Freedom Fire, a new middle-grade imprint headed by Kwame Mbalia, bestselling author of the Tristan Strong trilogy, is in the works at Disney-Hyperion. The imprint will feature stories of Black resilience and Black joy, written by Black creators, and is tentatively scheduled to debut in spring 2024.
“Working with Kwame on the Tristan Strong series has been pure joy for the entire team at Disney-Hyperion, and we couldn’t be more excited about broadening our partnership with this incredible talent,” said Kieran Viola, Disney-Hyperion’s editorial director. “Kwame’s mission for Freedom Fire is right in line with our mission to publish unputdownable stories that reflect the diverse world around us, and we can’t wait to amplify his vision of an inclusive and equitable future for readers everywhere.” The Tristan Strong series debuted in 2019 with Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, which received a Coretta Scott King Honor and was a PW Best Book.
Mbalia said that after his success with Tristan Strong and in editing the anthology Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood (Delacorte, 2021), he felt called to go beyond writing and help to nurture talent in other authors, particularly those of the African diaspora. “I’d pictured myself opening an independent press decades down the line,” he said. “Imagine my delight when I struck a deal for an imprint at Disney-Hyperion! It was amazing, but it also made total sense. Freedom Fire is necessary.” He added that as the publisher of imprints such as Jump at the Sun and Rick Riordan Presents (publisher of the Tristan Strong books), Disney is “the perfect home” for the new imprint.
Freedom Fire is expected to publish chapter books, novels, and graphic novels. Mbalia said he gravitates toward stories centered on journeys. “Maybe it’s a quest through a fantastical world, or an adventure on the crosstown express in Orlando, Florida, or an internal realization on the way from one end of the block to the other. Maybe it’s a thousand years in the future, or a hundred years in the past, or an hour before bedtime. Maybe it’s science fiction, contemporary, or fantasy. At the heart of the story is a young person who is unabashedly inquisitive, undisputedly the hero, and unapologetically—from L.A. to London to Trinidad and Tobago—Black.”
Freedom Fire will aim to acquire stories from Black authors around the world, celebrating diasporic culture. Disney’s Freedom Fire team will work with Mbalia to identify middle grade submissions that might work for the imprint.
Currently, there’s a fantasy and short story anthology underway, along with a few other projects that are still confidential. “We heard people were hungry for these stories and we’re in the kitchen,” he quipped.
Mbalia expects readers to find joy in the pages of Freedom Fire books. “That’s not to say that we don’t move through a gradient of emotions, because there will be wonder and excitement. There will be horror and grief. There will be anger and frustration. But we can recognize pain and suffering and heartache while not glorifying it, instead contextualizing it as we search for joy.”
Mbalia’s goal for the imprint is to make it a force in publishing that will help “change the world” by promoting stories with characters that readers can relate to and empathize with. “I hope they find a safe space between the pages, a destination they can carry with them in their backpack. I want the pages they turn to become tattered and torn because in the act of turning them the reader finds peace and shelter,” he said.
In addition to nurturing current talent, he hopes that the imprint will inspire children who dream of writing one day. “I will be happy if a child cherishes a book that we publish,” he said. “I will be fulfilled if a writer who once was a child like that becomes a Freedom Fire author.”