Chrystal D. Giles’ literary origin story will be familiar to anyone with an abiding love of reading: The author had a favorite place when she was growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I read a lot of books,” she recalls, speaking to Kirkus via Zoom from her home a few miles outside of Charlotte. “I am the youngest of four, so I often found myself off by myself. I was a library kid. I would go to my public library and I would get stacks of books.”
It’s no surprise that Giles went from being a young lover of books to the author of two of them—her debut middle-grade novel, Take Back the Block, published in 2021, and now a follow-up, Not an Easy Win (Random House, Feb. 28).
Despite being an avid reader as a child, Giles took an unusual path to writing. She studied accounting in college and worked in finance for 15 years. Her interest in children’s literature was rekindled when her son, now 7, was born.
“I wanted to give him my love of books,” Giles says. “My husband and I started collecting books for him, and we would read to him every single day. That’s how I became obsessed with kids’ books, and that’s where I started on my writing journey.”
Giles started writing in 2018 but soon realized that while she’d worked in finance for years, she knew little about the publishing industry specifically. That’s when she found We Need Diverse Books, the literary nonprofit committed to promoting literature that all young readers can see themselves in.
“I had gotten so many rejections at that point,” she recalls. “When I got accepted into We Need Diverse Books, I thought, OK, maybe my voice does actually matter in this space. I started working on Take Back the Block right around that time. It was the first time I felt some level of validation.”
After her We Need Diverse mentorship under author Gwendolyn Hooks (Planting Peace, Tiny Stitches), she entered the mentoring program Pitch Wars and rewrote the manuscript for Take Back the Block. What happened next, she says, was a “whirlwind.”
“I was represented three weeks later; we went to auction two weeks [after that],” she says with a laugh. “It was sold in a two-book deal within about four weeks of me being represented. Everything went so quickly.”
The novel, about a sixth grade boy fighting gentrification in his neighborhood, earned positive reviews from critics, including one from Kirkus’, who, in a starred review, called it “an ambitious invitation for young readers that delivers promise for all.”
If Take Back the Block wasn’t easy for Giles to write, Not an Easy Win—about Lawrence, a 12-year-old boy with an incarcerated father who finds solace playing chess at a local recreation center—presented its own set of challenges. “The sophomore book struggle is real, y’all, and during a pandemic no less,” she writes in the novel’s acknowledgements.
“The first draft I wrote with not a lot of stress or anguish,” Giles says. “The revision process is where I was like, Whoa, this gets personal. My father was often incarcerated, he wasn’t around very much, and I wanted purposefully to speak about that impact on a young person. And I thought, OK, I’ve made this not easy for myself. But it became kind of cathartic, and I was able to process, reflect, and then separate myself enough to make sure that I wasn’t telling my own story, that it was in fact Lawrence’s story.”
Lawrence’s story has resonated with critics. Kirkus called the novel “stellar” and gave it a starred review—one of four publications that judged the book worthy of a star. The reception, Giles says, has been an “absolute shock.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” Giles says, recalling the moment she learned about her fourth starred review. “I still don’t. I’m so proud of my characters; they’re my babies for sure. I’m proud of Lawrence. I know that sounds weird, because I created him, but still I’m just super proud of him. Maybe that's a way for me to disassociate myself from the work, but I’m just proud of my character right now.”
Giles continues to write, but she’s also committed to a literary mission that’s just as personal. When she and her husband started building a library of books for her son, she wanted to find titles that featured Black boys and their fathers—and didn’t have much luck.
“I went to my local bookstore; I came home with no books,” she says. “I came home, I went online and I thought, This is odd, how come I can’t find any? I wanted my kid to have books that he could open up and the characters would look like him, and sound like him, and have his haircut, and dress like him, and all that. So I absolutely want to make sure that the industry changes in a way that any kid, every kid, can see themselves, their communities, their families in a book.”
Michael Schaub, a journalist and regular contributor to NPR, lives near Austin, Texas.