Grisham M-Cubed

Author John Grisham shakes hands with local teens Monday at Murray High School before talking about his latest Theodore Boone novel with them. The students are attending the M-Cubed Summer Academy, which features math lessons and book discussions, among other activities.

Nearly 40 local middle school boys have spent the last week immersed in the adventures of the John Grisham character Theodore Boone, and on Monday, they had the chance to speak to Boone’s creator.

Grisham spent an hour speaking with the students and signed their books afterward. They read “Theodore Boone: The Accomplice” as part of the M-Cubed Summer Academy, which started last week at Murray High School. Grisham has written seven books about Theo, a teenager who gives free legal advice to his friends.

Founded by 100 Black Men of Central Virginia in 2009, M-Cubed helps young African-American boys from Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools improve their Algebra skills and learn how to be better men. Lessons during the two-week camp include table manners, tying a tie and career choices. The three M’s stand for math, men and mission.

James Cordero, a rising seventh grader at Sutherland Middle School, is in his second year of M-Cubed. He joined the program to help advance his education. He wants to become a lawyer.

After meeting Grisham, James said he wants to read more of his books to see what he’s written about.

“Because I remember in some parts of the book, I was like, ‘yes, I know that law,’” James said.

Two days in the academy feature conversations with black men in the community about their careers. Last week, they heard from a professional football player, a scientist, an engineer and a lawyer, among others.

James said those days are helpful.

“Because they show us some things we could be when we are older,” he said. “They let us question people who had these careers who are very successful black men. They show us that we can be those men.”

M-Cubed students read two books during the academy and are expected to finish both in the week they are handed out. Students have moved on from Theodore Boone and are reading “Black Panther: the Young Prince” by Ronald L. Smith.

Grisham discussed his writing process and childhood heroes with the M-Cubed students, who prepared questions about the book and his career. They wanted to know his motivations for “The Accomplice” and how he comes up with names for characters. Others wondered about why he became a lawyer and how he copes with writer’s block.

He hasn’t experienced that affliction, Grisham said. Rather, his biggest problem is deciding which book to write next. Many of his novels focus on issues in the criminal justice system.

“There are so many things wrong with the legal system that we could fix if we just do it,” he said.

Grisham said he created the Theodore Boone series to entertain and inform children about the legal system. “The Accomplice” explores the issue of suspects having to wait in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail.

Grisham said he’s working to reform the bail system and wanted to help people better understand the issue.

Grisham, who lives in the area, has written more than 40 novels. He encouraged the M-Cubed boys to read, study grammar and do something they enjoy every day.

“The more you read, the smarter you become,” he said.

Writing began as Grisham’s secret hobby. He worked on the side for three years to finish his first novel, “A Time to Kill.”

Miles White, a seventh-grader at Sutherland, enjoyed listening to Grisham.

“It shows me that if you have a secret passion, you should follow it,” he said. “And it might be your main career one day.”

Miles said he didn’t want to reveal his secret passion just yet.

In addition to the summer academy, students in M-Cubed receive mentoring year around.

Miles has attended the academy for three years. His dad, Clinton White, said he’s seen his son blossom as a leader thanks to the program.

James said M-Cubed has helped him similarly.

“It does help us grow as leaders and gives us more confidence,” he said.

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Katherine Knott is a reporter for The Daily Progress and author of The Cheat Sheet, an education-focused newsletter. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

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