for them so they are able to navigate and find their true purpose in life.”
Gilbert Allen said since part of the book centers on how his brother legally adopted him when he was 15-years-old, the story can also hit home for many foster parents or people adopting children, showing them their sacrifices did not go unnoticed.
“I wasn’t seeing African American males sacrifice like that, at least I didn’t see the world putting it out there on TV or in books,” Gilbert Allen said. “I found that super fascinating, and it was one thing that drove me when I was going through difficult times in my life.”
Throughout the process of writing the novel, Gilbert Allen said the brothers were able to learn more about each other. He said he thought about how their feelings and perspectives were different and how they could best support each other, which proved to be difficult at times.
Michael Allen said the best part of the experience was having the opportunity for him and his brother to craft a legacy together. But at times, it was hard for him to take himself out of the older sibling role and force himself to recognize Gilbert’s voice was equal to his own, he said.
For both brothers, however, the highlight of the whole experience was sharing the final product with their mother, who was in hospice and passed away in December, they said. Gilbert Allen said she was so proud she insisted on buying every one of her siblings a copy and refused to take a single one for free.
Norea Hoeft, the brothers’ unofficial publicist and communications manager, said she was awed by how the book brought the two together, especially in the final moments of their mother’s life.
“Especially at this time, when a lot of people are experiencing loss, especially in communities of color, to see them come together as a family and to work through that time with a lot of grace was healing for me,” Hoeft said.
The brothers stressed that the book isn’t just for young Black children — it’s for everyone, whether they are part of a marginalized community or are seeking to understand others’ experiences.
“We wanted to make sure that vulnerable and marginalized people of all kinds, every group of folks who have had their humanity stripped away, know they are loved and appreciated,” Michael Allen said. “They have something important to offer the universe and the world is dependent upon that, so we want them to know they have the permission to be their true authentic selves, despite what might be going on in their reality today.”
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