One of this fall’s buzziest YA releases comes courtesy of Brittney Morris, a debut author exploring timely issues of racism, prejudice, diaspora, and stereotypes in the age of digitalization. Slay is set in the world of videogaming and centers on 17-year-old Kiera Johnson, a fierce teen game developer who battles a real-life troll intent on ruining the Black Panther-inspired game she created — and the safe community it represents for black gamers.
Here’s the official synopsis: “By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend. But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for ‘anti-white discrimination.’ Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must harness what it means to be unapologetically black in a world intimidated by blackness.”
There are a few things we can tell you about this debut: Slay was acquired in a heated auction that featured interest from each of the “big five” publishers, and already, more than 20 queries from TV and movie studios have come in for screen rights. EW can report that an announcement is expected soon.
Morris has shared with EW an exclusive preview of her book. Below, you can see the stunning cover, as well as a first excerpt. Slay publishes Sept. 24 and is available for pre-order.
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
Excerpt from Slay, by Brittney Morris
Playing the Game
By day, I’m an honors student at Jefferson Academy. At night, I turn into the Nubian goddess most people know as Emerald.
The second the bell rings, I’m out of my desk seat and bolting through the classroom door. There’s a battle tonight between PrestoBox, a master wizard from the Tundra, and Zama, a Voodoo queen from the same region. I absolutely can’t miss it. Once safely in the hallway, I pull out my phone and open WhatsApp to find a new text from the game mod, Cicada.
Cicada: You watching the tundra semifinals tonight?
I grin, glancing up for a second to watch where I’m going as throngs of students pour from classrooms and navigate around me.
Me: Wouldn’t miss it.
“Hey, Kix!” comes Harper’s voice, startling me from my thoughts. I look up to see her and my sister Steph walking toward me in their matching pink T-shirts with the Greek letters for Beta Beta Psi, a collective of the eight most outspoken, unapologetic, woke feminists at Jefferson Academy. Leave it to my parents to transfer us to a high school that prepares its students for college so thoroughly, they claim to have the most robust high school Greek life program in the country.
“Hey, Harp. Hey, Steph,” I say, trying not to sound disappointed that I won’t get out of here for another ten minutes. I slip my phone into my back pocket and put on my best happy to see you face.
“Hey, Kiera.” Steph says with a grin, brushing her bangs out of the way of her lime-green glasses. Steph has a new pair of cheap plastic glasses for each day of the week, and her hair is always pressed straight and cut neatly at her shoulders. She insists keeping her hair straight saves time in the morning, but until she can prove it, I’ll keep my five-minute wake-up-and-shake-out-my-twist-out routine.
“I’m heading home early today to get started on our Beta Beta posters for the game tomorrow night,” she says. “Each one is going to have an inspirational word at the top in huge bubble letters—like ‘Endurance’ and ‘Perseverance.’ We’re going to have the players sign them and put them up in the halls around school afterward. Plus, Mom said she’ll take me out later tonight to get more permit hours. Wanna walk with me?”
I thought endurance and perseverance were kind of the same thing, but if I start in on that conversation, I really won’t get out of this hallway before the duel starts. Harper chimes in before I can answer.
“Actually, Steph,” says Harper, “I wanted to talk to Kix for a second. Need to ask her advice about something.”
That’s what she calls me. Kix. Like the cereal. Or like the shoes. I can’t tell and never bothered to ask. Steph and I look at each other. We both know what’s coming. Harper is about to ask me an impossible question, because she knows Steph isn’t going to give her a straight answer.
“Well, now I’m curious,” says Steph. “What is it?”
Harper glances over her shoulder as if she’s watching for someone, and she folds her arms across her chest and shrugs.
“It feels kind of weird to even be asking this question, but I’m asking because I genuinely don’t know the answer.”
I sigh and nod at her to just ask the question already. She always prefaces these with a disclaimer if it’s going to be one of those questions with two wrong answers. She didn’t used to be like this. When we were kids, Harper used to come over our house for Mario Kart, Legacy of Planets, and snacks. We used to talk about Usher and Fresh Prince, and boys in our class, and babysit her little brother, Wyatt. But now Steph is president of Beta Beta, and Harper is VP, and as royalty of the most feminist high school sorority in the country, Harper acts like she has to talk about polarizing stuff all the time.
