Fulbright College Alumna Ayana Gray to Publish New Young Adult Book Trilogy
Political Science and African and African American Studies (AAST) alumna Ayana Gray always knew she wanted to write and share the kinds of stories she loves best – those steeped in magic, about historical lands, and full of adventure.
And this summer, Gray achieved her goal when her Beasts of Prey trilogy was acquired by Putnam Books for Young Readers. The first book in the series, which bears the same name as the trilogy, is Gray’s debut novel and will be published in spring 2022.
“Beasts of Prey is a Pan-African fantasy inspired by my exploration of heritage as an African American woman,” Gray said. “It follows two Black teenagers who must venture into a forbidden, magical jungle to hunt down the ancient creature menacing their home – before they become the hunted.”
“It promises all the things I adore – monsters, mythos, and #BlackGirlMagic,” she added.
In a recent publication announcement, Entertainment Weekly said about Beasts of Prey, “The hunt for your next YA fantasy book trilogy obsession has ended … Full of exciting fantasy world-building and complex characters, Beasts of Prey promises ‘a twist you won’t see coming.’”
Gray said she was particularly excited to share her work with readers who haven’t seen themselves represented in fantasy, adventure or YA literature nearly enough.
“Growing up, I loved Harry Potter, I loved Chronicles of Narnia, all those magical stories but I didn’t get a chance to see people like me get to have those hero and heroine rolls in those stories,” Gray said during a recent interview with Little Rock’s THV11. “So really this is a chance to write a story for kids that were like me and wanted to see themselves in these magical stories.”
Gray said that while Beasts of Prey is a Young Adult trilogy, it’s also a story that anyone could enjoy.
The Fulbright REVIEW had a few more questions for Gray:
Can you tell us a little more about your trilogy and what the first book is about?
Sure! My debut Beasts of Prey is the first in a young adult fantasy trilogy.
It centers on two Black teens who must venture into a magical jungle to hunt down a monster. Many of the story’s fantastical elements were inspired by different regions of the African continent, and by my directly lived experiences as an African American woman.
What inspired the trilogy? We saw part of the idea sparked while you were on a study abroad trip?
Yes! The initial inspiration for these books came from an honors colloquium I took at the University of Arkansas called Political Violence, taught by Dr. Jeff Ryan, and by my study abroad experience with the African and African American Studies program wherein I spent a month in Ghana, led by Dr. Calvin White, Jr., Dr. Jim Gigantino, and Ms. Mary-Margaret Hui.
Can you tell us more about the trip and how it impacted you as a student and now as a writer?
Sure! My trip to Ghana was hugely influential, both personally and professionally.
As an African American woman, there were many solemn moments as I came face-to-face with the realities of my heritage, but there were also so many irreplaceable moments of joy and awe. What I will always value most about that trip was the perspective it gave me.
As a writer, you’re always looking to find the story in things, and Ghana is a place of a thousand stories. There is so much history steeped into the land, and I’m directly linked to those stories.
Were you writing your books while you were still a student? How long did the first book take and what was your writing process like?
I didn’t actually start writing Beasts of Prey until a few days after I graduated from college and moved back to my parents’ home in Little Rock. I was writing other things while I was an undergrad, but not in a very deliberate or disciplined way.
As for the process, I knew thematically what kind of story I wanted to tell, but it took lots of false-starts before I found my way.
In total, it took four years to write it, and another year of deep revising with my literary agent before we sent it to editors and sold the trilogy to Penguin Random House this summer!
What was it like when you found out the book was being published?
It was—and still is—absolutely surreal!
When my literary agent emailed me to tell me an editor was interested in acquiring my books, I’d been standing in my closet preparing to start my day.
I’m not an overly emotional person, but I’ll always remember the shaking knees and quiet tears that came as I slowly realized my lifelong dream was coming true. Everything after that was icing on the cake.
What was one of your favorite memories of your time at the U of A and Fulbright College and why?
You know, I’m not sure there’s one exact moment I’d call my favorite; it was all the small things.
I love that, to this day, my college friends can mutter a single phrase or word that makes us all start laughing or shaking our heads because it’s a reference to something ridiculous.
I will say, my freshman year was especially fun. We were too young and green to get up to (much) trouble at 18, so we made our own fun with movie nights in the dorms and walks through local haunted cornfield mazes in the fall.
You don’t appreciate it ‘til it’s over, I suppose.
Did you have a favorite professor or any particularly meaningful classes?
The honors colloquium I mentioned before, Political Violence, was literally life-changing for me. It was a course like no other I’ve ever taken; it changed my worldview and I’m still in touch with most of the classmates that took it with me.
Dr. Jeff “Jefe” Ryan not only taught that class but served as my senior thesis director and mentor throughout my undergraduate years. He is a national treasure.
Additionally, I owe so much to Dr. Calvin White, Jr., who headed the AAST program while I was a student and led my trip to Ghana. I’ll never forget walking with him after class to discuss his lectures and feeling as though a light had been turned on in my mind for the first time.
Lastly, taking a course on Gender Politics with Dr. Janine Parry my senior year was a really wonderful way to finish my experience at the U of A. She was and remains an exceptional example of what happens when you make the things you’re most passionate about your day job.
What’s up next on the horizon for you?
The next step for me is working with my wonderful editor at Penguin Random House to make sure Beasts of Prey is in the best shape it can be before diving right into writing books two and three!
Beyond that, I’m hoping that we soon find a vaccine to alleviate the effects of COVID-19, because I’d love to do some traveling with my (still new-ish) husband! I have an eye on Kenya at the moment…
Do you have any advice for students interested in following in your writing footsteps?
Read! In the same way you best learn a language through immersion, I think the best way to learn how to write well is through immersion in great stories.
Ask critical questions of yourself and of others around you and remember that nothing worth anything comes easy.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or let readers know?
Beasts of Prey will be published in Spring 2022. I know that seems a far way off, but it’ll be here faster than you know!