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Esme Symes-Smith helps young readers find the hero within

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Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

It takes a special kind of person to write children's novels, someone who can understand the emotions, struggles, and triumphs of young readers.

Author Esme Symes-Smith is just that person. One of the reasons they're so good at writing literature for young people is that they fell in love with the craft in middle school.

"I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was 12 years old," they said. "I remember reading fanfic and being utterly amazed that fiction could create a real, physical response in me. I was feeling exactly what the characters were feeling, and I decided at that moment that's what I wanted to do with my life."

Symes-Smith, like many LGBTQ+ kids, fell in love with reading. Stories transported them to other worlds, where they could be anybody they wanted. Now, as an adult, they write stories for other Queer kids looking to experience an adventure.

"I [don't] just want to write stories. I [want] to give my readers a full experience," they said.

Image courtesy of Labyrinth Road  

Their series, Sir Callie, provides readers of all ages an escape into a fantasy world, told through the lens of a 12-year-old Nonbinary knight. While the book is for middle-grade readers, Symes-Smith says the story is something all readers can relate to.

"Marketing says 8-12 years, but it is also very much for the Queer adults who didn't get to see themselves on the page, for parents of Queer kids, and — apparently — Hot Topic teens," they said.

While the book takes place in a fantasy world, the story leaves readers with a modern lesson. "There are as many ways to be brave as there are human beings," Symes-Smith said. "Sometimes brave looks like standing up to the bad guys. Sometimes it looks like protecting yourself. Sometimes it looks like taking care of the people you love. Heroes come in countless different shapes and sizes."

Many aspects of the story come from Symes-Smith's real life. The location is modeled after southwest England, where they grew up. They also drew from classic lore around King Arthur when creating their rules of magic. While many parts of the novel feel ancient, there is a sense of modernity young readers will also pick up on.

"For Helston's society, I looked to the world we live in now," Symes-Smith said. "The treatment of persecuted minorities by those who benefit from the status quo, the way dictators manipulate and control the people around them, and how hatred stems from fear and influences everyone it touches."

They affectionately refer to Sir Callie as their "2020 rage book set in medieval England," because the conflict was lifted out of global politics of the year. "Living through the Trump era, I had so much rage and indignation built up inside me, and it reminded me of being a self-righteous kid living in an unfair world controlled by grownups," they said. "I wanted to write a story about angry children who don't want to forgive their abusers, and who demand to be heard no matter the circumstances. Sir Callie is a story for anyone who has ever felt helpless."

Image courtesy of Labyrinth Road  

Sir Callie doesn't shy away from mature topics. The first novel in the series sees the titular knight-in-training vying for the world to see them as they are: Nonbinary. As they worked on the novel, Symes-Smith decided they would include experiences of misgendering and deadnaming in the book, to keep the story accurate to the experiences of real Nonbinary kids. They admit the decision was hard to make.

"I love books that choose not to include the deadname or the gender assigned at birth, but as far as Callie is concerned, their past still affects their present," Symes-Smith said. "Callie's deadname is wielded as a weapon by those seeking to deny them their identity, and it was important to me that Callie process [that] they are still themselves, even when they are disrespected. My favorite detail is that the first word of the book is [Callie's dead name], and the last one is 'Callie.'"

Following the success of the first Sir Callie book, Symes-Smith has secured a deal for three more. The second book is out this month, and the following two can be expected in the next few years.

"It will be a four-book series, and I'm thrilled that readers will be able to see the characters to their proper conclusions," they said. "I have also been thinking about what I want to do next, and I have some really exciting projects in the works. I want to stay in the Queer middle-grade sphere."

The second book in the series, Sir Callie and the Dragon's Roost, came out on November 7.