Local author Charlene Thomas publishes debut novel “Seton Girls”

Gaithersburg High School graduate and local author Charlene Thomas released her debut novel, Seton Girls, on Aug. 30. The young adult novel follows the decision-making process of a group of students at an elite high school after they discover a dark secret that the football team—the center of the school’s attention—has been hiding.

Described as Friday Night Lights meets Dear White People, Seton Girls incorporates the beloved high school experience of Friday night football games with a social commentary about the deeper meanings and perspectives of her main characters as high school students. Another key theme of the novel is the role of race in challenging judgment calls.

Thomas said that her experience as a Black woman in Montgomery County, then a predominantly white county when she attended Gaithersburg High School, shaped her ideas for Seton Girls

“I am a Black woman. So, in high school, I was a Black girl … For me, it was really just about being true to that experience,” Thomas said. “I really set out to [portray something] similar to my group of girlfriends, which was a very diverse group of girlfriends … But what I felt like I was kind of seeing more so in the media, just for my own, like consumption experiences, were not a ton of stories, that sort of just showcased Black and brown girls being…the heroes and being, you know, the pretty ones or the popular ones, or the cool ones.”

Given the activist movements and social climate of the past several years, Thomas always knew that she wanted to write a story that addressed privilege. She was eager to document the “scars and bruises” she believes undiscussed and unchecked issues can leave. 

“It was becoming a much more common topic… there’s been hesitancies, potentially, for, you know, a little while around our willingness to sort of have conversations about, you know, our differences and race and all of that in this country,” she said. “I started writing this book in 2019….just like the woke movement was starting to happen a lot more significantly, at least for you know, the millennial and Gen Z generation. And from there, the story just kind of came out.”

Seton Girls also strives to represent Thomas’s experiences in a supportive, positive social environment, primarily exploring the depths of platonic relationships. Her main characters’ desires to help each other during struggling moments emphasizes their shared bond and displays the beauty of dedicated platonic relationships.

 “I love romantic love as much as the next person; I think that it is one of the most amazing gifts. But I also think that love in all forms is a miracle,” Thomas said. “Yes, there are stories of the people who end up marrying a high school sweetheart, but the odds are that it’s not going to be the case. So my advice would be to really hold tight to the people who are next to you…holding [your] hand and who are cheering you on, who are making you laugh.”

Many of the characters in her novel are based on aspects of Thomas’s personality or grounded in her past experiences. Thomas described the two main protagonists, Ali and Britt, as herself split into two people. The people around her also influenced Seton Girls.

“I had a group of girlfriends in high school…that has remained pretty close, in a lot of ways, as we’ve gotten older,” Thomas said. “I don’t think that any girl in the book is really any one of them in particular, but I think that every girl in the book is kind of a little bit of all of them.”

Starting from a young age, Thomas has always been passionate about writing, even about seemingly insignificant events. “I grew up writing before I even really realized it was something that I wanted to do,” Thomas said.

The inspiration for Seton Girls came to her in a dream, but Thomas also finds inspiration in everyday moments. 

“I’ve always sort of just like, from a creativity perspective, gotten struck by inspiration by very regular day to day type experiences,” she said. “And it can be stuff that is literally as tiny as like, overhearing the way somebody ordered a coffee and the like, from there, just immediately having this idea in my head for a character, or it could be something as big as like, a headline everybody’s talking about right now.”

Thomas’s journey into the publishing world took off when she was in high school and won the National Novel Silver Award, which affirmed her desire to pursue writing. 

However, her path has not been all smooth-sailing. Her first book didn’t sell well, and caused her to doubt her abilities and lose motivation to continue venturing into the publishing industry. However, she found an agent and an editor that supported her through the process of developing Seton Girls.

“I think that the hard times and the discouraging times are when we grow the most,” Thomas said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if we never had that moment of questioning: ‘is this what I’m supposed to be doing?’”

Thomas has held onto her love for writing and used it to share key parts of her experience and identity with the world. Thomas’s next book, titled Peekaboo, is expected in 2024.