The first Writer-in-Residence at the Concord Free Public Library has a goal. “I’m on a crusade to make children’s literature not just for children,” said George Jreije, who will begin his tenure later this month.
Jreije (pronounced jer-age) is the Lebanese American author of the Shad Hadid children’s fantasy series and of two upcoming graphic novels, the first of which, “Tarik’s Bazaar Adventure,” will be released in 2025.
The amiable 27-year-old says that he loves to write fantasy novels because “I never outgrew my sense of childlike wonder. We lose this as we age; society beats it out of us.” Not that his books are for children only, he says, citing the appeal to all ages of the Harry Potter series. “Any compelling fantasy novel that sells has to have a relevant subtext and contain a commentary on the world we live in.”
In “Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria,” the first book in the series, the title character is a 12-year-old Arab American immigrant who lives with his grandmother in Oregon. He doesn’t fit in at school and spends his time cooking with her and dreaming about opening his own Arabic bakery. When Shad is attacked by a shadowy monster, he learns his late baba was an alchemist who could mix potent charms and elixirs. And that he is one, too.
The story was inspired, Jreije says, “by the way people from diverse backgrounds crave the connection to their ancestral cultures.” Shad is the boy Jreije once was, the author says, calling his younger self an “unintentional troublemaker.” Also like his lead character, Jreije admits to having a “serious sweet tooth,” with a particular weakness for pastry and ice cream.
Critics have praised the first Shad novel, with Booklist describing the title character as “an immediately likable protagonist whose humor and love for his family resonate throughout the novel.” Shad’s adventures will continue in “Shad Hadid and the Forbidden Alchemies,” due in October.
Born in Worcester to a mother who had fled war-torn Lebanon and a father who came in search of a better life, Jreije was about two and had been joined by twin siblings when the family returned home, hoping to carve out a life there. But a lack of economic resources and opportunities led them to abandon their dream and to continue to pursue a new one in Massachusetts.
At Clark University Jreije earned a Bachelor of Arts in business and political science and a Master of Business Administration. For a while he served as an assistant to six-term Worcester Mayor Joe Petty, a position that included speechwriting.
Jreije had done some writing his last year in college but committed to it after graduation. As a fan of adult thrillers and fantasy novels, he wrote a few for practice and followed the advice of another writer who said that he had given himself five years to hone his craft before submitting work.
It took Jreije four years. “I put my head down and wrote, and then, you know how you feel when something clicks and seems right?” He got an agent and a book deal.
Jreije tries to write 500 words a day when he is drafting, finding quiet moments here and there. The revision process, however, involves “going into a hole and being consumed for hours.” He has done some of his writing in Portland, Maine, some in Shrewsbury, where his parents live, and some in St. Louis, where his fiancée, Hannah, is working on her law degree.
Maine is where his heart is, though, and Jreije hopes they can settle there in a year or two.
One of 60 applicants for the position, which carries a stipend, Jreije’s application was considered by a panel of library trustees and staff and by a review board of local authors. “It was clear that George would be a pathbreaking, standard-setting CFPL Writer-in-Residence,” says Teen Librarian Cary Stough. “His real passion for publicly accessible literary culture sets him apart.”
Jreije’s “vision” for the residency is twofold. He wants “to roll out a program of workshops that would have something to offer to every member of the community” and to collaborate with organizers on the Concord Festival of Writers in October, using his network of contacts “to help bring talent to the event.”
Jreije loves connecting with others about what they are reading. Approachable and earnest, he will even talk about his alopecia, a condition that occurs when the immune system attacks hair follicles and causes hair loss. He hopes to hold office hours at the library and one can reach him at Twitter and Instagram (@ByGeorgeJreije for both) and visit his website: www.GeorgeJreije.com.
“As a Massachusetts native, I’ve always loved Concord,” says Jreije. “I am honored to have been deemed fit for this position.”