There was little doubt that Esme Symes-Smith would become a writer. Born in Exeter, in the southwest of England, they spent a great deal of time in Cornwall, which would later influence the setting of their debut novel, Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (Labyrinth Road), a middle grade fantasy in which a nonbinary would-be knight pushes back against gender stereotypes and restrictions. “I’ve always been writing, since I was 12,” they say. “It was pretty much the only thing I could do.”
At 18, Symes-Smith went to Wales to study creative writing and English literature at Aberystwyth University. “My degree was basically useless as far as writing goes,” they say, “but it was a really nice time to take myself seriously and give myself permission to do what I wanted, even if it wasn’t very practical.”
During that time, they met their wife-to-be on Tumblr, through a shared love of Sherlock fan fiction. “All Brits will invite you to tea,” they say. “She actually accepted. Six months after we started talking, she turned up on my doorstep and stayed with me for months. We decided to get married, and moved to America. No regrets.”
Deciding to focus on original work instead of fan fiction, Symes-Smith wrote their first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2013. “Drafting is the easiest part!” they say. “Then you have to learn how to revise, then you have to query, then you go on sub, and it’s really hard.” Nevertheless, that first book eventually secured them an agent. “I originally found Megan Manzano during Pitch Wars, before they were an agent. I didn’t get into Pitch Wars, but I saw their manuscript wishlist, and it was pretty much the book I had written in 2013 and had been revising since.”
By the end of 2019, Symes-Smith felt ready to query. In the meantime, Manzano had become an agent with D4EO Literary.
“Sir Callie was my 2020 book,” Symes-Smith says. “We were a week into the first big quarantine. I was deeply depressed and miserable, so I figured I’d write something just for me that was completely joyful. It was going to be the ‘kid knight’ book of my soul.” The book went on submission in February 2021 and was quickly picked up by Liesa Abrams, editor-in-chief of Labyrinth Road, a new Random House Children’s Books imprint, for its inaugural list.
When they’re not writing, Symes-Smith, who lives in St. Louis, works part-time at KinderCare, teaching toddlers and infants. “I love it with my whole heart,” they say. “The parents and kids and my co-teachers are absolutely fantastic, and I get as much time as I need for my writing. It also gives me a reason to step away from the computer and be around human beings. It’s a nice balance.”
While writing Sir Callie, Symes-Smith came to a surprising revelation regarding their own identity. “It started off as a ‘girl knight’ book,” they say. “Callie wasn’t nonbinary in the first draft, and it made me question my own biases towards sexism and femininity as I was writing. I didn’t want it to be about a kid who wasn’t like other girls. It turned out Callie just wasn’t a girl, and that was different. They had to question their identity and why they felt different. So I was in the middle of the second draft and having these conversations with myself, and I realized Callie wasn’t cis. It felt like a personal story, and Callie feels like such a ‘me’ character, and what did that mean for me?”
Stepping away from the manuscript for a week, Symes-Smith realized that they were nonbinary as well, and the act of writing had offered them the opportunity to work it out for themself.
They’re hoping that readers will take away the message that there are different ways to be brave and to be a hero. “It was disheartening to me to see children vilified if they weren’t good and shiny, so I wanted to present options for children,” Symes-Smith says. “You don’t have to be a brave hero. You can make mistakes and still get a chance.” Describing Sir Callie as a “2020 book set in 14th-century England,” they conclude that “it’s about that kind of helplessness and frustration, knowing that things aren’t right and not being able to do anything about them in a big way, but you can in small ways.”
Currently, Symes-Smith is waiting on copyedits for book two of what they hope to be a four-book series. And while they’ve been granted a great deal of creative freedom, they say, “My editor won’t let Callie and Elowyn kiss until the last book.” It looks like readers will just have to wait for that moment.