Kwame Mbalia is on a mission to help young readers discover diverse books—ones that highlight the rich voices and experiences of people of color, just like him. Mbalia—the #1 bestselling author of such kid lit favorites as Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (winner of a Coretta Scott King Author Honor) and Tristan Strong Destroys the World—is the publisher of Freedom Fire, a new imprint, founded in partnership with Disney Hyperion, that focuses on middle grade books that prioritize Black joy and wonder.

Freedom Fire, which debuts its inaugural list this fall, will work to discover and promote stories by Black authors from around the world while celebrating the different diaspora cultures they represent. PW caught up with Mbalia to discuss his lifelong love of stories, the importance of diverse books, and what launching Freedom Fire means to him.

How did your passion for stories inspire you to start Freedom Fire?

Nearly every reader I know loves nothing more than to share the excitement and experience of what they’re reading. I wanted to share stories similar to those that I grew up reading with anyone who would listen, stories with characters who looked like my siblings and me and who went through ordeals that we went through, either real or imagined. Freedom Fire is our attempt to share these stories.

You’ve described Freedom Fire as both “a mission” and “a promise.” What do you mean by that?

Our mission is to celebrate Black storytelling from around the world, and I promise readers will have a lot of fun as they journey into these stories with us.

What sorts of books can readers expect from the imprint?

Stories with adventure, stories with wonder, and stories celebrating Black diasporic culture while inviting everyone along for the party. It’s BYOJ, bring your own joy.

Who is your ideal reader?

Everyone! Do we want Black children reading? Yes! Do we want all children reading? Also yes!

What role will you have in curating the Freedom Fire list? And what other editorial roles are you excited to embrace?

I am by no means an expert, nor am I a one-man show. We have a team at Freedom Fire dedicated to finding, developing, and publishing incredible stories. I am an advocate for the authors we want to bring on board and a champion for the stories they’ve created.

How has being a bestselling author prepared you for this new job?

Lots of talking and interviews! People want to know more about the imprint, and I’m happy to talk with them about it. And then there’s the young readers. Traveling and doing school visits, conferences, and festivals has allowed me to learn and grow with respect to how we talk about books and stories with young readers and how to merge their interests and enthusiasm with the stories we’re bringing.

As a kid, what challenges did you face when searching for books that reflected your life and background?

I grew up believing there were tons of stories out there starring kids who looked like me. That’s because my parents did their absolute best to find those books, comics, and magazines from brick-and-mortar bookstore chains, indie bookstores, and indie authors from around the globe. I thought all libraries looked like my bookshelf at home, and so imagine the shock when I realized that wasn’t the case. I grew up with a privilege that I’m determined to help replicate for the young readers of today.

Growing up, what impact did your parents have on you as a reader—and how do you carry what they instilled in you into this new endeavor?

Apart from the above, my mother was a voracious reader and also a writer herself. She would take my siblings and I to the local library every Friday to pick out books to read over the weekend. They read to us and encouraged us to read if we were bored. She and my father also had this deal they made with my older brother and me—during the weekends and summer break, we could either take a nap at the same time as our younger siblings or we could read a book. Of course we chose the book.

Why is access to diverse literature important—for our communities and our kids?

The world is not a monolith. It is not a singular demographic. It is multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious—why shouldn’t our bookshelves be the same?

How do you plan to bring conversations around diversity in literature to the fore through the imprint?

By existing. 😊

The first Freedom Fire titles will be out in 2024. Any titles that you’re particularly excited about?

Oh no, there’s no singular title I’m excited about. I’m raving about them all. As a book lover, I will not be able to shut up when it comes to Moko Magic, Jax Freeman, or Black Girl Power. Prepare to be sick of me.

What do you love most about middle grade fiction?

The joy, the exploration, the adventure, the wonder, the growth in understanding about how our world operates, the lack of cynicism about how our world operates, the friendship, the love, the mistakes, the falling down, the getting back up, the enormous sense of hope in what the future could bring, because at this age, anything and everything is possible. I love it all.