Coretta Scott King Honoree and bestselling YA author Angie Thomas makes her middle grade fantasy debut with trilogy opener Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy. The novel follows magic-wielding Nic Blake as she discovers a secret about her father and embarks on a dangerous journey to obtain a magical artifact to save him. Featuring African folklore, ghosts, vampires, and a fire-breathing puppy, Thomas’s first foray into middle grade is a magical adventure. We spoke with Thomas about her entrance into the middle grade category, themes of expanding the definition of family and embracing Black history, and the namesake for her central character.

You mentioned on Twitter that this is a book you’ve dreamed of writing for 15 years! What was the initial spark all those years ago?

The initial spark was when I was in college and a professor told me to ask myself what is it that you love to read. At the time, I had gotten back into reading a lot of the fantasy novels that I grew up with, and I thought about the fact that I absolutely adored fantasy books. I read them religiously as a kid; that’s what really sparked my love for reading. It was getting to escape into these worlds, and they helped me forget my own problems. So when I decided I wanted to be an author, I wanted to give young people that same feeling. But also, as a writer, I loved the idea of creating an entirely different world that was maybe similar to ours, but had some differences.

But the timing wasn’t right. At that time, because of the types of books that were popular, I fell into the thinking of, “Well I see what’s out here right now. I probably will have to write about a little white kid having this adventure.” Even though in my heart I would have loved as a kid to have seen a Black girl, or Black boys, having these adventures. But because of the way publishing was at the time, I thought the only way it would see the light of day or see a bookshelf was if it was about white kids. So in the original middle grade book that I wrote the main character was a white boy. I’m glad it didn’t get published! And I’m glad that publishing has changed because it would have taken me on a whole different path. I’m glad that we have an organization like We Need Diverse Books, and had Walter Dean Myers calling publishing out by saying we need more diverse books. Now I have the permission and the space to tell the story that I really want to tell.

This is a pivot for you in terms of age range and genre, moving from realistic YA fiction into middle grade fantasy. What do you enjoy about the new landscape and what was that transition like as a writer?

It has been fun making this transition. But I had a moment where I realized, as much as I can make this a fantasy world, there were still some real-world things that I may want to address. I didn’t have to, but I decided that I want to, because that’s me, you know? I started working on this book right as the pandemic happened and I couldn’t have asked for a better book to escape to in 2020: a world where there’s no pandemic, about a young Black girl with a magical ability. I had to ask myself, what would that look like? If Black people, who are already seen as threats, suddenly had magical abilities? So the book poses that question.

I remember in 2020, not just with the pandemic, but in light of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, there were a lot of discussions about police reform, defunding the police, prison abolition, and these are things that I have my own beliefs on, and I think if you read my books, you got a good idea of how I think. I remember seeing this discussion on Twitter about it and somebody just flat-out said, “There is no way we could have a world without police or a world without prisons. You’re living in a fantasy land.” And here I am writing a fantasy book. And I said, wait a second, as somebody who knows these things are possible, who studies Angela Davis and other thinkers, I see the path to it. Why don’t I create a fantasy world where this is reality? So I have this world that’s separate from our own, that reflects these things and a world where Black people are free. They’re free from the bondages of racism, free from inequality. They have pure, true freedom.

I wanted to create this world because I wanted Black kids and Black people to pick this up and see what is possible, and think, “Wait a minute, this isn’t a fantasy book, this is achievable. In our weird real world, you mean to tell me there can be a world where a Black kid walks in the store, and nobody’s looking at them wondering if they’re stealing?” That seems like such a minor thing. But it’s a world we still haven’t created here yet. It’s my own fantasy world in more ways than one.

What are some of the themes you explore in the story?

One big theme is family and I think that’s the thing you find in every single one of my books. The family in this book is a little messy. There are some surprising twists and turns, but they’re a family. It’s been fun to write and try to define that word and show how it can have different definitions. As someone who grew up having my mom and my grandma as my two-parent household, I don’t necessarily fit the “traditional” idea of the American family, but my family is my family and you’re not going to tell me otherwise. I wanted to show what a different kind of family might look like, even with the messiness.

Another theme is about defining yourself and deciding who you're going to be, even when there are other factors that try to define you. Do you let other situations or circumstances define you, or will you figure out who you are for yourself? And then I would have to say [another theme] is recognizing the power that’s within you. Nic goes through a whole journey of trying to figure out who she is, what her power is. She’s trying to figure out if she even is powerful. Does she have this gift? It’s about figuring out what your “special” is. I hope Nic’s story helps a lot of kids to recognize to the power that’s within them, because that’s what Nic comes to do. That’s something you see in all of my books—you see it with Starr (in The Hate U Give), with Bri (On the Come Up), with Maverick (Concrete Rose), and now you’re gonna see it with Nic. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a special magical power. Sometimes your power is even deeper than that.

Nic Blake and the Remarkables is inspired by African American history and folklore. Can you talk about your research for the book, and how you approached melding the two into this universe?

