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“You are a lover of words. Someday you’ll write a book.” These words, printed on a thin slip of paper in a fortune cookie, convinced Clarence Nero to publish the manuscript for his new novel, Cheekie: A Child Out of the Desire. “I took it as a sign from God. When that message came, it was perfect timing,” says the 27-year-old first-time author.

Nero, who lives in Arlington, started writing the book five years ago “out of my own pain, and to heal.” In his bittersweet coming-of-age tale set in New Orleans’ notorious Desire housing project, the love and determination of a close-knit family temper the hardships of poverty and domestic violence.

Several publishers “said it was a good story, but it needed this or needed that,” Nero recalls. “They were very encouraging, even though they were rejecting it.” He continued to revise the novel, which was ultimately published by Council Oak, the small press that published Clifton L. Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored.

Cheekie was nominated by the American Library Association for Best Book for Young Adults. And recently, when he was at a book signing in North Carolina, Nero’s literary idol, Maya Angelou, paid him a surprise visit.

“It was like having an out-of-body experience,” says Nero, still thrilled by having met Angelou. “She came and sat with me for an hour. She encouraged me, and she bought about 50 books,” Nero exclaims. “She had me autograph and sign personalized messages to her friends. One of them included Oprah Winfrey, so that was pretty exciting.”

While in Winston-Salem, Nero spoke to a group of students at Carter G. Woodson Elementary. “That was the first time I realized the impact that I could have on someone else…that the story could have on someone else’s life,” says Nero. “I told them that I knew what it was like growing up in the projects and with the crime. I told them about my brother, who was brutally murdered in the drug-infested streets of New Orleans.”

“[Angelou] was a light to me, and in turn, I was a light to the students at Carter G. Woodson,” Nero says. “Now I can run on, as she says, and see what the end will bring.”—Holly Bass

Nero signs Cheekie at the Baltimore Book Festival, Saturday,

Sept. 26th at 5 p.m.