When he was eight years old, Julian Randall saw his mother cry for the first time in his life, and it was all because of a book. “She had been reading In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, and she told me that it was the story of women who fought back against the men responsible for the Trujillo dictatorship,” he recalls.
Struck by how this book had touched his mother so deeply, he set out for his local library in search of something that would enable him to better understand her experience. But after learning there weren’t any such books meant for his age level, he returned home empty-handed. “I wondered why there were no stories like this,” Randall muses. “I am blessed to have the opportunity to write one.”
Twenty years in the making, Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa (Holt) marks Randall’s middle grade debut with the first in a series that meshes historical elements of the 1950s Trujillo dictatorship with Dominican mythology. Making the transition from writing poetry for adults, including his 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize–winning collection Refuse, to fantasy fiction for a much younger audience seemed like a logical next step. “When Refuse was released in 2018, we had all these parents buying the book for their kids to read someday,” he says. “That made me realize that I wanted to be able to meet young people where they were at.”
Having grown up in Chicago as the son of two voracious readers, Randall has fond memories of reading with his mother every night. Sometimes she told him stories about the Dominican bogeyman El Cuco, teasing Randall that the mythical monster would get him if he didn’t go to sleep. “As a Black kid in a largely white school, I felt like a bit of a myth myself,” he says. He had not yet realized how this fabled figure would factor into his writing.
Randall’s fascination with fantasy fiction began in sixth grade, when he began devouring the His Dark Materials and Artemis Fowl books. “The idea of making a whole other world parallel to ours was amazing,” he says. Randall also credits Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander for enabling him to explore “the contemporary building of the fantastical.” Admiring characters similar to his age at that time who could bounce back from misfortune, Randall believes they inspired him to create Pilar, who bears some resemblance to the author himself. “She’s a funnier, braver, more powerful version of me,” he says of his main character, who is on a quest to solve the mysteries of two Trujillo-era disappearances.
Randall marvels at how much his imagination could develop while crafting the alternate island of Zafa where Pilar is magically transported—something he attributes to his Holt editor Brian Geffen. “Brian loves the middle grade space’s ability to uplift the magic of history that we don’t necessarily talk about all that often,” he says. “I adore his thoroughness, eye for detail, and the energy that he embraced right from the beginning.”
According to Randall, Geffen’s encouragement has inspired Randall to challenge himself as a writer. “Brian reminds me that my character can do whatever she puts her mind to, that she is not bound by cultural restrictions,” he states. When Randall initially had reservations about a different narrative technique in his upcoming sequel (due out in February 2023), it was Geffen who motivated him to embrace it. “When I have doubts, I have faith that Brian will have faith, and that is worth its weight in gold to me,” he says.
In his next Pilar adventure, the main character will be caught up in the middle of a storm “that only she can see,” Randall says. “It’s her first time on the island. She feels like something is coming.” Randall is excited to revisit his characters and see how they have been strengthened. “It’s a book that is based on the power of fellowship and collaboration, which is what Dominican history is rooted in,” he adds.
Much like the boy intent on creating a story when one was not available to him, Randall continues to take charge in charting his own course. “To be one of the people entrusted to create stories for our young people means the world to me,” he says. “It feels like what I was meant to do.”
Pamela Brill is a journalist and editor living in Northport, N.Y.