Echo Brown’s debut book, Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard (Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, January), combines her own autobiography with elements of magical realism and fantasy as the protagonist comes to realize her own power as a wizard and the connections she has to others.
Brown relayed her “origin story” to attendees in the Auditorium Speaker Series at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in Philadelphia on January 25. Born during the mid-1980s crack epidemic in one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods to a mother and stepfather with no money and histories of addiction, her first memory is of her mother unconscious from an overdose while the family’s apartment was on fire, her two younger brothers in their cribs. She said that many people thought it would take a miracle for her to make it out of this environment, and she described the miracles that led to her presence in front of this audience.
Her first miracle was an elementary school teacher who put her in a program for gifted and talented students. “I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing a child’s promise as early as possible,” Brown said. She later transferred to a white middle school across town so she could stay in the advanced classes.
In high school, as her family faced eviction, one of Brown’s teachers took her in so that she could stay on track for college. In her teacher’s home, Brown said she learned important life lessons she hadn’t picked up before, everything from setting a table to code-switching to understanding that she is worthy of love just as she is.
Her high school class started with 900 first-year students, only 122 of whom graduated. She was accepted to every college she applied to, choosing Dartmouth University, she said, based on the lovely foliage and minority students in the brochures. But Dartmouth was a reality check—she was the first in family to go to college, and most of her classmates had been on that path for generations. Her family, she said, “were in cotton fields and caskets—we were never in college, not until me.”
Brown said she chooses to call these shifts in her life miracles because she sees them as connected to something bigger than her, as “what happens when the force is with you.”
After graduation, Brown said she tried to save the world as a police misconduct investigator in New York, then tried other jobs that were less emotionally draining but not fulfilling. She was still running from unresolved childhood trauma when she moved to California to start over. She started healing herself by working with teens, telling her story and encouraging them to tell theirs.
“They met me on the battlefield of my life,” she said. She found her calling in telling the story, leading to her successful one-woman show, Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters, which led to a profile in the Dartmouth alumni magazine, which led to a meeting with an editor who proposed writing a book.
Brown said she felt as though she channeled the book as soon as the first line—“My mother is a wizard”—came to her because it felt linked to something deeper within her. She wasn’t just telling her own story but the story of her ancestors, the women in her family, sexual abuse, and the story of her brothers who could not follow in her footsteps. Brown shared that she attended the funeral for her youngest brother the day before; her other brother is incarcerated and had to watch the funeral through an app.
In her book, she said the miracles are easy to see because of the fantasy elements. In real life, they’re easy to miss. America is often portrayed as a land of rugged individualism, but no dream can be achieved alone, she said. “Who did you answer the call for?” she asked.
“I see you out there doing your part,” she said of librarians, whom she called keepers of the “alchemical process” of reading.
Echo Brown on what libraries mean to her