"Fun fact about me: my family immigrated from Ghana, so English actually isn’t my first language,” says Roseanne A. Brown, the author of A Song of Wraiths and Ruin (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray). When they arrived she was three and couldn’t speak English. Though not a problem in the Ghanaian community near Washington, D.C., where she grew up, the language barrier caused difficulties in school. A trip to BJ’s Wholesale Club when she was in elementary school changed all that.
“I really wanted this toy,” Brown recalls. Her mother told her that if she picked out a book at the store, read it from start to finish at home, and told her what it’s about in English, she’d buy the toy. Brown chose one of the Harry Potter books. She says it was the first book that opened her eyes to the wonders of storytelling (though her views on J.K. Rowling have changed since then).
Brown also thinks back to books of folklore that one of her aunts in Ghana sent her. “She could’ve sent me anything, but she chose those books,” she says with pride. Ghanaian folklore would go on to serve as inspiration for A Song of Wraith and Ruins, Brown’s debut YA fantasy about a refugee boy who must kill a princess to save his sister, and a princess who must kill someone to bring her mother back from the dead.
The spark happened in 2015, shortly after Brown read An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. “I think that was the first big second world, non–Western world fantasy I’d read in a long time,” she says. “The way [Tahir] wove it was so tight, and the action was so intense. I think I barely breathed the entire time I was reading that book because it was just next level!” Brown still rereads the book sometimes, to remind herself why she loves YA and YA fantasy. She believes the genre is a strong vehicle for discussing real-world issues.
A couple of months after reading Tahir’s novel, Brown got the idea for her own. “I was walking back from a therapy session,” she says, “and remember thinking to myself, if a ghost tried to possess me right now he’d be like, ‘Hmm, there’s a lot happening in there and I don’t know if I want this. Like, you can have this back!’ ” Immediately she had the concept for a character who dealt with both supernatural and mental health issues without one being a metaphor for the other.
The topic of mental health in the Black community is important and personal to Brown and her family. “I remember being a teen and going through all of that,” she says. “I know I would’ve wanted someone to say to me: ‘I’m not gonna say it’s easy, but honestly this thing that you hate about yourself, you can also use it to strengthen yourself.’ ”
Strength in the face of oppression is another major theme of her novel. “I was born the same year as Trayvon Martin,” Brown says. “So when he was killed, that had a much larger impact on me than I realized at the time.”
Brown didn’t have any trouble finding a publisher. Her agent, Quressa Robinson at Nelson Literary Agency, only had the book out on submission for a month. “I’m honestly very grateful—Kristin [Rens], my editor at Balzer + Bray, she just got it,” Brown says.
Some of the publicity around the novel’s release on June 2 may be due to the current focus on Black creators, Brown says. “When focus shifts, the same energy that I was so grateful to receive—I want to see it keep going for Black and LGBTQ creators. It shouldn’t take someone dying for us to get the energy to support these voices that have not always been heard.”
Brown also urges her fellow Black creators to take care of themselves. “To be a Black writer today in the wake of the George Floyd protests—honestly, take the time to replenish and rejuvenate,” she notes. “If you can’t show up for yourself, then you can’t show up for all the people who need you. And there won’t be anything left to show up for your art. The story isn’t going to go anywhere. When you’re ready to come to it, it’s going to come to you. And if you need to write your way through it, just let it out.”