B.B. Alston on inspiration, movie adaptations and his sensational new middle grade novel, Amari and the Great Game
"You don't have to change to fit yourself into somebody else's idea of what you should be."
One of the best pieces of children’s fiction to hit shelves in many many years, B.B. Alston’s hit debut, Amari and the Night Brothers, took the world by storm with its 2021 release and we’ve been more than a little bit obsessed with it ever since. With its equally heartfelt, action-packed and imagination filled follow up, Amari and the Great Game, once again proves that B.B. is one of the most creative and exciting writers in the middle grade game right now. To celebrate its release, we were overjoyed to have the chance to jump on a video call with B.B. (who is just as lovely as you’d imagine) and chat to him all about his sensational Supernatural Investigations series.
Hi B.B! It is just so incredibly lovely to be able to get to chat to you to celebrate the release of Amari and the Great Game, the must anticipated sequel to Amari and the Night Brothers. How has this year post release been for you, because I can imagine it must have been a bit of a whirlwind considering just how amazingly it’s done and the love that it’s received?
That’s definitely the word I’d use, it’s definitely like a whirlwind. You know, it’s so funny, because when I was writing it, I had no expectations. I had been getting rejections for so many years, I thought, well, if it just does, okay, I’ll be happy. But it’s on bestseller lists, it’s on the Sunday Times bestseller list and then we got a movie deal coming out. And I think it’s 30 something countries now. Man, I feel like I’m in a fairy tale myself, honestly.
I can imagine! How has the experience been for you going from focussing on writing The Night Brothers for so many years, to having that released and then jumping into writing the sequel, The Great Game?
Honestly it was kinda challenging, because with the first book, I could just write. I could sit down and not think about it. But with this one I had a firm deadline. I always had it in the back of my head that I have to be done by this date. And that’s such a big change from writing the first book. But I mean, it’s been fun. It’s a little bit easier because I already had the world down and the characters, so a lot of it’s just writing cool stuff that readers might find interesting. So hopefully I did that.
You definitely did that. Absolutely. It was such just a blast to read, it was so much fun. Did you always know where you were going to take Amari’s story with book two? Or did that come to you having finished book one or as you started writing?
It was funny because when I finished the first book, I had an outline and then after finishing the first book we changed the outline completely. So a lot of it was kind of making it up as I go along. I think that was kind of beneficial for me too. Because usually when you outline, it kind of kills some of the fun of it because you know what’s gonna happen. But when we changed it, I got to kind of find the magic of telling the story again, so that made it a lot more fun I think.
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Yeah, I can imagine that was so much fun. It’s got so many elements that you can play with as well. You’ve got the magic and the bureau itself. You’ve got the relationships, the friendships and the mysteries. Do you have a favourite elements to write?
I love to find out some new magical thing that I think is cool. So much of the stuff in the book is just me thinking what will be really cool right here and that’s kind of where the department’s came from, just me thinking that would be really cool, let me find a way to put that in the story. The hardest part is probably taking stuff out actually, because I tend to under write and add as I go along. My editor always says not to get too attached to stuff but I always do, so yeah, taking the stuff out is hard. I keep it in a separate folder and I can go back to if I need to, so it’s not totally gone.
Are there any elements or things that you have edited out that you almost wish had made the final cut that you can share?
There’s an elevator in the first book that I had to take out. He’s even in the ARC but then in the final version of the book I had to take him out. Then in book two I got to put him back in, so that was fun.
Do you have a favourite creature, invention or gadget that you’ve created yourself?
I think the elevators are probably the most fun for me. The different personalities and seeing how they’re different each year. I always have a lot of fun with those.
A big part of both books is the crystal ball and getting your supernatural talents. If you found yourself being able to touch the crystal ball, what supernatural talent would you want? And, considering that it’s based on elevating a talent and a gift you’ve already got, what talent do you think you would end up with?
When I was studying, I used to hate reading those long passages. So if I could just touch a book and know everything that’s in it. I think that would be like, so awesome, right?
That would amazing. It would make life so much easier. You could just read all the books all the time.
Yeah! If it was going to honestly give me one, it would probably give me something pretty lame.
I’m sure that’s not true.
What talents do I have? Man, I don’t know. I feel like writing is the only thing I’ve really got going for me.
I’m sure you have many talents. But writing you have definitely, definitely got!
Oh, well, thank you!
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In a similar vein, which department in the Supernatural Investigations Bureau would you like to be hired into?
I used to answer this question as The Department of Creature Control, because I thought it’d be so great to get to get all the magical creatures and like the flying pigs and dragons and all that cool stuff. But then one kid told me that you would have to clean out. You would have to deal with invisible poop. And I was like, yeah, that would suck. If you stepped in it, how would you even know? So I would probably do something like the Department of Good Fortune and Bad Omens, just because I think it would be cool to see the future and stuff.
That’s why it’s so nice, I guess, writing for kids, because you must get just as much back from them and their imagination and creativity as they do from reading your books?
