Amber McBride, author of the National Book Award finalist title Me: Moth, makes her middle grade debut with Gone Wolf, a dual-timeline tale centering two Black girls. In the year 2111, a blue-skinned girl named Inmate Eleven struggles to survive and escape a dystopian U.S. where the South has split from the rest of the nation, and Clones enslave Blues. In 2022, a Black girl named Imogen attends therapy and tries to overcome her anxieties around discussing an unnamed incident. McBride spoke with us about writing stories centering sadness and Black girlhood, reckoning with historical revisionism, and utilizing imagination as a safe space for children.
Your books Me (Moth), We Are So Good at Smiling, and Gone Wolf share a through line of Black girls grappling with grief and depression. Why is this such an important subject for you to explore in your work?
It’s twofold. One, I had clinical depression when I was very young and I don’t know that there were a lot of resources. I think a lot of mental health is not talked about as much as it should be. I wanted to bring out characters who have depression and are loved and have friends who understand them, while also talking about mental illness more in the Black community specifically. Something that I often heard when I was younger was “it’s so much better than your parents had it. You shouldn’t be depressed about anything.” The thing to remember is, as advancements are made within how Black people are treated in the United States, there’s also another group of things to deal with. So [I’m] constructing a space for Black girls to be depressed and work through that and have tools that actually help.
In your bio, you note that in college you transitioned from pre-med to creative writing? What sparked that choice?
I was pre-med well into my junior year, [and meanwhile] I was always doing everything to be able to take a creative writing class at the same time. But I had never been taught that I could have a career in creative writing. I never really took that seriously. Then I got into a car accident; my car was almost totaled. I was at the hospital sitting and looking around, like, “I don’t like it here. I don’t like hospitals and that’s where I’ll have to be all the time [as a med student].” Then I was like, what’s the point of doing something I don’t love? I had to go to my parents who were kindly paying for my undergraduate education to tell them I wanted to change to English with a creative writing minor. Thankfully, I have really supportive parents, and I wrote a 10-year plan, because publishing and writing is difficult and a way different field. And afterwards, I was so much happier.
The concept of “going wolf” refers to Inmate Eleven’s modified dog Ira, who imagines himself elsewhere while trapped. What made you want to look at the imagination as a source of freedom?
I think that within Black culture, if you were Black American and you lived in America during any time period, if you didn’t have an imagination to think that things were going to get better, where would you be? This idea of imagining things that have not existed yet is a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement, of any movement, when we talk about the advancement of African American people.
On the flip side, all kids tell stories. All kids imagine themselves somewhere else when they’re stressed, or in pain, or don’t understand something. I think it’s a natural thing. And we often call it lying. I know that a lot of my writer friends are like, “I lied a lot when I was a kid.” But are we lying? Or are we telling stories that self-soothe? It’s okay to have an imagination. The second dedication in my book is to my parents, who allowed me to do this, because I was a storyteller from the beginning. It really helped me cope with my depression, with my life. I would just have a British accent for weeks, and they were like, “I don’t know what she’s working through, but it’s fine.” And I don’t know that I would literally be here if they didn’t let me dream. Imagination is a medicine, a balm. It has been forever. I’m okay with kids telling some tall tales if it helps them cope.
Telling history accurately is an important theme in this book, and in life. Was it a concept that came up naturally, as you were building that world? And in a country where people are divided on how to share our history with children, going as far as banning books, how are you navigating that?
I think book banning is such a small aspect of portraying history correctly. This idea that we were ever telling Black history correctly in the United States is inaccurate. As much as we’re “trying,” Most people don’t know the trajectory of how America really came to be, and how enslavement came to be, and how our “people we put on pedestals,” like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, really were not the perfect people that they’re presented to be. The side effects have been the microaggressions towards Black people throughout history.
Within the book, there are echoes to things in history, from the Civil Rights movement; they’re just called different things, like the Future to Blue Act. It’s trying to harken back to this idea that if parents are reading this with their kids, they can go back to the original [event in history] and say, “Oh, this is what it was inspired by,” or “This is where it came from.” [The reference] was to a very real law against Black people at this time period. [This book] was more of an investigation of how we already did the wrong thing, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But if we keep doing the wrong thing, that could happen again.
Imogen’s relationship with her therapist Dr. Lovinggood is a powerful one. Her therapist actively listens, enlists the support of Imogen’s community, and even apologizes when she recognizes that she’s misunderstood Imogen. What went into portraying a secure relationship between a Black girl and her therapist?
I’ve been lucky to have a few very good therapists. And I’ve been unfortunate enough to have some very bad therapists. So I had some things to work with. In this particular dynamic, it plays a huge part that this is the first Black woman Imogen’s had as a therapist. This Black woman is saying “Black culture is different, [and] the way we tell stories is different. I’m going to allow this child to use me in any way she wants. And if that’s by telling a story, I’m going to allow that to happen.” [Their dynamic] was led with this empathy, not telling her how it should be. Also trusting a child to go on the journey that they need to go on mentally. It was this place of love and understanding between a Black therapist and a Black child, but also understanding that it takes a village. The therapist is not thinking that she’s going to be the person who saves Imogen from everything. It’s going to be her mother; bringing in a big sister program; writing. It’s going to be [helping Imogen] live outside of just the therapy office, which I think that Dr. Lovinggood does. And I should shout out Lovinggood is a family last name, which is like the best last name ever.
The book closes with a quote from Maya Angelou: “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity, there is beauty and there is strength.” Have you considered how this book can interact with both children and parents?
I am very aware that the topics in this book could be a little controversial. When I found that quote, it really spoke to me because it’s saying as a parent, your job shouldn’t be to assimilate your child into a culture. It should be to listen and understand and realize that they’re going to be their own person. [It’s] diversity in the sense of diversity of thinking, but also in the fact that we shouldn’t have people of color, or any kind of marginalized group necessarily, assimilate and be like everyone else. We should be diverse in the way that we are.
I really felt like for a book like this, parents or teachers or some adult would be kind of co-reading. It was a message, because there’s a lot of meanings in this book that I think that only adults are going to see, and young people won’t. There’s a reference in the beginning of the book, where Ira, a nickname for him is Till. I don’t think that young people are going to understand that reference to Emmett Till, or what’s going to happen to Ira, but I think adults reading it will. There are also some other references that are more subtle throughout the book where I think adults are going to be like, “Oh, wow, this is in here for me.” [The book] is dealing with topics that are going to have young people asking a lot of questions, and I always thought parents will be reading it with them. I hope that as a unit, reading this with your child, or as a teacher reading this with your students, you all have discussions where you acknowledge what everyone’s saying and [there’s] diversity in that. When I saw [that Maya Angelou quote], I was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is the thesis; this makes sense of what I’m trying to do—the world I’m trying to create.
Do you have any works in progress?
I have a lot coming. Poemhood: Our Black Revival, which is a young adult Black poetry anthology, comes out on January 30, and we brought some amazing poets in it. The interesting thing is [the collection includes] ancestors, poems from poets who have passed, but also some very modern poets are in there. My adult poetry collection comes out in February 2024. It’s called Stuck with Trouble. My next middle grade, which is called Onyx and Beyond, comes out in October 2024. It is about a boy named Onyx growing up in 1960s Alexandria whose mother has dementia. It’s in verse and it’s based off of my dad, Mario McBride. And I have a young adult book that comes out the following year.
Gone Wolf by Amber McBride. Feiwel and Friends, $17.99 Oct. 3 ISBN 978-1-933060-56-9