New Voices: Roseanne A. Brown & Diana Ma on Creating Characters That Mirrored Themselves

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

I’m excited to introduce our readers to Roseanne A. Brown, author of A Song of Wraiths and Ruin (Balzar + Bray, 2020), and Diana Ma, author of Heiress Apparently (Abrams, 2020). While these two YA debut novels may seem different in genre and tone, their authors both realized the goal of creating characters that validated themselves.

Roseanne A. Brown

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I first got the idea for A Song of Wraiths and Ruin in 2016. I was thinking a lot about my own mental health, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “If a ghost tried to possess me right now, it would be like ‘There is a lot going on in here. You can have this back.’”

This started as a joke, but then I realized I had never read a fantasy book where a character’s mental illness wasn’t a metaphor or villainized in some way, especially not with a Black character.

That spark became the character for Malik, and the idea grew from there to incorporate the cultures and oral storytelling that I had always loved. I wanted a story that had all of the epic action, adventure, romance, magic, and backstabbing that fantasy had to offer but with Black characters at the center.

What first inspired you to write for young readers

For almost as long as I can remember, I loved reading. Growing up, I was the awkward Black girl who came from a place no one had ever heard of, so it’s probably no surprise that I wasn’t the most popular kid in school.

But even when I didn’t have a lot of friends, I had books. They made me feel seen and comforted, like I wasn’t alone. I knew from a young age I wanted to create works that made young readers feel as seen and as validated as my favorite books made me feel, but with an extra focus on Black readers. I wanted to create books that told them “You deserve to be the hero. You deserve to be the chosen one. Your wonderfully, amazing, vibrant Black self gets all of this.”

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

The biggest transition so far has been learning there is a time for the sensitive, emotional side of being a creator, and for the more pragmatic, often cold realities of putting a product out into the world. Because our books are extremely personal creative works that we all pour bits of our souls into. But they’re also products. And that means being ready to sometimes make decisions that aren’t 100% in line with your more protective side.

This never means sacrificing your ethics or your morals of course! But it can sometimes mean letting go of the title or cover you always dreamed of for one that better fits the current market.

But it also means when it’s time to write, you have to learn to push those voices out and return to the core of what your story means for you.

It’s a balance I’m still learning myself, because I’m always aware of reader expectation and editor expectation and so many other voices with different viewpoints.

But at the end of the day, if I’m not putting out something I’m proud to stand behind, there is no point to writing for me.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

As a Ghanaian immigrant to America, my perspective directly influences the way power is formed in my novel. All my life I’ve had to navigate power structures and institutions purposefully constructed to oppress people like me. That’s why A Song of Wraiths and Ruin analyzes the way power manifests and shifts across groups and generations, what lengths people go through to keep it for themselves and away from others, and under which circumstances it’s ever okay to assert power in morally reprehensible ways for the greater good.

On the surface, these seem like adult themes, but they are the realities for marginalized youth everywhere. I’ve been moved by young readers telling me they appreciated that the book didn’t talk down to them on any of these topics.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

My biggest advice is give yourself permission to take your craft seriously even before you have anything to show for it.

Within the writing community, children’s literature writers are often looked down upon because our work is seen as not as serious as other categories. This goes doubly so if you are writing science fiction or fantasy kidlit, and triply so if you’re a marginalized author. So many forces on all sides will try to downplay your work and your craft.

That’s why you have to advocate for yourself from the start. Before you have the deal, before you even have the agent. Treat your work and your time and your ideas like priorities because they are. You’ll be advocating for yourself for the rest of your career, so it’s good to get into the habit early.

Diana Ma

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I’ve written elsewhere about how important the We Need Diverse Books mentorship program was for my writing, but I just can’t say enough good things about the WNDB organization and all that they do! As a teacher as well as a writer, I passionately support the We Need Diverse Books organization’s mission to encourage diverse representation in children’s literature and get diverse books into classrooms.

Naturally, when I saw that WNDB was offering mentorships with established authors for writers who identify as a member of an underrepresented group in children’s literature, I applied immediately.

I knew it would be a competitive program, so I was shocked and delighted when I was chosen for a year-long mentorship with the amazing Swati Avasthi! Working with Swati was a dream come true, and her brilliant and insightful feedback definitely helped me take my writing to the next level.

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

Being a teacher feeds my creativity in rich and wonderful ways, but it took me a long time to realize that. In fact, I felt that the energy I put into teaching (and raising a family) left no room for my own writing. For years, I taught about the importance of cultural representation and literature as cultural resistance, but I didn’t see my own work as part of the curriculum I taught.

No matter how many times I told my students to write what mattered to them or told them that their lives and stories were important—I didn’t take my own advice. Instead, I stopped trying to write the “literary” work that I was taught to appreciate and write in graduate school and quietly gave up my dreams of being an author. I had convinced myself that no one would want to read the books I secretly wanted to write—kids’ books about kickass Asian heroines.

In many ways, it was my teaching that got me on the path to becoming a children’s book author. I remember telling the students of my creative writing class that I would teach the craft of writing—but what they write was up to them.

My students didn’t believe me at first. Instantly, the questions started. Can I write horror? Yes. Can I write fantasy? Yes. Can I write a story from the anthropomorphic POV of a cat? Yes. Basically, I said “yes” to every conceivable story idea. And the stories my students wrote were full of heart and absolutely wonderful!

Then it hit me. Why don’t I give myself permission to write what I want? So I did in Heiress Apparently!

Another bonus to teaching at a community college is that my colleagues are also my dearest friends. And believe me, there is nothing better than having English, Humanities, Gender and Women Studies, Ethnic Studies, Political Science, History, Psychology, Sociology, Media Studies, and Art faculty in your corner when you’re writing a YA epic romantic series!

My colleagues have been incredible sources of knowledge, feedback, and support. Undoubtedly, my community of colleagues and students make me a better writer and person.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?

I loved reading YA romances as a teen but never saw Chinese American heroines like me finding romance and having adventures.

When I wrote Heiress Apparently I had young Asian American readers in mind and wanted to write the kind of story I craved as a teen. As a parent, I also wanted my own children to see themselves in the books they read.

From the start, I was committed to writing a main character who shares my identity as a Chinese American—but I also intended her to be different from me in other ways (Gemma is way cooler).

I’ve also been fascinated by accounts of what Asian American actors, directors, and writers have to contend with in Hollywood around representation, so it seemed natural to bring that into Gemma’s story.

I was all set to write a story of an Asian American teenaged actress who goes on adventures that most of us can only dream of.

But the more I wrote, the more I recognized my own journey in Gemma’s. I had my own homecoming to China as a young adult, and like Gemma and many other Asian Americans, I experienced a mix of feelings about “returning” to a country I’ve never been.

Like mine, Gemma’s journey is about figuring out who she is. And that, of course, is a story many of us can relate to (but Gemma is still cooler than I am)!

Cynsational Notes

Roseanne A. Brown is an immigrant from the West African nation of Ghana and a graduate of the University of Maryland, where she completed the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her work has been featured by Voice of America, among other outlets. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is her debut novel. You can visit her online at

Diana Ma is a debut Chinese American author who holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MA in English with a creative writing focus from the University of Illinois, Chicago. She lives in a suburb of Seattle.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle-grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.