When L. Samuels was a little girl, she witnessed bullying at her school in Garland, Texas. After telling her parents about the incident, Samuels told her mother: “You need to go and talk to the teach and help the kid.” Samuels took that advice to heart and has since dedicated her professional career to empowering youth around the world and advocating for all students’ access to education. She currently lives in Dallas, Texas, where she recently founded Valued Educational Services, a company offering professional and international opportunities to young people of all backgrounds, and where she penned Phoebe Douse: Secret Society for Special Abilities and Artefacts, the first installment of her YA fantasy series.
“I always wanted to be a helpful voice or to engage young people by telling them that they do have a voice,” Samuels explains. A lifelong lover of travel and other cultures, Samuels’ goals took her abroad. She spent 10 years living in Europe, where she worked at UNESCO, completed a master’s degree in international studies in Geneva, and finished a Ph.D. in education at the University of Edinburgh. After her return to the States two years ago, she began building programs to help young people tap into their potential for anything from diplomacy to poetry via online education, research projects, life coaching, and publishing, the latter being of particular importance to Samuels, who was also raised with a deep appreciation for storytelling.
Samuels’ parents were Jamaican immigrants who supported her appreciation for music, museums, books, and the oral traditions of their home. “I never grow tired of stories, and I always encouraged my parents to tell them,” Samuels explains. “I didn’t care if I had heard them before.” She loved hearing about her grandmother and great-grandmothers (to whom her book is dedicated), especially her paternal great-grandmother—known throughout the community for her superstitions and home remedies. “I feel like I’ve known them through my parents,” Samuels says. “They were strong women in their lives and in mine as a result.”
Inspired by her heritage and her own world travels, Samuels created the character of Phoebe Douse, who, like her, is the child of Jamaican immigrants living in Texas. As Phoebe begins high school, she receives an invitation to attend the mysterious Murray School in Scotland. Phoebe arrives at the majestic castle of a school and makes some big discoveries: She has supernatural powers; her family actually has deep ties to the school; and she’ll need to become an amateur sleuth to find a fellow “gifted” student who has gone missing. Phoebe and her new friends begin uncovering the school’s dark secrets along with their own unusual powers. And as the Kirkus review points out, “Though the different special abilities are all familiar (for example, channeling spirits), the gradual reveal of each student’s skill is a treat.”
These basic plot elements will undoubtedly remind readers of that other magical teen, Harry Potter, but Samuels welcomes the comparison since she’s a big fan of the boy wizard. She hopes, however, that the deep multiculturalism in her novel will set it apart. During her time abroad, Samuels fell in love with diverse, international environments—something she still pursues today by raising awareness of Francophone communities in Africa and the Caribbean as a board member for the Alliance Française of Dallas. So it was important to her that the book feature similar eye-opening experiences. “For me, the book has layers of messaging,” Samuels explains. “A young kid could pick it up for fun, or I could use it as an educational tool.”
At the school, Phoebe’s friends come from the U.K., Switzerland, Hong Kong, and beyond, but they each have their own complex identities. (Something Phoebe runs into when a student remarks on her lack of a Texan accent, leaving her to wonder how she is “supposed to sound.”) Samuels hopes that readers will connect easily with any or all of these distinct characters and that they will, in turn, instill in her young readers the importance of learning about and respecting other cultures. After all, “We are all essentially the same as people,” Samuels says.
Another way that Samuels adds dimension to the novel is through artifacts like the wondrous Fadrix orb, which has ties to ancient Egypt. Phoebe learns that there’s an entire society devoted to such items: the Secret Society for Special Abilities and Artefacts, or S3A2. For Phoebe, however, the shock isn’t only that this group exists, but that her beloved grandmother Naan had been an active member. In one of the book’s pivotal scenes, in which the headmaster reveals Phoebe’s connection to the society, Samuels introduces fun plot twists and highlights Phoebe’s fun, colorful voice:
This was a lot to take in. I’d never heard Naan mention any of this. She never spoke about Duff, Scotland, and secret societies. I didn’t even know she liked collecting items, let alone ancient and powerful artifacts. I stopped myself when I remembered Naan did try to tell me about her “grandest adventure.”
Samuels takes advantage of these and other moments to weave in real history. When Phoebe gets a lazy lecture on Columbus and the West Indies, for example, her father digs into the real, complex story of slavery and colonization in Jamaica. (Samuels also points out that Scotland was not a completely arbitrary choice for herself or for Phoebe, large numbers of Scottish migrations having left some lasting cultural ties between the two countries.)
Throughout the book, Phoebe, faces challenges not only from paranormal happenings (which offer some effective surprises and lay the groundwork for the series’ future installments), but also from having her worldview expanded and her sense of identity challenged. By the end, she proves herself to be clever, skeptical, often cheeky, and also prone to self-doubt and mistakes. Samuels hopes that these aspects will make Phoebe both likable and relatable to a wide range of readers. “I hope that as a heroine she’ll speak to all young readers, and not just females,” Samuels says. “Discovering who you are is a universal theme, and having self-doubt is natural....And we all have abilities.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.