You will figure out a lot just by reading the dedication of the book. This book is dedicated to Virginia Hamilton, and all the ancestors who knew we could fly. One of my favorite bedtime stories as a kid was “The People Could Fly,” and Virginia Hamilton put that story along with several other folktales into this magnificent book of stories. I use “The People Could Fly” as the basis for the magic system in the Remarkable world. It’s based off the idea that there was once this old man, Toby, who spoke these ancient words to an enslaved woman, Sarah, on a plantation, and she flew off to freedom. My idea is: what happened to Sarah and the others who flew off to freedom? For you to be able to fly, you must have some kind of special ability, so the entire magic system is based off that story.

I was able to pay homage to a lot of the stories that are in that particular book, but these are stories, too, that have been passed down from generation to generation. You have the story of High John the Conqueror, the Devil’s Daughter, John Henry, and Annie Christmas. They play a huge part in the history of this world. I was able to give some new twists to things. There’s one story in particular, of the Hairy Man and this little boy Wiley in the swamps. I don’t have Hairy Man in the book, but I have his son Hairy Jr.! As Black people, we have such a rich culture, and we’ve been fooled into thinking there’s nothing magical about it, but there is and I wanted to bring that to the forefront.

Where did the character of Nic Blake stem from? What were the elements your younger self wanted to see that you put into Nic’s character or this story overall?

I feel like I’ve had this character in my head for a long time. Early on, I knew that she was going to be a Black girl who was free. She’s gonna speak her mind. She has her doubts and her fears, but at the end of the day, she’s going to stand in what she believes. And she’s funny, too. That was the fun part, to write from her perspective. I look forward to my readers seeing her grow. The wonderful thing about being a 12-year-old is you know some of the things that are bad about the world, but you don’t know fully. In this book, Nic starts to understand some things a little bit more, but she still has that innocence. She understands that the world can be awful at times, but she still believes if nothing else, she can change it. As a Black woman who sees Black girls get that taken from them so often, I’m very protective of this character in this book, and I’m very protective of the young ladies who are going to read this book.

Is it true that Nic Blake is named after fellow author Nic Stone? Can you share how that relationship has inspired you and why you chose to name this character after her?

It’s funny because I had the name years ago, and then I later met Nic Stone [author of Dear Martin], and she became one of my best friends. And Nic Stone and Nic Blake are so much alike! It’s like it was just meant to be, it’s too perfect to be a coincidence. When I was writing the character of Nic, before I met Nic Stone, she was outspoken, and brave. Then once I met Nic, it was like, “Oh, wow, you are so much like this character that I have in this book.” Nic Stone was actually one of the first people to encourage me and ask, “Why don’t you write that book one day?” And I’m like, “Everybody knows me now for YA books that hit on topics,” and Nic’s like “And?” And that’s totally Nic in the book as well! She would be like, who says you have to live up to their expectations, you do that for yourself. So it felt right to kind of dedicate this character to her. I started thinking about the person Nic Stone is and what she represents, the way Nic [Stone] lives authentically, and she always challenges me to be that way as well. She inspired the character in a lot of ways.

But also, as a Black woman in publishing, there are times where the industry makes it feel as if there can only be one of us, and that is far from the truth. And if nothing else, I want this permanent reminder to everyone that Angie Thomas has so much love for Nic Stone that she named a character after her. I don’t care what environment publishing has tried to create. This Black woman loves this other Black woman writer so much that she wrote a character after her. And nothing can take that away, that love we have for each other. This is my way of putting that into stone, pun intended.

The expansion that we’ve seen in recent years with diversity has been so spectacular, and many people credit the success of your work as being a major part of that. Now that you’re pivoting into middle grade and fantasy, what are the types of things you’d like to see more of in this new arena?

I love to see more diverse stories. I love that when we’re talking about talking about middle grade fantasy, mine is not the only Black kid middle grade fantasy book that's going to be out there and I’m so glad that kids have so many options to choose from. You have Dhonielle Clayton's The Marvellers, you have B.B Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers, you have Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong. I could go on and on. I feel blessed to just be able to add to the selections available, and I also love that we’re seeing so much diversity in middle grade and not just about having young people of color at the forefront. Now we're seeing more middle grade books about LGBTQIA young people, kids with disabilities. That’s what I want to see more of. I’m a firm believer in Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s quote, that some books are mirrors and windows and sliding glass doors, and I believe that every kid deserves that mirror. My hope is that Nic Blake gives a lot of young people a mirror, but I hope that we start seeing even more books that give more diverse mirrors to these kids.

Can we expect more middle grade books from you in the future? More works of fantasy? Are there any other genres or age ranges you’re hoping to explore?

Right now we’re set for three books with Nic Blake but that may change. Fingers crossed! I would also love to write an adult book, and maybe even picture books. At some point, I’ll get back to YA. We shall see what happens.

Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy by Angie Thomas. Balzer + Bray, $18.99 Apr. 4 ISBN 978-0-06-322513-8