Shelf Life: James A. Perez on Creating More Inclusive Stories

James A Perez is looking to rewrite fantasy and adventure narratives to transcend the limits of stories past.

Perez grew up immersed in stories, taking a particular shining to the vivid worlds found in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. “My first love is fantasy adventure,” Perez said of his favorite genre to both read and write. He describes his childhood self as, “seldom without a book;” a trait which continued into adulthood.

In adulthood, however, Perez noticed a pattern. “Too many fantasy adventure series have male leads, with only supporting female characters,” he said.“I wanted to flip the script on the class hero’s journey.” So, to celebrate the genre and to open its doors to a wider audience, Perez decided write fantasy and adventure stories of his own; stories that featured female characters instead of leaving them in the background. 

Inspired by his niece and the vibrant tales and history of Greek mythology, Perez wrote Maia and Icarus. In this novel, almost-eighth-grader Maia Peterson’s life is thrown for loop after loop. Her home is destroyed; she finds out a family secret that sends her to Greece; and she discovers the hidden world of Olympia (complete with mermaids, winged horses, and the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology). Maia befriends Icarus, and the two face the forces trying to bring her down. 

 Finding support and success for this book, Perez soon published a sequel—Maia and Hippolyta. A third book in the series, Maia and Atlas, is on its way. 

With such fond memories of stories in childhood, Perez now aims to transfer that connection and joy to his readers of today. “It’s a challenge and a thrill to try and ignite wonder in a child,” Perez said. He hopes that ignition flames into a passion in his readers. “I hope they are inspired to put down their electronic devices and go to the library to take out some books.”

Perez, who lives in Huntington, takes pride in his stories’ impacts. At a book fair shortly after Maia and Hippolyta’s publication, a young girl approached Perez. “She told me she had been waiting anxiously for the second book since she’d finished the first,” Perez said. “I had my first fan!” 

With three novels complete, Perez is branching out to picture books. In these, he features diverse family types without making the nature of the family the story’s focus. Inspired by his daughter, Ellie, he wrote Grandpa’s Walking Stick. Grandpa’s Walking Stick features a family like my own: a young girl with two dads,” Perez said. “But the story is about her relationship with her grandfather, and not the fact that she has two dads.” 

Perez plans to continue writing for children, and hopes to complete a currently in-progress “darkly comic” novel for adults about a same sex same sex couple’s journey to have a child through surrogacy.

To aspiring authors, Perez advises writers blaze their own paths. “ Don’t write because you want to be published. Write because it brings you joy.”

More about Perez, his books, and events can be found on his website.

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