For her next book for young readers, Leah Johnson, author of the Stonewall Honor Book You Should See Me in a Crown, shifts her attention from YA to middle grade for the first time in Ellie Engle Saves Herself, due out from Disney Hyperion in spring 2023. The cover, by artist Mirelle Ortega, is revealed here.
The first entry in a planned series introduces the titular character, Ellie Engle, a Black girl coming to terms with her queer crush on her best friend when she suddenly finds herself in possession of the power to raise the dead. Of her transition to middle grade fiction, Johnson said, “There’s so much room for play. We can suspend more belief, not just because it’s a book that relies on the supernatural but also because younger readers are inclined to really invest in their imaginations, something that I think gets more difficult the older we become.”
Ellie Engle began with Johnson brainstorming what kind of story she might write if she were to collaborate with friend and fellow YA author Justin A. Reynolds. “I realized I would have to expand what I’m capable of since he does more speculative fiction,” she said. Johnson, who previously had published exclusively contemporary YA, pondered what kind of speculative fiction would interest her. “Immediately, I thought, ‘What if you had an ordinary Black girl with extraordinary powers who wanted nothing to do with them?’ She wants to protect her mom, she wants to make herself an ‘easy child to raise’ because her mom already has so many other things on her plate. What happens when this kid who wants nothing more than to be an ‘easy child’ has to contend with being ‘difficult’ in ways that are supernatural?”
Compared to the usually onerous process of plotting YA novels, Johnson found conceiving Ellie Engle Saves Herself relatively simple. “A lot of people talk about divine intervention when they write, like ‘Oh, it just felt like magic. The idea struck me and I had to get it down.’ I’d never felt like this while writing before. Never. Writing feels like work. It feels like fun work for me, but it’s work nonetheless. But Ellie was the first time in my life where a story emerged fully formed.” Feeling confident in her story, she ultimately decided to write the book as a solo project.
Within 24 hours, Johnson finished a 10,000-word proposal to present to her agent. Within two weeks, she had completed a first draft. “I knew right away there was something special about the story.” However, she did not anticipate her first foray into middle grade fiction resulting in an 11-house auction or a seven-figure deal. “I just knew it was the kind of story that I felt a particular type of urgency to write and knew that it would have an audience who needed it as badly as I did once it made its way out into the world.” Stephanie Lurie at Disney Hyperion was the winning bidder; Patrice Caldwell at New Leaf Literary sold North American rights in the two-book deal.
Johnson had final approval over Ellie Engle’s cover design, and opted for a vibrant color palette in lieu of softer pastels. “I want rich tones, I want to make sure that Ellie is very clearly a brown-skinned Black girl.” The cover was created by “this incredible artist” Mirelle Ortega, who previously illustrated From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks and Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera. “I’ve seen so many covers of hers that I absolutely adored. One thing I really loved was how she renders Black girls, or girls of color, in ways that are authentic.” Johnson elaborated, “I wanted textured hair. I wanted baby hairs. I wanted red undertones. I wanted her to look like me. I love the cover of my YAs, but it’s been such a fight to have Black girls on the cover who are not light-skinned.”
Though Ellie Engle was signed by Disney Hyperion, the series is not published by the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, leaving Johnson and her team the challenge of making Ellie’s cover art stand out. “I wanted the cover to feel grounded in our world and our universe,” she said. “Because I’m at Disney though not under RRP, I’ve been fortunate to interact closely with the team, and all of us wanted to make sure the cover of Ellie was easily distinguishable from the RRP covers.” It was important to Johnson that the cover conveyed a sense of wonder and magic without promising to transport readers to a secondary world. “I wanted a Black girl on the cover who seemed just like any of us. There’s no superhero logo on her chest. There’s no cape wrapped around her neck. The magic is her; it’s in her body. She is the embodiment of the magic.”
Whereas Johnson has thus far written her YA titles for the queer girl she was at 15 or 16, her middle grade series opener has another intended audience. Ellie Engle Saves Herself is a direct response, according to Johnson, to “an era where any books for children that have references to queerness or gender expansiveness or sexuality in any way that isn’t purely puritanical, are getting banned or challenged.” The careers of her author friends are threatened due to their commitment to telling these stories. “I want this book to be in every corner of every library,” she said, “in every small community in this country where there are voices telling young people that they don’t belong or that there’s something wrong or shameful about who they are.”
Johnson credits writer Ocean Vuong with inspiring her view of Ellie’s necromancy. “A while ago, I read this interview with Ocean Vuong, who is one of my favorite writers of all time, and he said that a lot of times queerness is characterized as a type of death, like it is the end of something, but the way he characterized his queerness or his coming out, queerness wasn’t an ending, it was a beginning.” Johnson went on to explain that Ellie’s burgeoning superpower is not merely an accessory to her queerness but an allegory for it as well. “It felt really natural for me to think about queerness as a type of lifegiving power,” she said. "As Ellie is being reborn into this new identity, I wanted to give her the power to reinvigorate the things around her."
This article has been updated.