As a youngster in Kansas City, Kan., Elle McKinney read every fantasy book she could get her hands on.
But she noticed something.
“I loved these stories and still love them,” she said. “But I said to myself, even if I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it out loud, ‘This doesn’t look like anywhere I go. These don’t look like people I know.’”
Fast forward to about six years ago, when, after writing two still unpublished books that attracted little interest from agents or publishers, McKinney hatched an idea for another book. It would be an “Alice in Wonderland” story with a twist. Actually, several twists.
Her inspiration came from her nephews and a soon-to-be-born niece.
“I decided if I’m going to do this, I’m going to give them a hero that looks like them, especially the niece,” McKinney said.
The result was her young adult novel, “A Blade So Black,” which is set in Atlanta and features a black Alice, an underground Wonderland and beasts called nightmares. Published by Imprint, a children’s and young adult arm of Macmillan Publishers, it will be released Sept. 25 and celebrated with a launch party at the Uptown Theater beginning at 6:30 p.m.
McKinney, 33, whose formal name is Leatrice McKinney, writes under L.L. McKinney. She works as a greeting card writer at Hallmark.
She dreams that “A Blade So Black” finds enough to success that she can focus on writing books as a full-time gig — a dream that isn’t far-fetched.
Based on presales, the book already ranks among the top sellers in its category on Amazon. And McKinney has completed a second book in the series for Macmillan.
Imprint’s publisher, Erin Stein, says, “A Blade So Black” has been “a buzz-worthy title for us since we acquired it.
“We have seen incredible excitement building for this book that has grown organically and gets bigger each week closer to publication,” Stein said by email. “L.L. and her character already have a fan base before the book is even published. We have very high hopes for this series.”
New York Times bestselling author Angie Thomas’ take: “‘A Blade So Black’ is the fantasy book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Alice is Black Girl Magic personified.”
McKinney, who attended Sumner Academy of Arts and Science but lived a couple of years in Atlanta as a youth, has local fans as well.
She and her friend Keion Jackson were chatting last September in the cafe at Hallmark, where they worked in adjoining cubicles as greeting card writers. When the subject turned to McKinney’s book, she mentioned there was to be a photo shoot for the book’s cover in New York.
“Elle said she wouldn’t be able to go to it,” Jackson said. “I said, ‘No, you have to go. This is a new season. You have to celebrate. Go and have fun.’”
So Jackson paid for his friend’s trip to New York, where McKinney had a chance to visit Macmillan’s offices.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Jackson, who no longer works at Hallmark. “I know she’s going to shake up the world. There’s no question about it.”
“A Blade So Black” actually has two covers — one for the United States and one for the United Kingdom. The book will be released in Scotland, Ireland, England and Australia.
McKinney’s journey to possible international acclaim began when she was 11 or 12, when she wrote constantly — even during classes that weren’t for writing.
“I was a fast reader, and I would write in class after finishing the work before the other kids,” she said.
Her teachers didn’t always appreciate her efforts.
“The worst thing was my English teacher. She said, ‘Oh, writing is not a career you can plan on.’ I just remember the look of disgust on her face.”
Still, writing was no more than a backup plan for McKinney, who went to college to learn how to make video games. She worked in department stores, retail stores and at a bookstore before landing a job at Hallmark in information technology, then moving to greeting cards.
All along the way, she wrote poetry or prose after work, on weekends and whenever else she could find time.
The dedication could pay off big with “A Blade So Black.” Part of her job now will be marketing, which will mean book signings and other public appearances.
“I like to think I’m ready,” McKinney said. “I think I have a handle on it.”
She’s even been practicing her signature for all those book autographs.
“I’m building up finger strength,” she said.
Book launch party
L.L. McKinney, author of “A Blade So Black,” will sign books and answer questions; also, refreshments, a costume contest and a dance party. 6:30 p.m. Sept. 25. Free. Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. llmckinney.com