Fantasy young adult author J. Elle is marking the end of her Wings of Ebony duology about a Black teen girl from Houston who’s on a mission to understand her bloodline in the magical land of Ghizon.
Ashes of Gold, published by Denene Millner Books and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, came out last month continuing the story of Rue, raised in Houston with her younger sister by their late mother, who must follow her destiny in her father’s homeland of Ghizon and save her magic-possessing people from destruction.
But readers don’t have to wait long to read more of J. Elle’s work. Her middle grade fantasy YA duology, A Taste of Magic, will be published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books this summer.
The first book in the series will introduce us to 12-year-old Kyana, a Black girl who’s recently learned she’s a witch and becomes a student at the Park Row Magic Academy hidden behind a beauty shop. Once she realizes redistricting and gentrification will close the shop, she fights to keep it open.
J. Elle talks to she lit about anticipating the debut of her middle grade duology, owning the “inner city fantasy” subgenre in the increasingly diverse fantasy YA genre, and transitioning from a teacher whose book pitch was discovered by literary agents on Twitter to teaching books she’s written in the classroom. Check out the conversation below:
she lit: Your YA duology features Rue, a Black girl from Houston’s Third Ward, who travels to the magical land of Ghizon to fulfill her birthright. How did you come up with the subgenre of an “inner-city fantasy” and what inspired you to make this character bicultural struggling to exist between two worlds?
J. Elle: The aesthetic of the story honestly came to me as I tried to make a fantasy world I could see myself in. I wanted to craft a world that felt familiar to me and I grew up in an inner city community. I found when I left my community to attend college, the first in my family to do so, and get a job or move to other parts of the country, I felt like I was in an entirely different world sometimes. I wanted to parallel that dichotomy in this story and explore the many ways Black Americans might feel like they’re forced to live a double life when they’re in spaces that aren’t inclusive.
she lit: You’ve said Rue’s background has elements of your own. Without giving spoilers, is there a scene in Ashes of Gold that you wrote based on a particular experience?
J. Elle: Most of Ashes of Gold takes place on the magical island of Ghizon, but there is a moment in the book where Rue returns to East Row that is reminiscent of how it felt when I’d come home from college. It was nostalgic and quite special to be able to explore the ways being able to connect with home is an affirming experience.
she lit: How would you describe Rue’s character development in Ashes of Gold compared to Wings of Ebony?
J. Elle: Rue’s view of herself changes from the start of Ashes to the end. She has a definitive assumption about what she is capable of and the journey she goes on shows her she is capable of—and worthy of—much more than she thinks. It was a challenging book to write because book one, Wings of Ebony, leaves off with Rue seemingly unstoppable. But she had plenty of room to still grow. I just had to dig in to find it.
she lit: In both books, Rue has a longing to protect her Houston family and her fellow Ghizonis. What do young readers usually tell you about how they relate to this balance of supporting family and community?
J. Elle: I’ve had readers tell me the idea of not wanting to let family down really resonated with them. So many of us carry the pressures of supporting those who came before us. I was really glad to hear readers were able to see their lived experiences reflected here.
she lit: How would you describe the transition of being a teacher then becoming an author who is teaching through your books?
J. Elle: It was really interesting! I miss the way I could read kids’ faces as I stood in front of them teaching a concept. I loved seeing the light bulb click, hearing their opinions. When I write books, I’m sending my words out in the world for students to consume on their own. And so I miss hearing from them! Seeing their faces as they read! I try to do as many school visits as I can because I just love working with students so much.
she lit: With your passion in creating characters that kids can relate to, what are your concerns about more and more diverse YA books, many by Black authors, being banned from schools and libraries across the country?
J. Elle: Book banning is deeply grieving. When has the government trying to control the narrative of history taught in school ever gone well? Creating freethinkers is the purpose of education. Students who can reason and analyze and interpret with the rich perspective they bring to the table. The beauty of this country is “supposed to be” its freedom of ideas. But that grates against the actual picture of what’s happening with book banning all over the country. I am consoled, however, knowing that books in schools are only one way kids access books. I am hoping to see communities band together to exercise their constitutional right to read whatever they choose. There’s much more I could say here, but I’ll wrap up by offering this small encouragement: I believe in our kids. I believe in the relentless persistence of their curiosity, the connectedness they cling to nowadays via social media, and their spirit, their heart. Tell a kid in school something is forbidden, they’re only going to want it more. The banners will fail. Look at history.
she lit: What’s it like working with accomplished author and editor Denene Millner and having your duology under her imprint?
J. Elle: It was a true privilege to work with Denene. She brought such a needed eye to my story and helped me contextualize the themes I wanted to explore with the nuance I needed. I’ll forever be grateful for her seeing me in her inbox and saying, yes. It changed my life.
she lit: Your book series was discovered through the literary pitch competition #DVPit. What do you think was the secret sauce that made your successful tweet stand out for agents?
J. Elle: Strong comparison titles and a fresh hook help pitches stand out. My comps were The Hate U Give meets Wonder Woman, which aesthetically is incredibly fresh. There’s no guarantee with contests of course and what’s “fresh” is a bit nebulous at times to figure out. But running a pitch by a few people who don’t know what the story about can be a fun way to see if your tweet feels fresh and engaging.
she lit: You’re promoting Ashes of Gold and the end of the Wings of Ebony duology. What can you reveal about your next duology, A Taste of Magic, and how does the Park Row Magic Academy compare to Ghizon?
J. Elle: A Taste of Magic is about 12-year-old Kyana who must cook up some magic to save her magic school from the effects of gentrification. It’s a delightful middle grade story so the biggest difference is the age range and tone. Tonally it’s much more lighthearted and funny than Wings of Ebony. My YA tends to be a bit grittier and dark. A Taste of Magic is for any age, but I’ve tried to target 9-12 year olds with Kyana’s voice and sensibilities. I’m so excited for readers to meet Kyana!