Five Minutes With YA Author, Houston’s Jess Elle

by Julie Tereshchuk on March 17, 2022 in Entertainment, Living Texas, What I'm Reading,

Texan Jess Elle is a prolific Black author and advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and her community.

The Young Adult (YA) fantasy novelist recently released Book 2 in her New York Times bestselling Wings of Ebony YA fantasy duology, Ashes of Gold. 

Elle drew inspiration for the novels from her own experience growing up poor in Houston’s Third Ward and from her desire to inspire younger generations. Her novel has already been integrated into school curriculums nationwide.

New York Times-bestselling Houston author J. Elle grew up in Houston’s Third Ward. Photo Chris Spicks

From poor beginnings to being a first generation college student, Elle’s tenacity and passion for empowering others dates back to her first career in education, teaching tweens and teens from traditionally underserved areas to fight for their dreams. More recently, as the founder of Your Story Is Your Power, a creative writing workshop, she mentors high schoolers on the craft of writing and the importance of sharing stories from their perspective.

We talked recently with this proud Texan about her life, inspiration and future plans.

Tell us about growing up in Houston’s Third Ward. 

I’m often asked where I got the idea to write about magic in an inner city community and my answer is always the same –- the magic that’s actually there. When I think of an inner city community, I think of the sense of community, togetherness, the pride of home, the contagious spirit of joy. I had “aunties” who were neighbors, everyone was a “cousin.” which points to the embracing nature of communities like mine. We love one another, hard. It’s not a place of judgment, but a place of belonging. 

The Young Adult (YA) fantasy novelist J. Elle recently released Book 2 in her New York Times bestselling Wings of Ebony YA fantasy duology, “Ashes of Gold.”

How did that inspire you?

I wanted to bring that to the pages of book, so that kids growing up where I grew up would know their community is magical. That the heroes and leaders are bred and born right on their own streets. When you hand a kid a book that reflects their lived experience you affirm their humanity. You let them know it’s okay to exist in their own skin. When all a kid ever sees are books without themselves, their lives, the foods and customs that are nostalgic to them pictured in literature, it implies that they’re not the norm. This is what it was like for me growing up. And I am still working through the impact of that lack of representation. 

Were you a big reader of YA yourself?

Actually, when I was a teen, there was no YA. I went from reading Goosebumps novels to reading Eric Jerome Dickey and V.C. Andrews. Until Twilight I didn’t really see books that centered on teens. It’s just such an impactful age, where teens have so many questions about themselves, the world, and how they fit into it.

Why YA fantasy as a genre? 

I like exploring challenging themes in my work, social justice issues, moral dilemmas, etc. I find that wrapping these topics in the veneer of fantasy can make the content a bit more digestible for readers. In Wings of Ebony, I wanted to give teen readers in particular the ability to engage in discourse about racism, privilege, socioeconomic disparity and colonialism without them having to sit with any personal trauma they have.

Now residing in Spring, TX, author J. Elle is the founder of “Your Story Is Your Power,” a creative writing workshop, where she mentors high schoolers on the craft of writing and the importance of sharing stories from their perspective. Courtesy photo

What’s your next novel? 

My next novel is out August 30, and it’s a middle grade story. This one, A Taste of Magic, is about 12-year old Kyana who discovers she is a witch and enrolls in a magic school in the back of her local beauty salon. What unfolds is a journey of self and magical discovery right in her very own neighborhood. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and lends itself to conversations around community, gentrification, and finding the confidence to be all of who we are. 

Why did you lead a donation drive to get a book to each student at Houston’s Jack Yates High School? 

If I wrote Wings of Ebony for anyone, I wrote it for the neighbors that raised and reared me, pouring into me so that I could pour out. 

Reading is powerful, not only because of the eye-opening revelations a story can impress upon readers and the empathy it can sew in the heart of a reader. But reading also fosters literacy and literacy is the foundation of upward mobility. I wanted Wings of Ebony to reach the hearts and minds of the kids I wrote it for and I didn’t want financial barriers to impede their access. So I put that work on my shoulders and took up the task. Donors were beyond generous. I’m so grateful.

Cover photo courtesy J. Elle

Julie Tereshchuk is the Editor-in-Chief of Texas Lifestyle Magazine