An advocate for marginalized voices with a passion for empowering youth, J.Elle has worked as a preschool director, middle school teacher, and high school creative writing mentor. Her debut fantasy novel, Wings of Ebony, is due from Denene Millner Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, in February 2021. The book marks the first YA acquisition for editorial director Denene Millner’s eponymous imprint, which focuses on titles by African American authors and illustrators for readers of all ages. We asked J.Elle and Millner to interview each other about the forthcoming book, whose cover is revealed here for the first time, and the joy of celebrating Black girl magic.
Denene Millner: When I read the first pages and your star, Rue, grabbed me by the throat, I knew Wings of Ebony was going to be a special book. It read like something that I’d never experienced before, and I knew it needed to have its place in our world. I’m super proud it’s the first YA novel on my imprint.
J.Elle: Can you believe this is where we are? Not only with the book but in the world? The year 2020 has been a decade in and of itself. And Wings of Ebony is quite relevant to the times. Is it my inner eternal optimist or are more listening now?
Millner: The protesting, the acknowledgement that Black lives do, indeed, matter, and the changes that have come this time around in response to the international uproar have definitely surprised a lot of us, but we’ve still got a long way to go. It’s definitely a moment we won’t soon forget, and it’s got to be documented. I think we as creatives are charged with answering the challenge, and you certainly did that with Wings of Ebony, a story that not only insists Black Lives Matter, but shines a light on how we been knowing this. Your main character, Rue, certainly understands this; it’s what makes her fight. It’s what makes us all fight. On that note, why did you choose YA fantasy as the genre for portraying a powerful Black teen girl? Is it easier in fantasy to explore tougher themes?
J.Elle: I tend to like books that have real-world issues front and center, but I realize fantasy can be a more palatable place for some readers to do that. Ultimately, I want my books to spark tough conversations. To inspire change. There will always be commentary in my books, weightier topics I want to challenge teens to consider because they are the next generation up to the plate. They will rebuild this world brick by brick. I truly believe that. I wrap contemporary elements in a fantastical story, so I can explore topics more head on, but while teens grapple with these weightier topics, they are also inspired and encouraged by the metaphorical, magical “what-ifs.” Readers will finish Wings of Ebony and have had an unflinching look at the reality of racism. But they will also have reconciled that disgusting truth with how powerful we are in the face of that injustice, how we are change makers that will be reckoned with.
Millner: I can feel the flames from Rue’s fingers in your words. Rue is unapologetically strong in a way that isn’t typical for a Black character, particularly in a YA fantasy. Why did you decide to paint her with the same brushstrokes of, say, a Katniss? I mean, from the beginning, Rue is brave, strong and ready to walk through walls.
J.Elle: When have we been allowed to have a Katniss? A Beatrice? As mainstream and as celebrated? We haven’t. And that didn’t sit right with me. This is a layered answer, though, because there were many things I considered when crafting Rue. I was a teacher in a former life, and I had many students who wore armor. It’s natural for all of us to guard ourselves, but one of the amazing talents of a good teacher is the ability to peel back a kid’s layers, to see the vulnerable person underneath and treat them accordingly. Black children are too often expected to be tough, to grow up “fast.” When do they just get to be kids? When do their tears move mountains? Does the world even see their tears? Hear their nightmares? Or is it an expectation in America that Black kids will suck it up, chin up, and deal with it? If the world doesn’t see our kids’ tears, how will it empathize with their pain?
But flip that for a second. If we get too strong, too hard-nosed, we’re out of line. When we start bucking up against things too much, then we need to be contained. So, Rue is what you get after dismissing a people’s pain for so many years. I built her fearless, resilient, and strong—a pillar of un-breakability.
Everything the world expects of Black girls but is terrified for us to be.
And then... I peel back her layers. I give readers a look inside Rue, what makes her tick, the richness of her love for her people, her servant heart, her vulnerability. The narrative moves at an action-packed pace and readers will find themselves face to face with the raw humanity of this Black girl who feels pain, knows hurt, cries herself to sleep. Readers then must see her as human. And, by extension, us. And (hopefully) treat us accordingly.
To teens who fall in love with Rue, I’d say this: know that your shoulders are no stronger than anyone else’s and the world doesn’t have the right to sit on them. Know, too, that it’s okay to fall apart—to not be perfect. The world only sees your dust jacket, but I know we have to flip through the pages to even begin to touch the complexity of your richness. It’s hard to talk about this. I’m so glad you can’t see my smeared mascara and tissues. Rue is strong, but she is also incredibly vulnerable and soft.
Millner: That’s the passion I see in your words. It’s honest and shines on the page. Don’t hold that back, ever. You mention your work as a teacher. Can you talk a little about how your passion for education, empowering young voices, and your regard for Black heritage and legacy influenced your writing?
J.Elle: I often think of how we pass through this world with the opportunity to leave a mark and my biggest takeaway is always how big of a role adults play in the impressions we leave on our youth. Teens are the next up to the plate—the future lawmakers, movers and shakers. Teaching really cemented this for me. My middle school students are in college now and they still remember things I taught them. Not the academic stuff, but the nuggets in between, life wisdoms, hacks for navigating friendships, how-tos of using their voice. We are shaping the future of this world and we should do it with intention and great care. Writing is the tool I use for that.
In terms of my heritage: my eyes glazed over in history classes for years in school. I mean my eyes glazed over in most classes. Just being honest. Teens, you feel me on this, right? But where I started to sit up and pay attention is when I looked at what I wanted to do to make money. I took inspiration from people who looked like me and came from where I came from. The further back I dug the more inspired I became. In the words of Queen Bey, “Black is King!” Our history is so rich. To teens, I’d say, “Look beyond the history books schools bring in. Utilize that library card. Google is free. Read. Read. Read. I mean... you could have had a magical aunty or something. Never know. You better look. *wink*
Millner: Amen to all that!
