Perhaps fitting for a tale featuring a high-energy hunt, Ayana Gray’s Pan-African YA fantasy debut Beasts of Prey (Putnam), the inaugural title in a planned trilogy, has hit the ground running. The story of two Black teens, who form a dangerous alliance and venture into the magical Greater Jungle in pursuit of a terrifying, murderous creature called the Shetani, launched with a first printing of 250,000 copies on September 28. Out of the gate, the book landed at #4 on the New York Times young adult hardcover bestseller list and has remained on the list for a second week. Last month, Netflix announced it will be developing the series as a feature film, produced by Bryan Unkeless’s Clubhouse Pictures and adapted by Melody Cooper. To date, translation rights have been sold into 16 territories.
Beasts of Prey’s road to becoming one of the buzziest books of the fall began more than a year ago when Penguin Young Readers kicked off a lead-up campaign. Entertainment Weekly announced that Gray’s trilogy had been acquired in a preempt, and Oprah Daily ran a cover reveal and excerpt from the novel. “After Hours” virtual events at the ALA Midwinter and Texas Library Association conferences followed, along with three virtual meet-and-greets with booksellers from across the country during which Gray appeared in conversation with her editor, Stacey Barney, now associate publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books.
Over the summer, the Penguin Teen online community invited four groups of influencers to join private virtual book clubs and meet-and-greets with Gray. Penguin Teen additionally supported the title with custom content in its dedicated newsletter mailings and social posts shared with its 1.3 million members.
Closer to the book’s release, Gray appeared on Good Morning America, which featured her TikTok unboxing video. And since September 25, Gray has been on a hybrid national tour, where stops have included The Lit Bar (virtually in-conversation with author Sabaa Tahir) and an in-person appearance at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo during Cleveland Book Week.
Though her jump to bestsellerdom has been swift, Gray told PW that her publishing journey “took the better part of six years, from inception to publication!” She began writing Beasts of Prey immediately after graduating from the University of Arkansas. It was during her undergraduate years that the first threads of her novel began to take shape. “For me, writing inspirations tend to come less often as sparks, and more like kindling to a fire,” she said. “Bits and pieces come together, and eventually that grows into something bigger. Beasts of Prey’s ‘kindling’ came from a course I took in college called Political Violence, wherein we studied infamous historical figures and events and discussed moral relativism. It made me really begin to evaluate concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ very differently.”
A few months after completing that pivotal course, Gray embarked on a program studying abroad in Ghana, where she said she had “an incredibly powerful experience. As a woman of Afro descent, it was deeply moving to return to the African continent and reckon with the erased pieces of my heritage,” she said. “I left Ghana and knew I wanted to write a story in which Black people had the opportunity to be both magical and nuanced.”
Between 2015 and 2019, Gray said, “I worked on the manuscript intermittently until I discovered a Twitter pitching event called #DVPit, where I was able to ‘pitch’ my book to literary agents and connect with my now-literary agent, Pete Knapp.” Knapp and Gray worked on revisions together for approximately a year, “and when we both felt it was ready, we submitted it to editors,” Gray noted. “I was tremendously fortunate that it was a relatively speedy process from there and, in the end, my books found a home with Penguin Young Readers and with my dynamic editor, Stacey Barney.”
Barney quickly felt connected to the work and knew she wanted Beasts of Prey on her list.
“Reading Beasts of Prey on submission and every time thereafter felt like a delicious treat from the very first words,” she said. “The writing wasn’t just pace-y, but artful and I immediately fell into this world Ayana had created.” Barney also admired what she called the full-bodied characters in the story. “From Koffi’s searing focus and strength to Ekon’s unexpected vulnerability, these immediately felt like people I knew or wanted to know,” she said. And certain elements of Gray’s manuscript struck an even deeper chord for Barney. “I think Ayana truly won my heart when I recognized a character had been inspired by Kwame Nkrumah, the former president of Ghana and someone who was a vocal advocate for Pan-Africanism in his political life,” she said. “Pan-Africanism is so embedded in the narrative and the worldbuilding, and provides such an undeniable emotional core that reading the book very much reminded me of the time I was able to spend on the African continent and in that way, the read felt like going home. And if all that wasn’t enough to win my heart, Ayana also slipped in some very good “yo mama” jokes, which highlights just what great fun the read is.”
Warm critical praise in three starred reviews has echoed some of Barney’s assessment. And Barney additionally believes that Beasts of Prey is generating solid sales because “it’s no secret that readers are hungry for more books that feature Black characters as their own superheroes in well-drawn worlds with a meaningful and exciting plot.”
Gray’s growing number of fans can look for the second book in the trilogy in 2022, though the release date has not yet been announced. They can also follow her on TikTok (@ayanagray) to see videos offering a more personal look into her experiences becoming a published author.
Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray. Putnam, $18.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-593-40568-0