Ayana Gray is filling a gap for the next generation.
Already a New York Times bestselling author on the back of her first-ever release, Beasts of Prey, in just September of last year, this young adult fantasy author and a lover of all things monsters, mythos, and magic is making sure young Black children feel seen in the medium she loves most.
“As a young child, there was virtually no fantasy [media] with kids who looked anything like me, she said. “And if there were kids who looked like me, they were the side characters. They didn’t make it throughout the whole series.”
Seeing need for representation amid what she described as “a very whitewashed reading experience,” Gray became inspired while completing her junior year of college at the University of Arkansas. studying abroad in Ghana.
‘I was there studying, but also really struck by the landscape and the people and seeing Black people in spaces that I had never seen before,” she said of the experience. “Like I’d never seen Black royalty. I’d never seen only Black people on billboards. You go to the store and all of the hair products are for my hair texture.”
“I left Ghana really wanting to write a fantasy story that captured all of the power and excellence and all of the cool things that I saw.”
Taking about five years from start to finish, Gray constructed a magical, mystical adventure inspired by heavily researched traditional mythologies across the African continent.
“The monsters you read about in this series are from lore from different parts of Africa,” she said. “The Wolof people in Senegal, the Zulu people in South Africa; these are creatures that they have described and passed down through their stories. I may take liberties, but for the most part, they’re terrifying creatures, and they’re based on real lore.”
Beasts of Prey tells the tale of two Black teens, Koffi and Ekon, who journey into the jungle in search of a monster, yet end up uncovering secrets about themselves and the world they inhabit. By the journey’s end, they’ve learned terrible truths and made some pretty hard choices, which they must now face the consequences of in the upcoming July 2022 follow-up, Beasts of Ruin.
Gray’s story was so striking that it was picked up by Netflix for an on-screen adaptation before the book even hit shelves. Naturally, it’s an extremely exciting time for Gray, who’s working diligently to finish her trilogy as talks go on about casting, setting a director, and even potentially shooting on location on the African continent.
After a childhood of loving literature that didn’t value characters that look like her, Gray is honored to be able to give the next generation a glimpse at themselves in a magical fantasy world.
“In a word, I feel very privileged,” she says of the experience. “A friend of mine who I really admire [young adult fantasy author, Namina Forna] was commenting recently that she and myself, and so many Black writers who are getting to write in young adult and middle-grade fantasy spaces, this is all part of a renaissance.”
“This moment where suddenly Black kids are not having one or two or three, but full bookshelves of options when they go into a library or a bookstore looking for magical stories with people like them. It’s really humbling. And I know that the reason that I’m able to do that is because there were authors before me who broke down those barriers and pushed and demanded better. And I’m very hyper-aware that’s the reason I get to do what I’m doing.”