As a child in Atlanta, Ayana Gray constantly faced a difficult choice – she could either read fantastical stories about magic and grand adventures but that had few characters of color, or she could read books with Black and Brown characters filled with racism and trauma.

The decision was exhausting. But the tension helped create “Beasts of Prey,” a debut novel that will anchor her Pan-African fantasy trilogy.

“I’m an African American woman, and I know my ancestors came from Africa, but I don’t know where,” Gray told a Cleveland audience. “So, I wanted to write a story that honored the entire continent.”

About 75 listeners assembled to hear Gray at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo this fall just as Beasts of Prey published. “I love zoos, and I’m so happy to be here,” said Gray. “I care about animals, wildlife, and conservation.”

There, amid the camaraderie of school children, final sound checks, and attendees finding their seats, an unexpectedly intimate moment unfolded in the RainForest building.

Gray, alone on stage, delicately turned over a copy of Beasts of Prey, tenderly examining the front and back covers before gently flipping through the first few pages. To a casual observer, Gray may have looked like one of thousands of YA readers. Instead, she is the creator of one of 2021’s most anticipated novels.

Before she was a writer, Gray was a reader. “Reading got me into writing, allowing me to expose myself to as many voices as I could.” For Gray, reading was a way to learn other people’s stories, as well as share her own. “I was frustrated when people didn’t understand me.”

Part of her story stretches to her studies in history and culture as an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas. She spent a semester in Ghana, focusing on decolonization, the Pan-African movement, and the sub-Saharan continent. Gray said she “saw Black excellence and power in a way [she] has never seen before – and it felt magical. . . It was a powerful trip. Not many people know how much history is in Ghana.”

Once she returned to the United States, Gray began writing Beasts of Prey. Throughout the coming-of-age quest story, Gray subtly honors African figures by naming characters after historical revolutionaries. Her own quest to write these characters into existence, particularly the protagonist Ekon, was not smooth. But she experimented with his masculine perspective and eventually came to identify most with Ekon.

Gray’s younger brother, Corey, served as an inspiration for Ekon –although Gray told the audience she would never admit it to him. While Corey is now an adult who stands over six feet tall, Gray still remembers him as a child with a gentle soul and Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas. From an early age, Gray noticed how her brother was perceived in school, and how his behavior was framed differently than his white classmates. “I saw the expectations that were placed on him as a little Black boy. There wasn’t room for him; he had to change himself. I wanted to write a story where boys like him can exist just as they are,” she said.

Gray said her novel included no race-related trauma: “The characters have lots of problems – but racism isn’t one of them. The bad things that happen to them are not because they’re Black, but because they’re going on an adventure.”

The author called for a broadening of the fantasy genre. “People from all walks of life deserve magical adventures – Black people, other people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people.” Gray said she wanted to add to the developing cannon of inclusive literature. “We don’t just need one book – we need a whole shelf of options.”

To that end, Gray has already finished writing the second installment of her Beasts of Prey trilogy. It should arrive in 2022, with the capper in 2023. Netflix is adapting the first book, which Clubhouse Pictures and Brian Unkeless will produce, with Melanie Cooper as the screenwriter.

Meanwhile, Gray said she plans to continue telling magical stories with Black characters. “I have a ‘plot bunnies’ folder,” she said. “[My ideas] are distracting and they hop around.”

The novelist also intends to expand her mentorship of other Black authors, including through innovative virtual competitions such as Pitch Wars, of which she is the managing director.

“So many authors reached back to help me, and it’s important to pay that forward, to lift the ladder as we climb,” Gray said. “I want to do this for the rest of my life.”