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'Literal Black girl magic': Alum writes fantasy novel based at UNC


UNC alumnus Tracy Deonn, author of the book "Legendhorn" based on UNC. Photo courtesy of Lauren Carr.

In UNC graduate Tracy Deonn’s imagined alternate reality, Arthurian legends, secret societies and mystery surround Chapel Hill’s campus.

Her most recent young adult fantasy novel “Legendborn” tells the story of 16-year-old Bree Matthews as she combats these obstacles, in addition to facing racism and the exclusionary history of UNC.

Taking place after Bree’s mother’s death, “Legendborn” follows the main character’s transition to life at a fictional early college program at UNC as she discovers a magical world within her own — by infiltrating a fictional secret society at UNC.

Cover of the book, "Legendbord," by UNC alumnus Tracy Deonn. Photo courtesy of Lauren Carr.

Deonn, who has a master’s degree in communication and performance studies from UNC, said she drew on her own experiences while writing this novel. 

“When my own mother passed away, I learned that she had lost her mother at the same age that I lost her, and that the same had occurred with my grandmother and great-grandmother,” Deonn said. “I began writing from a place of grief and mystery, but also from an impossible question: Why did this pattern occur?”

Deonn said her personal journey and that question led her to King Arthur, who is a favorite of hers and what she called one of the most long-lived legends. 

Kurt Davies, a UNC graduate and the director of global awards at New York University, decided to read “Legendborn” due to their acquaintance with Deonn. Despite not being a regular young adult fiction reader, Davies said they thoroughly enjoyed the novel.

“I always like to support the art and the work from my friends, so I decided to pick it up,” Davies said. “It’s not generally the type of book I’m drawn to, but I very quickly was drawn into it.”

Davies said that in addition to being a fantasy novel, the book explores more serious topics. 

“The book does a really amazing job of having all of the elements you’d expect in a young adult fantasy novel, but also it has this really fantastic, nuanced examination of race and the legacy of slavery,” Davies said. 

Christine Schwarz, the media and bookstore experience lead at Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews, said she was drawn to “Legendborn” due to the author's connection to UNC, as well as its Chapel Hill setting. 

She explained that Epilogue looks for books by local writers as well as authors whose voices may not get as much attention, especially since the publishing industry is geared towards white, cisgender and heterosexual men. 

“I was interested when I saw the cover and the tagline, but the fact that it’s set at UNC shot it up my ‘To Be Read’ list,” she said.

Schwarz regularly reads young adult fiction novels, and spoke highly of “Legendborn” as well.  

“I think it was actually done really, really incredibly,” she said. “It handled a lot of the history of UNC without glossing over it, specifically Black history on campus. And it gave literal Black girl magic, a magic that’s passed through the matriarchal line through Black women.”

Davies said they appreciated the diversity of the characters of the novel.

“There are characters of a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Davies said. “There are queer characters and nonbinary characters, and it’s not to check off sort of ‘woke’ boxes. It’s just a diverse, vibrant cast of characters.”

As an avid fantasy reader, UNC junior Ty Williams said she feels similarly to Schwarz and Davies. Williams has been reading fantasy novels since she was a child, and is now making a conscious effort to read books by Black authors, since many popular fantasy novels tend to be Eurocentric or focus on white protagonists. 

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Williams explained that though she has not experienced all of the hardships that the main character Bree faces, she knows that they are commonplace to many others. 

“It shows what it’s like to be Black at UNC,” Williams said. “There’s one part where somebody asks to touch Bree’s hair, and I can definitely relate to that.”

As Deonn explained, “Legendborn” has been her most ambitious creative task due to the scope of its mythology and history, but she was compelled to see it into fruition. 

“As a Black woman who never saw herself in her favorite YA fantasy novels growing up," Deonn said, "I felt, and still feel, a deep compulsion to see a teenage Black girl centered in a sweeping, immersive, fantastic story."

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