Today we’re excited to reveal the cover for Rez Ball by Byron Graves! The cover was illustrated by Natasha Donovan, and the jacket was designed by Erin Fitzsimmons, Kathy Lam, Amy Ryan, and Joel Tippie. The book will be released on September 12, 2023 by Heartdrum. Preorder it here or here. Keep scrolling for an exclusive Q&A with the author!
This compelling debut novel by new talent Byron Graves (Ojibwe) tells the relatable, high-stakes story of a young athlete determined to play like the hero his Ojibwe community needs him to be.
These days, Tre Brun is happiest when he is playing basketball on the Red Lake Reservation high school team—even though he can’t help but be constantly gut-punched with memories of his big brother, Jaxon, who died in an accident.
When Jaxon’s former teammates on the varsity team offer to take Tre under their wing, he sees this as his shot to represent his Ojibwe reservation all the way to their first state championship. This is the first step toward his dream of playing in the NBA, no matter how much the odds are stacked against him.
But stepping into his brother’s shoes as a star player means that Tre can’t mess up. Not on the court, not at school, and not with his new friend, gamer Khiana, who he is definitely not falling in love with.
After decades of rez teams almost making it, Tre needs to take his team to state. Because if he can live up to Jaxon’s dreams, their story isn’t over yet.
A heartwarming, insightful, and fast-paced story by a promising new writer!
What was your reaction to the cover when you first saw it?
When I saw this cover I got goosebumps and a little teary eyed. Seeing Tre for the first time outside of my imagination and having him look exactly how I had pictured him was surreal. I knew immediately that Natasha Donovan and the art design team had brought Tre to life. I love the earthy tones and the autumn hues of the background, it’s visually and chromatically so appealing.
Any kid who loves basketball knows there is something magical about the orange color of a basketball, it’s like it’s constantly beckoning to be picked up and dribbled. Everything about this cover gives the perfect feel of the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where this story takes place. Plus I love the vibe Tre gives off, a little uncertain but brave, with a basketball tucked under his arm, about to chase his dreams and face the biggest adventure of his life.
Tell us a bit about your journey with this book—where did the idea come from?
An early piece of writing advice that I picked up was to write what you know. So I decided to write a book that was close to my heart and use a lot of experiences from my teenage years. I was born and raised on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. To say basketball is a huge deal there would be an understatement. It means a lot to so many people. It’s something to look forward to during the harsh, dark winters. It brings our entire community together, all as one, cheering with a lot of pride for the boys and girls teams. It creates bonds and friendships that last a lifetime. When I was playing it arguably hit its fever pitch. We were playing in sold out, standing room only gymnasiums, and we featured in USA Weekend, Slam Magazine, and even were on ESPN. It was surreal. That mixed with the high jinks and mischief of a bunch of teenagers from the rez while being heralded as celebrities and I knew it would make a great story. Think Friday Night Lights meets Reservation Dogs. Even as a kid, I kept thinking to myself, someday this should be a book.
What do you hope readers take away from Rez Ball?
At its core is a story of healing, of family, of community. The symbiotic relationship we share that can be channeled initially through sports, can have a lasting effect forever. The cheers and encouragement on the court will echo forever once one steps off the court. The main character is going through the loss of his brother, but through the story of the book, his courage and bravery to keep chasing his dream, helps everyone around him. But the entire time, they were lifting him up, helping him even be able to have the moxie and heart to keep his head up during such tough times. That is the heart of the story. That we are all a team, we all need each other, and we all matter. Whether you’re the point guard, the teacher nurturing a kid through a tough time, or the parent cheering from the stands.
If anything, what did you include in this book purely for yourself?
There are definitely a few inside jokes or slang in it that are from my rez that I know a few of my former teammates and best friends will catch.
Byron Graves is Ojibwe and was born and raised on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where he played high school basketball. When he isn’t writing, he can be found playing retro video games, spending time with his family, or cheering on his beloved Minnesota Timberwolves. He now lives in Denver, and this is his debut.