B.B. Alston began his writing career in middle school, when he would craft horror stories featuring his classmates. “They’d all gather around to see who’d make it to the end,” he says. “That’s when I first started thinking that I could write something people would like to read.” Nevertheless, the idea of being a full-fledged author felt beyond him, and writing remained little more than a hobby for much of his life.
It wasn’t until Alston was in his 30s that he decided to give it another go. “I read Twilight,” he recalls, “and that was so successful, I thought to myself that I have a story important to me, maybe I should try writing it. So I gave it a shot.”
For the next few years, Alston pursued his career through traditional methods, submitting to agents with no measurable success. Ultimately, he decided to focus on education instead. “I finished my pre-med degree and started applying to med school programs,” he says. “I got accepted to the Geisinger Medical School in Pennsylvania. I was getting ready to move, but I didn’t have any money, so I took a seasonal job. I went to the office to fill out paperwork, and while I was waiting, I started scrolling through Twitter. That’s how I saw the #DVPit contest.”
Intrigued by the Twitter pitching event #DVPit, Alston took a gamble by offering his summary for Amari and the Night Brothers, a middle grade adventure inspired by one of his favorite movies. “I was watching Men in Black one time,” he recalls, “and I wondered, What if it wasn’t just aliens? What if there was an agency that handled all the myths and legends, and how would it be different? I worked on this for fun, during my study breaks, and one day, Amari popped into my head. She was a kid from my kind of background, a Black girl from modest means, and I knew how she talked and thought. I just ran with it. There weren’t a lot of fantasy books for kids with Black characters, and I was excited to write someone like that.”
Alston’s efforts paid off, with his tweet attracting multiple agents. He eventually signed with Gemma Cooper at the Bent Agency, who worked with him to get the final manuscript ready for submission to publishers. After a spirited bidding war, Amari and the Night Brothers landed with Kristin Rens at Balzer + Bray in a three-book deal, while Universal Pictures eventually optioned the film rights.
The book launched in January, but the pandemic added a new wrinkle to the process. “We had a big multicity tour planned, and that got canceled,” Alston says. However, he found a way to make this work for him.
“I’m kind of an introvert, so being able to do all of my book-release events virtually was good for me in a way,” Alston notes. “And we found that we could eliminate the limitations of time and distance through Zoom calls. I could talk to more people, through bookstore events and kids’ book clubs. It’s been a lot of fun. I can have five events in a weekend!”
On the downside, Alston claims he’s only met one person who’s read the book in real life. “It’ll be fun to see people face-to-face eventually.”
Alston has been a fantasy reader all his life, citing books such as Where the Wild Things Are and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as early favorites and inspirations for Amari. “I love the kind of story where you discover there’s so much more to the real world than you thought.” He says he gravitates toward children’s fantasy because “it can be sillier, but it can also take risks. With adult fantasy, you can take your time and flesh out the world, but with kids, you need to keep the pace going. You have to work really hard to keep their attention, and that’s always been my favorite thing.”
Alson hopes that readers will empathize with Amari. “She’s kind of an other in her everyday life, and she gets to her fantasy world and is still treated differently,” he says. “I hope kids can see through her eyes and feel what it is to be the other kid, so they’re inclined to reach out and be kind. The biggest thing is to not judge one another, to give each other a chance. And I want [readers] to accept themselves and find their inner strength. If any of those messages come through, I feel like the book is a success.”
With two more installments of the series under contract, Alston’s put medical school on hold for the foreseeable future. “I haven’t ruled it out, but we’ll see how practical it is in a few years,” he says. “I’d love to go back and do it if it’s possible.”
In the meantime, Alston is focused on the second installment of Amari’s adventures, and he has a short story appearing in Black Boy Joy, a middle grade anthology edited by Kwame Mbalia, which is slated for August. He’s also involved in the movie adaptation process for Amari. “They just sent me the newest copy of the script,” he explains. “We’re still in the option phase, but they’re about to renew it, so everything looks promising right now.”