From the very beginning, Black stories have been an integral part of Kwame Mbalia’s life.

The no. 1 New York Times bestselling children’s author, best known for his Tristan Strong series, grew up in Milwaukee, the son of parents who were determined to find books that he could relate to. “They scoured independent bookstores, festivals, and conferences—not just in my hometown of Milwaukee, but the country and around the world—as they traveled, looking for books with characters that looked like me by authors who looked like me,” he recalls via Zoom from his home near Raleigh, North Carolina.

Mbalia has always been an avid reader, but after working for years as a pharmaceutical metrologist—a technician who specializes in medicine-manufacturing equipment—he decided to try his hand at creating books like those he’d loved as a young reader. The result was the 2019 middle-grade fantasy novel Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, which follows the titular seventh grader as he accidentally opens a portal to the mysterious land of MidPass. Two more books featuring the much-loved character followed: Tristan Strong Destroys the Worldand Tristan Strong Keeps Punching.

Mbalia also collaborated with Prince Joel Makonnen on two science fiction novels for young readers, Last Gate of the Emperorand its sequel, The Royal Trials, and in 2021, he edited the anthology Black Boy Joy, a collection of 17 stories about growing up Black, featuring contributions from P. Djèlí Clark, Jerry Craft, George M. Johnson, Jason Reynolds, and other writers.

His storytelling journey was just starting. Mbalia is now the publisher of the Disney-Hyperion imprint Freedom Fire, which is dedicated, in his words, to “Black stories, Black resilience, and Black joy.”

“When we say Black stories, we’re talking about the Black diaspora, Black people around the world,” he says. “We’re centering, uplifting, finding those stories, and sharing them with the world.”

The challenge of adding the title publisher to his CV didn’t intimidate Mbalia. “I don’t know what it is about me that insists on biting off more than I can chew, but I’ve never been satisfied with just telling my story,” he says. “I think it comes from being a reader, and every reader knows that sensation where they’ve found a great book and they want to tell someone about it. I feel that way about stories in general, but especially Black stories.”

Freedom Fire launches on Aug. 6 with Tracey Baptiste’s Moko Magic: Carnival Chaos; Mbalia’s own Jax Freeman and the Phantom Shriek will follow on Oct. 1. Then, on Nov. 12, the imprint will publish Black Girl Power, an anthology edited by Leah Johnson.

“We want to spark a movement,” Mbalia says. “We want to leave those little sparks, those little embers, with every student and classroom and library we visit, so that they have their own burning flame that they can draw heat and inspiration from to create their own stories.”

When you were a young reader, was it difficult for you to find books with elements of Black resilience and Black joy?

My parents were determined to not let that be the case. I had three or four towering bookshelves in the central playroom outside our bedroom, filled with books that might have had Coretta Scott King Award stickers on them, or books by independent authors and illustrators. I grew up expecting that to be the norm, and I was shocked when I went to public libraries or to my school library and saw that wasn’t the case. It was almost like getting a bucket of cold water tossed on me, realizing that other kids who looked like me didn’t grow up with those books.

It really must have been special to receive the Coretta Scott King Honor for Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.

I was bawling just thinking about how hard my parents looked for those books, and how seeing that Coretta Scott King sticker was such a validation for them. To know that my book would go on the shelf with [those earlier books] was a full-circle moment.

Tracey Baptiste’s Moko Magic: Carnival Chaos comes out in August. How did you decide to make that novel the first release under the new imprint?

First of all, I love Tracey Baptiste. I loved her Jumbies series, so having her on the imprint is phenomenal. Moko Magic: Carnival Chaos is an Afro Caribbean–inspired story about three cousins who are protector spirits, or mokos. It takes place during the Carnival season in Brooklyn, which is around August, so it just makes sense—the timing is perfect. I think it’s a brilliant story about family and cousins and, of course, my favorite thing: magic.

Not long after that, in October, the imprint has a second book, Jax Freeman and the Phantom Shriek, which you wrote. Is it too early to say whether Jax might be a character who comes back in another book?

We already have a second book for Jax, so he is returning. Whether he comes back for a third book—that’ll be a little bit of a surprise. If you love Tristan, you’ll love Jax, but they’re completely different characters. It was fun writing Jax because he’s a big Black kid, and the tendency is to look at him in the real world and maybe shy away, keep an eye on him. But he is a gentle giant who loves meatball sandwiches and discovers that he can summon power from his ancestors. I posit this question to the universe: Who wouldn’t somehow get in trouble if you randomly found out that you could summon power from your ancestors to perform magic? I challenge anyone to make it through the week unscathed.

In November, Freedom Fire is releasing Black Girl Power, an anthology edited by Leah Johnson. Do you see this book as a companion piece to Black Boy Joy?

I feel like this is a spiritual companion to Black Boy Joy. They are siblings; they are mirrors to each other, and they also stand alone. Black Girl Power is filled with contributors [Sharon Draper, Kekla Magoon, Renee Watson, Ibi Zoboi, and Tochi Onyebuchi,among others] who are some of my favorite authors, period, which was also the case with Black Boy Joy. I’m a kid in the candy shop. We get these stories and poems by these fantastic creators who talk about the joy and strength and experience of Black girlhood. I can’t wait to see the books sitting next to each other on a shelf, not just handing Black Boy Joy to a boy and Black Girl Power to a girl, but exchanging them, reading them, and gaining that experience and empathy from sharing those stories with each other.

Looking down the road, what would you like the impact of Freedom Fire to be?

I’m going to take the conversation full circle. I love knowing that there’s a parent out there—or a guardian, teacher, or librarian—who’s looking for more Black stories. Just as my parents, when they saw the Coretta Scott King sticker, felt reassured and validated in putting that book on their shelf, when someone sees a Freedom Fire book, they’ll instantly be like, Yes, let’s add this to our collection. Let’s buy this for when my 4-year-old kid gets a little older. Let’s stock our shelves at the library. Let’s do giveaways. Let’s get them into Title I schools. When you see that Freedom Fire logo, I want you to think, I know this is going to be a mirror reflecting all our young Black diaspora readers, but even more so a window for others to read and experience that resilience and that joy.

Michael Schaub is a contributing writer.