For Black girls and boys alike, the quest to find stories that reflect their everyday experiences starts as early as the flames of self-awareness begin to flicker. Ayana Gray — The New York Times best-selling author of the YA fantasy novel, Beasts of Prey — embarked on a similar journey when Black characters that reflected her as a young girl were few and far between. She’s made it her mission to tell the stories that position Black youth at the center of fantastical adventures ever since.
“I didn't see stories with Black kids that were having magical adventures,” Gray tells xoNecole. “If I wanted to read a story with a little girl like me on the cover, there was going to be racism, some sort of trauma or something sad was going to happen to that little girl or boy.” As disheartening as it was to come to grips with this reality, Gray began exploring her past in order to reimagine a story for the future.
Courtesy of Ayana Gray
While in college, Ayana’s education in African and African American studies led her on a trip to Ghana that would profoundly expand her worldview. While there, the landscape, culture, and her own curiosities for ancestral connection inspired the novel she was destined to write. “I'm a Black American woman. My heritage is messy. I don't know what region, what area of Africa my ancestors came from. So I wanted to write a fantasy novel, one that drew inspiration from the continent and honored the land itself,” Gray shares with xoNecole.
What she birthed is Beasts of Prey, an epic adventure colored with the rich and complex depths of our collective heritage, history, and culture. It tells the story of two Black teens on a magical quest to hunt down a monster. In Beasts of Prey, Gray provides more proof that Black youth, and even our inner child, can be the heroes of our own stories.
xoNecole: One thing I really appreciate about the work you do is that you’re committed to represent Black stories without them being centered in race-related trauma, tell us more about your intentions behind this.
Ayana Gray: You think about other groups of people and they're able to read fantastical stories and not have to read about trauma based on their race or identity. They're able to just transport themselves, and Black kids haven't had that. So we gave Black people a break. [Beasts of Prey] is magical and adventurous. There are monsters, and some are good and some are evil, but race – it’s not the centerfold. Everybody in the story is Black, but they're nuanced. You have different skin tones and hair textures.
There are Black people who are good, Black people who are evil, Black people who are funny. There's comedic relief, there's romance; Black people are able to occupy all of these spaces. And I think it was just a bit of wish-fulfillment in saying I wrote the story that I just really wanted a kid.
"Black people are able to occupy all of these spaces. And I think it was just a bit of wish fulfillment in saying I wrote the story that I just really wanted a kid."
xoNecole: Rejection can be a reality that many writers face. How did you manage those moments of rejection early in your career and bounce back to get to where you are today?
AG: I want to be very transparent: Beasts of Prey certainly faced rejection. And the moment that I always think about most sharply, was when a literary agent told me that she felt that Ekon, as a character, wasn’t strong enough. I remember being hurt, but what I think about when I face rejection is one of two things: I can take that rejection and critique and use it to make myself better if it's constructive. There are also some cases where there's projection because that story is not for that person. In that situation, when she said, “Your Black boy is not strong enough,” I said, you know what, she didn't understand what I was trying to do here.
Because I don't want to create this, “strong” Black boy, I want Ekon to be a Black boy who doesn't have to fit this expected mold of “strength” and what we think of strength being for Black people and Black boys. Sometimes, it's just accepting that, not every story is for every person and using that as fuel to write stories for the people who it is for.
Courtesy of Ayana Gray
xoNecole: Why was it important to center teens as the heroes of their own stories and see themselves within the pages as well as the cover?
AG: It's incredibly hard to be what you don't see, and I'm so proud and happy that I'm not the only Black writer who is committed to this. Black kids shouldn't have one option. When they go to the bookstore and the library, they should have a whole bookshelf, they should have shelves of options to see themselves as the hero of their story. Heroes and heroines of their stories. It's important because I felt it as a kid, I read books where I was never the hero, and it kind of informed the way I felt about my value for a very long time.
For the cover, I so adore the original cover of Beasts of Prey, but after speaking with my editor, who is also a Black woman, we realized there was so much power in having Koffi and Ekon, this Black boy and Black girl on the cover as people are wandering shelves of libraries and bookstores. I joked around on TikTok and I said I want people to know this is a 'Blackity Black Black' YA fantasy story. No apologies, no hesitation. This is a story of Black kids and when you're talking about representation, the more in your face you can be about it the better.
"No apologies, no hesitation. This is a story of Black kids and when you're talking about representation, the more in your face you can be about it the better."
Courtesy of Ayana Gray
xoNecole: 'Beasts of Prey' has been adapted into a film with Netflix. What was your initial reaction to this news and how does this align with the dreams that you’ve set for yourself?
AG: The success that I've been so blessed to have in the last year has really forced me to expand my dreams and dare to dream bigger - which is a weird thing. It's a weird thing to have a dream that you hold on to for so long and suddenly you have it and now you have to think about the next thing. I'm still processing it and still thinking about what’s next.
When I reflect and hope for the legacy that I leave behind, I want to write stories where Black kids get to see themselves in all sorts of spaces and see themselves as heroes. But more importantly, I really want for Black people, if and when they come across my books to say, “She did it, why can't I?”
It's hard to be what we can't see, but if you see authors out there — Black people out there chasing their dreams and accomplishing their goals, it leads you to say, “Well, I can do that too.”
Grab your copy of Beasts of Prey at Barnes & Noble. And connect with Ayana Gray on TikTok.
Featured image by Marston Photography