A mash-up of a centuries-old British legend and Black girl magic set in the contemporary South, Legendborn (S&S/McElderry) emerged from “a personal place,” Tracy Deonn says: the loss she suffered when her mother died 12 years ago, when Deonn was in her early 20s. “My mother lost her mother at the same age, and my grandmother had also lost her mother,” she explains. “When something happens to someone we love, we want a story about why that has happened to us or to them. My story, which I started sketching out in 2015, immediately became magical. What would need to happen, magically or supernaturally, for this pattern in my life to occur?”

As Legendborn opens, 16-year-old Bree Matthews is reeling after her mother’s death under mysterious circumstances. Three months later, Bree enrolls in an early college program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she infiltrates a secret campus society, thinking that there she may find answers about her mother’s death. Not only does Bree learn her mother’s secrets, she discovers that the society’s members are descendants of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, protecting humans from demons.

Deonn, who names Susan Cooper, author of the Dark Is Rising fantasy series, as a primary literary influence, uses the Arthurian legend as a frame of reference to explore “lineage and power and who gets to have it” while also addressing the legacy of slavery in the U.S.

Speculating that the Arthurian legend contains at least a kernel of truth, Deonn says that she reflected upon “what it means to have a family story that lasts quite a long time,” when most African Americans “can’t even go back more than three generations,” due to Black people being taken from their homelands and sold into slavery in the American South up until the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

“Whose lives are elevated to legend and memorialized?” asks Deonn, who grew up in central North Carolina and holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication and performance studies from UNC. “That really is the question of the South.”

It’s been a long road to publication for Deonn, who wrote her first short story at age nine and became published in 2018 with an essay in Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America, edited by Amy Reed.

Landing on S&S’s radar turned Deonn’s path to publication “completely backwards,” she says. S&S editor Liesa Abrams reached out, telling her that if she ever were to write YA fiction, Abrams wanted to read it.

After mulling it over for six months, Deonn, who did not have an agent at the time, queried Abrams with the novel she was working on, recalling, “Liesa had me go out and look for an agent once she showed interest in the manuscript. And then we were off to the races.” Abrams recently moved over to Random House Books for Young Readers; Sarah McCabe continues as Deonn’s editor.

“The three of us are the team that grew this book from the original manuscript idea to what it is now,” Deonn says. “Liesa had an amazing insight into the heartbeat of the story. She understood the emotional arc that I wanted Bree to go through. Sarah helped me figure out the nuances of worldbuilding, and how to weave the interpersonal with the magic in a big, complex story that spans centuries and involves the history of colonization. We created the world that I had dreamed of.”

As for debuting during a pandemic, Deonn admits to having felt some trepidation that this would negatively impact Legendborn’s reception. Such fears proved unfounded: the book has received glowing reviews, and readers have responded positively during virtual events and on social media.

“It’s a very specific context: UNC–Chapel Hill in the modern day,” Deonn says of her planned trilogy. “But the most amazing thing about the process is that there are readers across the whole world who see parts of themselves in Bree. There’s resonance about colonialism, and about loss and grief. That’s what I hoped for, but when you’re writing in such a specific way, you just don’t know. I’m delightfully surprised by how many people seem to really get it.”