“Okay, fine,” says Harper when it becomes apparent Steph isn’t going anywhere. “I was thinking about changing my hair. Something fun and new, but like, with bohemian vibes. There’s one style I really want to get, but I need to ask you about it first.”
Steph and I exchange looks again. When it comes to hair discussions, Steph and I have been on the black girl hair journey together, and we have more in common than she and Harper ever will in the hair department. But I look back up at Harper with her short blond pixie that hasn’t held a curl since middle school prom, when her mother had to use half a can of hair spray. She’s the only person I know who can rock a pixie like that, and since she stands about a foot taller than me with a long, willowy frame, it fits her. But I let her finish her question.
“I need to, like, ask you, though, and don’t be afraid to say no,” she begins. “Am I allowed to get dreadlocks?”
Oh, what a question. Is she allowed to get dreadlocks? She’s asking permission to wear a hairstyle that’s been debated by people of many races for years and years as to whether it’s appropriating black culture. How am I supposed to tell her yes without giving the disclaimer that I can’t speak for all black people, and that she could ask any of us this question and get a different answer every time?
“That’d make a great question for the Weekly!” chimes in Wyatt, stepping between Steph and me, leaning his arm on her shoulder and grinning at me. Nobody would guess by their looks that Harper and Wyatt are brother and sister. And by Wyatt’s freckles, bright blue eyes, messy dishwater-blond hair, lanky frame, and lack of height, nobody would guess he’s sixteen, and not twelve.
“I, uh . . . ,” I begin, looking to Steph. She’s always better with these kinds of situations than I am.
“Seriously, Kiera, can I interview you about this?” Wyatt asks with that big, toothy grin. Even though he’s only a junior, he’s chief editor for the Jefferson Weekly, and he runs the political topics column like a criminal investigator, hyperanalyzing his interviewees’ answers, looking for cracks in their views so he can write them up with those clickbaity titles he always uses. I can see it now: Black People Don’t Mind White People Wearing This ONE Hairstyle.
Between Wyatt as Chief Editor for the school newspaper even though he’s only a junior, and Steph, also junior, as president of Beta Beta Psi, I feel like my college applications could have been so much more resplendent than they were when I submitted them. If only I could include my favorite after-school activity in my list of accomplishments.
“You can interview me!” offers Steph, and I can’t help but smile a bit. There’s no way Wyatt’s going to go for that. Steph is an expert debater who gives airtight answers to any question you ask her.
“We all know what you think about white people doing things, Steph,” says Wyatt. “You tell us all the goddamn time.”
Steph punches his arm so hard, he flinches and holds it close to him.
“Really?” he asks.
“I mean, if you’re going to assume I’m going to be an angry black woman about this, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
“Steph,” I say, shaking my head. She’s talking too loud in this hallway, and people are looking at us now. The last thing the only two black girls at Jefferson Academy need is to be seen as the loud ones. I just want to go home. Without having to answer Harper’s question. I just want to log in, transform into Emerald, and talk to Cicada for the rest of the night.
“I’ll have to think about that, Harper,” I say, hoping she’ll wait awhile and maybe forget about it.
“Okay,” she says, obviously disappointed, folding her arms over her chest. “Oh, we’re still on for math at eight tonight, right?”
Oh shit. It’s Thursday. I had to move Harper’s and my tutoring lesson to Thursday this week since Wyatt is playing in the Civil War baseball game next week and Steph and Harper need time when they’re both available tomorrow to write their opening speech as president and VP of Beta Beta. But I do need the money. Cicada and I want to add more RAM to our servers because we’re about to launch more game cards soon. That’s sixty bucks down the drain if I cancel this week.
“Uh,” I begin. When I say I absolutely can’t miss the Tundra Semifinals today, I mean it. I need to be there. The game gets bugs sometimes. Weird stuff starts happening when people try to hack in coins or trade new weapons. Lately, characters have been glitching out when they use a new crossbow that was released last week—falling through the map or losing upgrades—and when that happens, everyone blows up my DMs. Why?
Because I’m the game developer.
Nobody knows. Not even my family. Not even my boyfriend, Malcolm.
