Author Charlene Thomas Flips The Script On Black Female Characters In New YA Novel ‘Seton Girls’

‘Seton Girls’ Author Charlene Thomas

When we read the description of author Charlene Thomas’ new novel ‘Seton Girls’ – “a smart and twisty debut YA that starts off like Friday Night Lights and ends with the power and insight of Dear White People” we were instantly hooked. Out August 30, 2022, ‘Seton Girls’ is an examination of the beautiful nuances of female friendships and the complex intersection of race, class, and gender.

Seton Academic High is a prep school obsessed with its football team and their 13-year conference win streak, a record that players always say they’d never have without Seton’s girls. What exactly Seton girls do to make them so valuable, though, no one ever really says. They’re just “the best”. But the team’s quarterback, the younger brother of the Seton star who started the streak, wants more than regular season glory. He wants a state championship before his successor, Seton’s first Black QB, has a chance to overshadow him. Bigger rewards require bigger risks, and soon the actual secrets to the team’s enduring success leak to a small group of girls who suddenly have the power to change their world forever.

In Charlene Thomas’s own words, “I wanted readers to find Black girls as main characters—being the pretty ones, the popular ones, the heroes—because we still so rarely get to see ourselves cast in those roles. I wanted to remind girls everywhere that they’re more than what boys decide they are. That they are full, capable humans within their own right. That they are bigger than the adjectives that the world uses to describe them. That they are nouns.”

This smart and fast-paced debut weaves a clever plot and vivid characters with razor-sharp insight to tackle race, class, and misogyny head on. By giving her characters depth and nuance, Charlene shows the power of female friendships to transcend toxic romantic relationships.

We had the chance to talk to her ahead of the book’s release about the intersections woven throughout ‘Seton Girls’, casting Black female leads as whole and nuanced characters, and why it was important for her to “flip the script” with this story.

‘Seton Girls’ book cover

When did you begin writing ‘Seton Girls’, and what was your inspiration behind the story? 

I started writing SETON GIRLS in 2019 while I was actually in the process of looking for an agent for a manuscript I’d finished right before. This is gonna sound so cliché, but I swear it’s true—a scene for SETON GIRLS popped into my head as a dream and I woke up and wrote it all down. I didn’t know what the story was at that point, but I kept writing and thinking about what the characters I’d dreamt of were trying to tell me, and what resulted was a story that’s a compilation of so many things that I think are really important. 

On one side, you have the platonic love story between the girls who exist in this story. And I’ve always been such a believer in the importance of friendship. It was so important to me to show teens a love story that had nothing to do with romance, and everything to do with the kind of soulmates you can find within your own best friends. 

And on the other side, I really wanted to talk about privilege and the way it can exist right in front of us without even realizing it until too late. There are a few moments in SETON GIRLS where there is a discussion around the difference between “a bad person” and “a person who does bad things”—and, to me, I think that the latter indicates a sort of privilege and the former doesn’t.

So I really wrote this story to encapsulate a lot of different feelings that were floating around inside of me, and tried my best to give those characters I dreamt about the voices that they deserved!

It’s rare we see YA stories that center Black and Brown girls, or feature majority young women of color. Why was it important to you to flip the script on this norm? 

I think it was important to me to flip the script for the very reason that we would consider it flipping the script! Of course, I’m a Black woman, so being a Black girl is my experience and the one that comes naturally for me. But, even beyond that, I feel like it’s so important for us to see Black and brown girls as the leads in stories, and showcase that we aren’t just sidekicks but we are stars. And I hope one day that that is the norm—that we see it so often that it’s not even newsworthy when we do. But in the meantime, I’m excited and honored to have contributed to that representation with this book. 

We love the press release statement you made, essentially about wanting to see more Black girls taking up space in the world. What would it have meant to your younger self to see a story like ‘Seton Girls’ in the mainstream? 

Oh, I would have loved it! Honestly, I’m really grateful to be able to say that I wrote a book I would love to read. It’s me to a tee and I would have felt fiercely represented in the pages of this story. But I also know my experience isn’t everyone’s, and that’s why it’s so important that we keep giving platforms and access to all kinds of creators. So that more teens (and readers in general) can open a book and finally say to themselves, “Hey! That’s me…

The book covers sexual assault and the way culture treats victims and villains. It is a story that could’ve been pulled from a number of headlines, sadly. What are you hoping readers will think about more in regard to this issue when they read your book? 

Really, I hope readers finish SETON GIRLS feeling a little more empowered and a little more inspired than they were before. Whether you’re in high school or retired, the world can be such a terrifying place and life can be so incredibly hard and unfair sometimes. It’s complicated, confusing, and barely ever is anything as straight forward as black and white.

I talk about gray areas a lot in SETON GIRLS, because I truly think that’s what we’re all functioning in. That life, in and of itself, is one big gray area. And it’s hard to feel strong when, deep down, we feel powerless and the right answer seems so unclear. But I hope people finish SETON GIRLS knowing that they are powerful, it’s okay not to know all the answers, and that they aren’t alone in that feeling.  

Can you talk about the intersections of misogyny, race and power dynamics that are part of this story and why it is an important aspect to the book? 

Yes, and I think it’s a really interesting thing to dissect. At Seton, on the surface, everyone has it all. They all get access to the fancy computers, and go to the same big parties, and cheer hard for the same undefeated football team. But really, there are layers to that access. So J, who’s next year’s quarterback and technically a part of this admirable Seton football world, is also Black and comes from a much more modest lifestyle than the rest of his teammates.

So he doesn’t have the big house to host parties in, the extra money to buy food in the middle of the night when everyone gets hungry, or the family connections to protect him from some of the football team’s activities. And then there are the girls at Seton, who the boys say that they glorify, but really they objectify them. So it’s really not one big, happy Seton. There are hierarchies, and the ones at the tippy top are the boys who were born into the Seton legacy—white, wealthy, and privileged. 

A lot of your creative writing is inspired by your upbringing in Montgomery County, MD. Can you share more about this, and what (if anything) was included in ‘Seton Girls’? 

Absolutely. I grew up in Montgomery County and I live here again now. Environmentally, it was a huge inspiration for the backdrop of SETON GIRLS. I grew up around similar socioeconomic diversity, at a school where everyone hung out with everyone, but I was still one of the few Black students in a predominately white space. So the experience Aly (our narrator) has at Seton isn’t too far off environmentally from my own.

But, in addition to that, the female friendships represented in this book are hugely inspired by the friendships I made growing up here. The core group of girls at Seton are so heavily inspired by the friends I had (still have, in a lot of cases) in high school, that I’m almost nervous for them to read the book and start asking me which one was modeled after them, LOL. 

What do you hope readers will love most about ‘Seton Girls’, and what are you working on next?

I’m actually so excited to hear from readers about what they (hopefully) love in SETON GIRLS! I really think that’s the most magical thing about writing. That what you create is one thing for you and can morph into a million other things for a million other people, once they have the chance to read your words. So whether it’s the story, the structure, the voice, the characters…it’s an honor to have them read this book.

And in terms of what’s next…we actually just announced my next book, PEEKABOO, coming out in 2024! It’s an eerie, speculative YA that I get to work on with the incredible team at Dutton (the same team I’m working with on SETON GIRLS) and I’m so incredibly excited to share more soon. In the meantime, it’s already on Goodreads! So feel free to give it an add if a Halloween carnival, the power to change your life, and a town with a very big secret sounds like your vibe.

You can pre-order your copy of ‘Seton Girls’ HERE.

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