The bestselling young adult novelist explains how she became a writer and what reading and storytelling mean to her.
New York Times Bestselling Author, “Beasts of Prey”
Ayana Gray, the 29-year-old New York Times bestselling author of the young adult novel “Beasts of Prey,” knows a thing or two about storytelling. She knows it may sound a bit cliché to say, but books and stories have been her retreats since before she was even old enough to read.
“I think I’ve been a writer my whole life,” Gray says. “I remember distinctly trying to tell stories through illustration before I knew how to write, and I was very frustrated that my family members couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. I realized I needed words.” She explains that her career as an author started when she was about eight years old, writing stories about her friends on the family desktop computer. “I wrote through school, and it was always just something that I retreated to as a fun place to go and let my imagination run wild.”
Opening new worlds
Books are often described, especially to kids, as a way to open up new worlds — and this was definitely true for Gray. “There was a period of my childhood where my family ended up moving quite a bit, and I was the new kid for five years in a row,” she explains. “School is tough; finding friends is tough. So, for a while, books were the consistent thing in my life.” She adds, “I sound funny maybe saying it, but books were my friends. They were the ones that had come with me no matter what town I lived in.”
Gray’s love of reading and storytelling didn’t leave her as she grew up into adulthood. Not only did her beloved books become like friends when she was the new kid in school, but her love of literature also helped her forge new friendships and connections with others who loved books just like she did.
Now Gray’s own books are connecting people all over the world. Gray notes that books can foster empathy, which is why diversity in literature and media is so vital. “It’s really important for kids not only to see themselves in a variety of roles and getting to see themselves as heroes, but also getting to see lots of different kinds of people as heroes,” she says. “I think storytelling is how we connect to each other and how we build empathy for each other. The more accessibility we can create the better.”
Gray never wants to be preachy, she says, but she hopes kids who read her books take away something valuable. “I wrote ‘Beasts of Prey’ for the kid version of myself,” she says. “I tended to run away from my problems, not face the things that scared me. The hard lesson I learned as a kid was that running from your problems doesn’t actually make them go away. It just kind of prolongs them and makes the monster get bigger.” Gray says when she learned to face what scared her, and to lean on her friends and community, she realized the scary things weren’t so scary after all, and that’s what she hopes her readers take away from the book.
For burgeoning young writers like she once was, Gray has two pieces of advice: “A lot of people will say read, and I absolutely agree. Reading books is the best way to learn how to write.” But Gray also has advice that’s a bit more practical. “I don’t hear this advice as often, but if you’re truly interested in becoming an author and making that your job, it doesn’t hurt to really take time to look into the business of being an author.”