“Pretty sure my queen is busy tonight,” comes a familiar voice from behind me. Two strong arms encircle my waist and kisses are being planted gently up the back of my neck, and I can smell Malcolm’s Ralph Lauren cologne behind me.
“Hey,” I say happily, looking up to see the progress he’s making with his goatee, smiling when I see he had his dreads freshly twisted this weekend, his Killmonger hairdo. I cuddle up under his arm. Normally, I would call him Boo, but I feel weird using that word in front of everyone here.
“Aaaand, that’s my cue to go!” announces Steph, turning on her heel and heading swiftly for the front door.
I have to physically concentrate on not rolling my eyes. Steph and Malcolm hate each other, and it’s for the pettiest reasons. Malcolm thinks black women don’t need sororities because they’re already sisters, and the word “sorority” is a fancy word for clique. Steph thinks men have no business telling women what to do. That leaves me in the chasm in the middle, agreeing with both of them.
Harper and Wyatt exchange glances. They always get quiet around Malcolm, the kid who got expelled from Belmont High on the south side.
“Right,” says Wyatt, glancing over his shoulder, probably to make sure Steph is far enough away not to hear him. “Soooo, just let me know about the interview, okay?”
I look up at Malcolm, whose thick eyebrows have sunken slightly.
“What kinda interview?” he asks.
“Wyatt wants to interview me for the Jefferson Weekly,” I say quickly, hoping Wyatt catches my hints. “It’s about black hair. I think Wyatt’s trying to give diverse opinions some visibility in the paper.”
Malcolm motions to Wyatt with his chin and says, “’Bout time we had more diverse opinions in the Weekly. Okay, Wyatt, I see you.”
Which means, in Malcolm-speak, “well done.”
I nod and smile at Wyatt and glance at Harper, who’s looking between me and Malcolm like she knows there’s nothing she can contribute to this conversation, and that we’ll have to discuss the whole dreadlocks thing later, when we’re not in front of Malcolm, whose verdict on the subject she already knows.
“Tutoring some other time, Harper, okay? I’m sorry, but I really am busy tonight. We’ll meet next week.”
I’ll let Harper and Wyatt think I want a night alone with Malcolm. I’ll let Malcolm think I have homework.
“Thanks,” I say to him once Harper and Wyatt have turned and walked halfway down the hall. But before I can even begin explaining to him why he can’t come over tonight, he’s looking at me with disappointment in his dark, glistening eyes, studying mine.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“You were doing it again,” he says, pulling his arm from around me and opening his locker. He slings his backpack off his shoulder, pulls out a couple of textbooks and his vape pen from the bottom shelf, and stuffs them inside his bag.
I roll my eyes.
“That’s the only voice I have.”
“That’s the only voice you have when you’re around those two,” he says, pointing down the hall at them. Then he pauses, and his expression softens. “I love you. You know that.”
He leans in and kisses my forehead before pressing his forehead against mine.
“I want you to be yourself around me, and around them. I want my black goddess all the time, but you out here sounding like you work in a call center.”
I wish I could invite Malcolm into my world after school, into my game, where every word I speak reflects the black goddess he sees in me, the one he got to see at Belmont, the one who rocked braids and almost got to be captain of the Belmont High dance team. The walls may have been defaced with vandalism, and the lockers may have been falling apart, but at least we got to be ourselves.
I smile up at him now. He has a scar in the middle of his bottom lip from the fight that got him expelled from Belmont—the fight that might have gotten me hurt if he hadn’t intervened.
I step up on my tiptoes and kiss that scar. Malcolm and I left Belmont together after freshman year, Steph along with us. I left so many of our black friends there, and I appreciate Malcolm doing his best to make sure I don’t leave my blackness there with them. If he knew about SLAY, if he’d just give the game a chance, he might realize just how proud I am of us. But I can see the whole conversation now. He’d ask me why I’ve poured so much effort into a video game when I could be focusing on college prep and getting a good job, so I don’t join what he is constantly reminding me of: the mass of black people who waste their lives on video games, junk food, drugs, unemployment, baby daddy drama, and child support. According to him, video games are distractions promoted by white society to slowly erode the focus and ambition of black men. He wouldn’t understand.
“I’m sorry,” I admit. If I was doing the telephone voice, I didn’t mean to.