J.Elle: I just wanted that contagious excitement of discovering where I came from to really come through in Wings of Ebony. I want kids to be inspired by their roots and want to get to know them. Really knowing who you are combats everything we hear in the media about our communities.
Millner: You talk a lot about community in Wings of Ebony and in real life, you talk all the time about its importance to you. How did growing up in an inner-city neighborhood inspire you to use your words to paint inner-city communities as places full of magic and power?
J.Elle: First off, the term “hood” has been weaponized against my community and I’m taking it back. In Wings of Ebony, Rue is from a fictitious neighborhood called East Row; it’s modeled after where I grew up, in the Third Ward of Houston, the same neighborhood where George Floyd went to high school. My neighborhood is a tapestry of found family, deeply rooted love, togetherness, loyalty—where my mom, sisters, the fam still live, and where you can get the best BBQ and turkey legs on the southeast side of Houston periodt (the “t” is intentional). I wanted to immerse readers in that experience. Interestingly, right this second, our country’s leadership is rolling back community desegregation legislation and saying it’s doing so to “save” people from having to mix and mingle with people who are literally corralled into inner-city communities. It’s not unintentional that Rue is trying to get back to her home the entire book.
Millner: This speaks directly to what I mean by the importance of literature speaking to reality; the words help us to see what’s real. Us. They help us recognize our humanity. Because that doesn’t always feel like it’s the case in these times, when administrations do things like roll back the very laws meant to at least try to give us parity. Try to recognize our humanity. This is precisely why we do what we do. One of the things I loved was your exploration of magic in this book, but not just in Rue’s physical abilities. As part of a larger story you examine the “magic” of a neighborhood, her community, and the people who live there. Why’d you do that?
J.Elle: So many hold a magnifying glass to my community and come away with a severely limited vocabulary on what they see. And from growing up as a young reader of fantasy books, painting inner-city communities as magical is near and dear to my heart. So often exploring fantasy as a kid meant being whisked away to faraway Eurocentric worlds. But what about showing kids in the inner-city magic that lives right here? I wanted to see my corner store in a book, the magic of intergenerational families like mine on the page, meals that are nostalgic to me in a story, the many facets of my experience growing up in a predominantly Black inner-city community—not what people assume from the outside or what the media tends to portray, but what it’s really like—centered in a narrative.
Can you imagine what that does to the psyche of a kid? Seeing their community, which is berated so often, described as magical? It’s formative and my entire passion. There’s a lot of talk about implementing change right now. And one thing I’d love to see is a shift in the nomenclature around communities like mine. If you think the kids who live in these places are not paying attention, you’re mistaken. They are listening. Watching. Pick different words. I choose “magical.”
Millner: I also really dig that you intentionally feature non-Black characters who are or learn to become allies to Rue and her community. Why was it important for you to include this aspect in your novel?
J.Elle: We can’t talk about impacting racism without talking about allyship and privilege. In Wings of Ebony it was important for me to create a story and plot that readers were engaged in, characters that were fun to root for, ones you love, ones you hate, ones that make you swoon. But amid all the fun, the reality of these fictional relationships is that they can be mirrors to our world. I have never lived in a time where more conversations about allyship have garnered such national attention. But will the significance of the discussion be lost when the headlines fizzle out? I hope not and I’m very cautiously optimistic.
When the headlines change, we still have to fight to keep these conversations centered in classrooms, around dinner tables, in work meetings. Communities outside the Black community have to continue to seek out literature as a tool to spark thoughtful dialogue about how deeply rooted racism is in our country and how authentic allyship is a necessary part of the change process. I’ve read some colleges are instituting mandatory course readings around privilege. I want this content to find its way into K-12 classrooms, as well. And if not at the district level, I hope teachers can find resources on their shelves, such as Wings of Ebony, to explore these topics with their students. I’m just so thankful to even have the opportunity to give this story to kids. Thank you, D. I know I say it all the time, but thank you for seeing me and what this book could be.
Millner: Oh, for sure. And thank you for trusting me with your work. It speaks directly to the mission of Denene Millner Books, which is to celebrate the everyday humanity of Black children and families. And I’m so proud to have Wings of Ebony on my list.
J.Elle: Listen: I can’t tell you how cool it is that Simon & Schuster brought on an entire imprint to elevate Black voices, specifically for Black children. You’ve published so many of my favorite books omg! My kids flip when they see another DMB book in my house. Derrick Barnes’ Crown: An Ode to a Fresh Cut is *chef’s kiss.* Wings of Ebony is your debut YA release for your imprint; have you always wanted to publish YA novels?
Millner: Not at all! I mean, I’ve written YA before, so I have mad love for the age category, of course. But I got into this with the intention of focusing on my fav—picture books. Still, Wings of Ebony just did it for me.
J.Elle: Well, yay for me! What was it about Wings of Ebony that piqued your interest?
Millner: Let’s see: there’s a super strong, magical Black girl, Black gods, a secret world of magical Black people, cute boys, dope friends, a tight-knit Black community that fights to be seen and heard and held, and a Black author who created this Black world because she loves Black people and sees the humanity. This one was a no-brainer, Babe.
Millner: Now tell everybody what you’re doing to get us all ready for Rue and the release of Wings of Ebony.
J.Elle: In conjunction with this cover reveal, I’ve officially unveiled my Wings of Ebony website, which is full of goodies: from Street Team sign ups, SWAG, pre-order links, and resources for educators, it has it all! Check it out.
Millner: I can’t wait for the world to meet Rue!
J.Elle: Gimme a virtual hug. You da best.