For sure. Absolutely, and they have no problem messaging you on Instagram or Twitter, like‘I liked this’ or ‘I didn’t like this’ and ‘why’d you do this?’ It’s a lot of fun talking to them. I got a couple of ideas from them honestly. They have so many and a unique perspective sometimes that you don’t think of as an adult. I love interacting with them for sure.
I think that’s what makes Amari such a special series, because the imagination is so vivid. Every time I’ve recommended it to someone, whether they’re an adult or a child, they’ve always come back saying the same things, about being able to picture it perfectly and the world feeling so real. It’s such a lovely thing you’ve done, creating something that’s so accessible to all ages. What do you think it is about Amari and her story that has enabled it to be something that breaks down age barriers and allows kids and adults alike just love so much?
That’s a great question actually. I think the initial draw is probably the magic and the cool stuff like that. I think everybody can relate to being in a situation where you’re not like everybody else or you feel kind of different than the people around you. I think that’s just a relatable story, learning how to deal with that and how to fit in and knowing that who you already are is enough. You don’t have to change to fit yourself into somebody else’s idea of what you should be. And so I think that’s just a universal type of situation that people find themselves in. And yeah, hopefully that that comes across. I hope it does anyway.
It definitely does. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. I think that’s exactly it. I’ve genuinely not come across someone that’s read it that hasn’t been like, this is awesome.
Oh, thank you.
It just makes you feel really good and takes you away from everything whilst feeling very real as well. So, I’m obviously already very desperate for Book Three. Do you have any thoughts of where it might be going? Or what things might happen?
I always say too much when I get asked this. I always answer the question and then my editor is like, why did you say that? I definitely think you’re going to see more of the world. In the first two books, the primary focus is in the bureau. But this one’s gonna be out of the bureau. You get to see a lot more of how the known world and the supernatural world kind of interact outside the bureau. So I think that’s going to be a lot of fun.
Obviously the cast of characters in Amari are all very different and all very well developed. They all stand as real individual people and characters. Do you have a favourite who’s scenes you always get super excited to write?
I think Elsie is my favourite because she’s such a good person, you always feel good writing her scenes because she’s just such a genuine, nice person and I think maybe Dylan. Just because he’s so different than everybody else in the world. Either Elsie or Dylan are probably the most fun to write.
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Do you have any elements, whether it’s a character or a creation, that you find more difficult to write?
Usually when I write I know how it’s start and how’s it going end and in the middle I’m always trying to figure out the best way to have a mystery that keeps the reader engaged and keeps them interested. So it’s probably the mysteries in the book are the hardest to write. I’ll just make a mystery and have no idea how I’m gonna make it work. I just kind of figure it out as I go along.
I can imagine that must be quite a difficult one to kind of get your head around but guess it’s quite nice because you get to go on the journey with a character and figure it out along with them?
Yeah, I get lucky though because I get to make the ending what I want it to be, they have to kind of figure it out themselves.
Do you read middle grade yourself? Is that something that you enjoy? And if you do, do you have any recommendations for people that loved Amari and need something to read before the next book comes out?
Oh, man, I love it. I think that’s what my heart is. There’s so much imagination and so much optimism and hope in those books. Whereas adult fantasy can get kind of cynical sometimes. I love all the Rick Riordan Presents books. Those are a lot of fun. I’ve got Onyeka and Academy of the Sun. I hadn’t read it yet but I’ve heard really, really good things about it. See? I got to read Skandar, that was really, really cool. I think one more. Oh, the Hannah Gold books. She’s such an amazing writer and it’s got great illustrations, too.
Finally, very excitingly, the movie right for Amari have been bought and an adaptation has been announced. Is there anything you are able to tell us about the movie or where it’s at?
I’ve read the most recent version of the script. I think right now we’re looking for a director and we’re hoping to have a final green light by the end of the year, when we can go ahead and announce when it’s gonna start filming and when it’s gonna come out. So hopefully the next four months, I’ll have some firm news to give you guys. That’s the plan.
That’s so exciting! Are you a part of the process with writing the script at all?
I kind of just handed it over because I don’t feel very confident as far as scriptwriting, it’s so different than novel writing. But they do keep me involved. I get to read the script and they ask me questions to make sure it doesn’t clash with something that might happen in the sequel, that kind of thing. So yeah, we’ll see. I’m optimistic. So far they’ve kind of stuck close to the story. We’ll see if that continues because you know, those budgets can kind of get in the way sometimes. You don’t have to budget your imagination, you can just make as many cool things as you want. So we’ll see how it turns out.
I don’t think I’ve read a book that so clearly lends itself to screen as well as Amari. You’ve already written it in such a cinematic, vivid way that they must be overjoyed with what you’ve given them to work with.
They seem really excited. That’s what has me excited about the movie, that they’re so excited about it. So hopefully the readers will be excited too.
Get your copy of Amari and the Great Game by B.B. Alston here.