Cassandra James ’23 wrote her first novel when she was 12. After James complained to her mother that she couldn’t find any books she wanted to read — she had already devoured dozens of novels — her mother suggested she write one herself.
James wrote several more novels over the next decade, and last year, she was alerted by a friend to “LatinxPitch,” a daylong event on Twitter in which aspiring writers could pitch Latinx stories to publishing executives online. With an hour to spare before the event ended, James posted a 36-word pitch titled “Pirates of the Caribbean + Latinx Magic” for the young adult (YA) fantasy novel she had penned during her junior year.
Several agents expressed interest, and a month later, James had signed with one of them. Her novel, which has the working title Ximena Reale and the Legend of Gasparilla, is part of a two-book deal she inked with HarperCollins. It will be published in 2025.
“There were only a couple of Hispanic authors in YA fantasy, and they inspired me to believe it was possible to tell a story centered on Hispanic women. Giving kids a character they can relate to is a really magical and powerful thing. It makes them feel seen and heard.”
— Cassandra James ’23
“Reading was my refuge growing up. It filled my imagination,” said James, whose grandmother immigrated to the United States from Colombia. “There were only a couple of Hispanic authors in YA fantasy, and they inspired me to believe it was possible to tell a story centered on Hispanic women. Giving kids a character they can relate to is a really magical and powerful thing. It makes them feel seen and heard.”
James researched the novel during the summer after her sophomore year with funding from Princeton’s Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award. Due to the pandemic, James couldn’t leave Florida (she is from Kissimmee), so she studied maritime history and the golden age of piracy. Pirate stories “are so much a part of Florida lore,” said James.
Those pirate legends became the heart of her novel, which conjures a fantasy world where Ximena, a pirate hunter, has to find a pirate named Gasparilla. The character is based on the legend of José Gaspar, who was said to have kidnapped a Spanish princess and held her for ransom around Florida in the 1700s. “There’s a highway in Florida named after him,” noted James. “I grew up hearing these stories and developed a fascination with pirate history.”
James, who was an English major, completed a second novel for a certificate in the Program in Creative Writing that also focuses on Hispanic women, this time during the frontier period. With funding from Princeton’s Alex Adam ’07 Award, she visited five states in the American Southwest last summer and immersed herself in the history and culture of the region. She learned to ride a horse, interviewed competitors in a local rodeo, and studied rodeo events such as roping cattle. “What creates a fictional world are the details,” James said. “That’s why I love research. I get to touch and see and smell what’s going to go into that world.” James hopes to pitch that novel to her agent as well.
At Princeton, James served as editor-in-chief of The Nassau Literary Review, an experience that helped her sell her YA novel. “It gave me a lot of insight into the publishing process, which was invaluable when I was the writer pitching my work,” she said.
James also developed a love for theater during college, appearing in several plays at the Lewis Center, though she had never performed in a theater production before coming to Princeton. For her independent work toward certificates in the programs in theater and music theater, she directed and performed in a cabaret exploring the highs and lows of growing into adulthood through songs from Broadway musicals.
For James, there is a strong link between theater and writing. “They are inseparable in my mind,” she said. “Theater is so much about world building and putting yourself in others’ shoes, and that’s what writing is: an act of empathy.”