Author and performer Echo Brown, widely praised for her genre-fluid YA novels that blend memoir and magical realism, died September 16 following a long battle with end-stage renal failure due to lupus. She was 39.
Brown was born April 10, 1984, in Cleveland, where she grew up in difficult circumstances. During her senior year, Brown’s English teacher took her in so she could continue excelling at John Hay High School; she was class valedictorian. Brown became the first college graduate in her family when she earned a B.A. in political science from Dartmouth College in 2006.
Brown’s path to book writing was a winding one. She launched her career working at an independent agency investigating allegations of misconduct against members of New York City’s police department. Two years later, frustrated by her organization’s lack of progress, “I left that job really disillusioned with the world,” she told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in a 2017 interview. Taking on work as a legal secretary, Brown then began studies in investigative journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. But when that program proved not to be a good fit, she switched coasts, moving to California in 2011 to accept a position with nonprofit Challenge Day, which provides anti-bullying and violence-prevention workshops for high school students.
As part of her work as a motivational speaker at Challenge Day, Brown needed to share parts of her own life story—and quickly discovered she had a knack for doing so. She wanted to explore storytelling in a deeper way and enrolled in a class at The Marsh theater in Berkeley with director and playwright David Ford. Over two years, Ford worked with Brown to develop her autobiographical one-woman show “Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters,” which debuted in Oakland in 2015 and which she performed across the country and internationally to sell-out crowds for two years. Author Alice Walker expressed her admiration for the show in her blog, calling Brown “stunning and powerful.”
Brown’s profile in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine led to a new opportunity to continue her storytelling journey, when the piece caught the attention of Jessica Anderson, then an assistant editor at Christy Ottaviano Books at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Anderson contacted Brown suggesting she write a book, and in 2018 she acquired what became Brown’s debut YA novel, Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard (2020).
In early 2020, shortly after that book’s publication, as well as a memorable keynote address at ALA Midwinter, Brown fell seriously ill, and was hospitalized with kidney failure. Throughout treatment for her illness, Brown continued writing; her sophomore YA novel, The Chosen One: A First-Generation Ivy League Odyssey, inspired by her college experience, was published by Little, Brown/Ottaviano last year.
At the time of her death, Brown was working on her third book, A Jazzman’s Blues (S&S/Atria, Jan. 2024), a collaboration with actor/producer/director Tyler Perry and based on Perry’s original screenplay for a Netflix film of the same name.
Anderson, now an editor at Christy Ottaviano Books at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, offered this tribute: “Losing a bright light so young is devastating. But I am comforted by the fact that Echo believed in miracles. She manifested them herself. She believed in ancestral keepers, and wizards, and chosen ones. She was spiritual and knew better than anyone that souls do not disappear. Light does not disappear. Making books with Echo has been an honor of my career and my life thus far, and I will carry her memory as a blessing.”