Captivating and timely YA debut explores social justice, family links and stereotypes within riveting mystery


Williamsburg, VIRGINIA – From debut author Pamela N. Harris comes a timely, gripping teen novel about a boy who must take up the search for his sister when she goes missing from a neighborhood where Black girls’ disappearances are too often overlooked. “When You Look Like Us” (Jan. 5, 2021, HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books) is an intense and realistic story that is perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds and Tiffany D. Jackson.

When you look like Jay Murphy and his sister, Nicole — brown skin, brown eyes, black braids or fades — everyone else thinks you’re trouble. No one blinks twice over a missing Black girl from public housing because she must’ve brought whatever happened to her upon herself. Jay can even admit that, for a minute, he thought his sister Nicole just got caught up with her boyfriend, a drug dealer, and his friends. But she’s been gone too long.

It’s time for Jay to step up, to do what the Newport News Police Department won’t. Bring his sister home. Will there be enough people who believe in him even though the odds are stacked against him?

“A powerful story about misperceptions, reality, and the lives lived in between.” — Kirkus starred review

“When You Look Like Us”

Pamela N. Harris | Jan. 5, 2021 | Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins | Realistic/Suspense YA
Hardcover | 9780062945891 | $17.99

Pamela N. Harris was born and somewhat raised in Newport News, Virginia, also affectionately known as “Bad News.” A former school counselor by day, she received her bachelor’s in English and a master’s in school counseling at Old Dominion University, her M.F.A in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and a Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision at William and Mary. When she isn’t writing, Pam is rewatching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, playing with her kiddos and pretending to enjoy exercising.
For more info on Pam, visit

In an interview, Pamela N. Harris can discuss:

  • The positive impact of teachers and school counselors who believe in their students
  • The importance of school-family-community partnerships for students of color
  • The Black Lives Matter movement and its presence in her story
  • Being a debut author in the time of a global pandemic
  • The importance of representation in media and how the characters in her book are representative of her personal teenage experience
  • The real-life issue of Black girls going missing without much concern from police
  • Juggling writing with parenthood and working full-time
  • Her experiences being Black in the world of academia

An Interview with Pamela N. Harris

1. How does your book address stereotypes about Black people, both from others (like the media) and the ones that have been internalized?

I felt it was extremely important for my Black readers to see themselves on the page, and for readers from all backgrounds to see the dimensionalities of characters who don’t look or speak like them. Jay, my main character, lives in public housing — and because the media often portrays individuals from these neighborhoods in a negative light, Jay wants to prove he’s not this stereotype but isn’t aware that he holds some of these misperceptions, too. I wanted Jay to gradually become aware of his biases in an authentic way, and hopefully readers could follow him on that journey.

2. How did you successfully balance the mystery elements of your story with the larger real-life issue of Black girls going missing without much consideration by authorities?

When I was drafting “When You Look Like Us,” I was reading these series of tweets and other social media posts from devastated friends and family members of Black girls who had gone missing but who were not being acknowledged through major media outlets. While the mystery was definitely an important element, I also wanted to pay respect to those voices who felt as if they were being stifled.

3. How did your background in counseling school-aged children help you craft these characters?

My seven years as a school counselor was one of the highlights of my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to have former students reach out to me to let me know how much of a positive impact I had on their childhood — mainly because they always felt heard around me. Kids often go through their days being told what to do by adults, but I tried to empower them to be the experts in their own lives. To tell their own stories. And I listened. I remember my students of color coming to my office to complain about reading so many books with characters that didn’t look like them. At the time, the majority of the characters I wrote were white — mainly because that’s who I read about as a child and teen. I felt like I needed to wait for permission to tell the stories I wanted to tell featuring the characters I really wanted to write. My time with my students gave me the push I needed to stop waiting and to start putting my authentic voice on the page.

4. The story is based in Newport News, Virginia, the city you were born and raised in. What similarities are there between Jay’s neighborhood and experiences and yours?

I always say that I was born and mostly raised in Newport News since I lived on several different military bases off and on until I was 13. However, I never truly felt “home” until the summers I got to visit my cousins back in Newport News, or when my dad finally left the Marines and we moved to Newport News to be closer to family. I tried to “escape” several times. I got accepted into an out-of-state college but chose the one that was a 45-minute drive away. As an adult, I moved to another state for three years, but again, I felt unsettled until I decided to move closer to home. Since I spent my high school years struggling financially and living in public housing, just like Jay, I had associated Newport News with a negative experience. I’m now able to self-reflect and realized that I feel tethered to Newport News for good reason: My family, my friends, my teachers, the community as a whole made me the strong woman I am today. I wanted Jay’s story to be my love letter to Newport News. Even though he goes through similar feelings of resentment about being from there initially, he’s able to appreciate the city in the long run.

5. How did having mentors that encourage you change your life and help you persevere?

I was a first-generation college student, so having mentors beginning at a young age was critical for me. My parents did their jobs by loving and supporting me to the fullest, but they didn’t know what they didn’t know. What they did know is that they wanted to help me fulfill my dream of going to college and writing, so they didn’t mind reaching out to the village for guidance. I had strong, beautiful Black female educators help me navigate the college and scholarship application process. When I wanted to pursue my doctorate degree, I made sure to have two Black female professors on my dissertation committee. I was (and still am) intentional about who I seek for mentorship because it’s important to have someone who can relate to the obstacles that I go through as a female of color while also demonstrating how to be resilient and successful. Now that I’m living my dream as a writer, I look to other female authors who have the careers that I aspire to have as my guiding point.

6. What inspired you to write this story, and why is it so important to you personally?

I absolutely loved the noir movie, “Brick,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the TV show, “Veronica Mars.” While both of these featured characters of color, these characters only had supporting roles. I wanted to write a mystery with a Black protagonist simply because I hadn’t seen or read stories like this when I was growing up. I think it’s important for young readers to read about characters of color in all genres.

7. What do you hope readers gain from reading your novel?

It’s difficult to answer this question. As a school counselor, I know kids hate it when you obviously try to teach them a lesson. However, I would love for readers to walk away with a more open mind and heart — and to understand that skin color and ZIP codes only tell part of someone’s story.