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J. Elle: Black Child, You Are Magic

by Karen Pavlicin

Debut author J. Elle is rewriting the way Black kids see themselves and their communities.

Known to her friends as Jess, writing under the pen name J. Elle, the prolific Black writer draws on her experiences as an inner-city kid, teacher, and military spouse to build fantastical worlds with a sense of home and community as family. Her young adult and middle grade fantasy novels, rich with adventure and contemporary themes, boldly depict Black girls using their own magic to influence their worlds and save the people and places they love.

As a novelist, J. Elle was discovered in October 2018, when she tweeted her storyline using the hashtag #DVPit , the Twitter book-pitching event for historically marginalized voices. Her debut YA novel Wings of Ebony was picked up by Simon & Schuster. Releasing January 26, 2021, in time for Black History Month, Wings of Ebony is part of a YA fantasy duology about a black teen demigoddess named Rue who must rise up against racist deities who are poisoning her block with drugs, violence, and crime.

The setting of Wings of Ebony was inspired by the neighborhood Jess grew up in, on the southeast side of Houston, where her younger teen sisters still live.

Fantasy author J. Elle with her daughters.

Fantasy author J. Elle with her daughters. The importance of family is a theme that runs through her books and real life.

“Growing up, neighbors are aunties. Communities like mine look out for one another because we have to,” says Jess. “We are forged with a closeness rooted in our identity and the ‘hood’ we call home. It’s one of the most magical parts of my upbringing.”

Jess missed her family and those tight connections when she got married and moved ten times in eleven years with her Marine Corps husband. She sought ways in each new community to connect with other military families who understood her situation, a desire that influences her characters’ relationships.

“I definitely drew from that part,” says Jess. “I’d had similar experiences as a Black woman when I’d walk into a new job or school and connect with the only other Black person there. Albeit different, the military community was the only other facet of my life where I’d move somewhere and have some semblance of a connection with strangers because we shared some lived experiences. You definitely see remnants of that in Wings of Ebony, particularly in Ghizon, the magical world where Rue’s circle is very small and tight knit.”

Jess began writing as a way of maintaining her own sense of identity within her military life, which by necessity largely focused on her husband’s service and schedule. She had just decided to write Rue’s story when her husband received military orders to go out of town for four weeks.

J. Elle's writing is influenced in part by her experience as a military spouse.

J. Elle’s writing is influenced in part by her experience as a military spouse. Above: Her husband and eldest daughter attend a military dance.

“So we packed up the kids and went with him,” says Jess. “And in that tiny hotel room, with three kids jumping around, I punched out a 70,000-word first draft. That’s the other thing military life really teaches you—how to be flexible, nomadic.”

Six months after her Wings of Ebony contract, Jess sold a second fantasy duology for middle grade readers to Bloomsbury. Set at Park Row Magic Academy, the books star twelve-year-old Kyana, a Black girl who enrolls in an inner-city magical academy hidden in the back of a beauty shop and must fight to keep it open after redistricting and gentrification threaten to close it down.

Becoming an author was partly influenced by Jess’s love of reading as a child. She found contemporary stories especially relatable.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m so in love with creating inner-city fantasy as an author. These are stories I wish I’d had,” she says. “I love the way [fantasy] allows young readers in particular to explore, and even subliminally process, real world experiences. When I think of young me, I wanted to find stories that were familiar and believable enough to pull me in. And yet take me on an adventurist escape.”

Jess does not shy away from real-life tough topics, writing about kids who are impacted by and who must grapple with racism, privilege, cultural appropriation, single- or mixed-parent homes, and finding family in community. “My hope is that the reading experience is a step removed from reality but still allows readers to hold a magnifying glass to the issues.”

She puts magical resources at her character’s disposal so readers metaphorically understand they are capable of more than they imagine. “The mindset that we can’t impact change is the first injustice we must eradicate,” says Jess.

While her personal life experiences inform and influence her stories, Jess also looks to other books and authors for inspiration and honing her craft as a writer.

J. Elle sold four novels to major publishers within a year, all elevating the voices of inner-city kids with an empowering, magical twist. Her first, Wings of Ebony, will release January 2021.

J. Elle sold four novels to major publishers within a year, all with fearless and unapologetic Black heroines. Her first book, Wings of Ebony, releases January 2021.

“From a craft perspective, in fantasy, I was really awed by the worldbuilding in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin,” says Jess. “The complex web of motivations and just the overall vastness is always something that draws me into that story. It reminds me to really suss out my character’s histories as I create their motivations.”

She also fell in love with the An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir. “Her characters and plotting just keeps me at the edge of my seat.” She adds, “Dhonielle Clayton’s books also do this for me. The Belles is a book I savored, page by page, detail by detail. And that’s a nod to Clayton’s expert worldbuilding talent. These authors’ books are never far out of arm’s reach.”

Magic is a theme Jess has carried through all four of her books. She says her middle grade books are “very much magic in the real world.” When writing her Park Row Magic Academy story, she let herself explore the story’s possibilities without any pressure of what the book needed to become. “And what came out is just so wildly fun and hilarious,” she says. “I read it often just to remind myself of what happens when I let myself be really inventive with magic.”

Writing her novels has also helped Jess better understand her own life story and struggles.

“I hadn’t realized how much I’d been holding in. How much frustration had built up over the years from watching the way my community is not only treated, but then subsequently dragged through the media. How the narrative is very one note. How that’s not how I think of my home.”

Referring to her time as a teacher, she explains, “When you look in a kid’s eyes, before they hear anything you’re trying to teach them—they know whether or not you believe in them. And that awareness is formative. Kids are incredibly perceptive and so smart. They also can tell when actions and words don’t line up.”

Jess created Rue with a mix of characteristics from kids in inner-city classrooms, “kids I’ve taught, best friends I’ve had,” she says. “I hope this book helps those kids feel more seen, more capable, and opens their eyes to their own magic.”

J. Elle’s mom and sisters still live in the Houston neighborhood where she grew up. The tight-knit community inspired the setting for Wings of Ebony.

J. Elle’s mom and sisters still live in the Houston neighborhood where she grew up. The tight-knit community inspired the setting for Wings of Ebony.

“I want [Wings of Ebony] to hum like a song in the hearts of children who have never seen themselves depicted in this way. I have two teenaged sisters, three children, cousins, nephews who will grow up in a world where stories like Rue’s aren’t an exception. I hope Wings is a torch, or baton, if you will, I can pass to my children and they can pass on to theirs. I hope my book inspires an entire movement, where Black kids are boldly affirmed of their value and rich worth in this world.”

And as for the magical home that brought her to this place, she adds:

“Wings of Ebony is a love letter to my community that shouts: Black child, You. Are. Magic.”

J. Elle
Web: AuthorJElle.com
FB: @AuthorJElle
TW: @AuthorJ_Elle
IG: @AuthorJ.Elle

Wings of Ebony
Web: WingsofEbony.com
Teacher resource for Black History Month: WingsofEbony.com/educators

Photos courtesy of J. Elle.

Karen Pavlicin is the publisher of Books Make a Difference and a believer in magic.

This article was first published January 2021.

 

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