American Street by Ibi Zoboi

The comparison titles alone made me thrilled to finally read this book: “For fans of Everything, EverythingBone Gap, and All-American Boys.”

And American Street lived up to its comps, telling the gorgeous and gut-wrenching story of Fabiola Toussaint, a Haitian immigrant adapting to life in Detroit on the corner of Joy Road and American Street.

When Fabiola and her mom enter the US, Fabiola’s mother is detained, setting off a series of tangled-up events that complicate Fabiola’s new American life. The novel offers a beautiful portrayal of religion, and it doesn’t take any easy outs when it comes to exploring right and wrong and the things we’re called to do for our families.

American Street Cover
AMERICAN STREET––PUBLISHED BY BALZER + BRAY

Here are a few things writers can learn from American Street.

Use the specific to capture the universal.

I’m an immigrant with an experience that couldn’t be more different from Fabiola’s. Yet there’s so much about her story that resonates with me. This speaks to the strength of Zoboi’s craft. There’s a special kind of loneliness, confusion, and wonder in navigating daily life in a culture and language that’s not your own. Zoboi captures this brilliantly, using the specific details of Fabiola’s situation to evoke the search for one’s identity amidst a fluctuating idea of home.

Shortly after arriving to Detroit, Fabiola takes in the view:

“The sun hides behind a concrete sky. I search the landscape for yellows, oranges, pinks, or turquoises like in my beloved Port-au-Prince. But God has painted this place gray and brown. Only a thin white sheet of snow covers the burned-out houses and buildings. The flakes seem to appear from out of nowhere, like an invisible hand sprinkling salt onto zombies.”

The foreignness of the scene permeates everything. The language is so vivid and specific that even readers who are more familiar with snowy cityscapes than they are with the colors of Port-au-Prince will see this bleak new world through Fabiola’s eyes.

Fabiola’s struggles with English also affect her relationship to her new surroundings. Zoboi offers up one of the best portrayals of the language learning process that I’ve read in a novel thus far. (For another, I highly recommend Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.)

Fabiola’s frustrations and achievements with English make even the smallest encounter––bumping into someone on the street, for example––a whole lot more complicated:

“I quickly apologize with my very best English and step away. Any hint of an accent could be an invitation for judgment––that I’m stupid and I don’t belong here.”

This feels so true-to-life. It’s heartening to see a character deal with these mundane, awkward moments. Moments that are very relatable for anyone who’s learned a new language! And because this process is portrayed so well, it’s all the more rewarding to watch Fabiola grow and gain confidence over time, making English her own.

As Fabiola changes, so, too, does her relationship to her new language, her new family, and her new country . This adds an extra element to her character arc that makes the story even richer. It’s a familiar progression for anyone who has slowly begun to call a new place home.

Use style and word choice to craft your story’s emotional atmosphere.

American Street is full of beautiful, re-read-them-just-to-savor-them sentences. But those carefully-chosen words aren’t there for aesthetic purposes alone.

A few examples:

“And maybe it was because this first act of violence at the crossroads of hopes and dreams that death lingered around that house like a baby ghost.”

“But as thirteen-and fifteen-year-old girls, with no mother and father to watch over us, our bodies were like poor countries––there was always a dictator trying to rule over us.”

These are deeply creative, provocative, devastating metaphors. They’re also perfect vehicles for conveying the story’s theme and tone. This haunting language reminds us: we are part of the world. We’re part of a shared history––the history of our families, our homelands. In American Street, the past plays an integral role in the present day; history is inescapable, and the forces that led to violence a hundred years ago continue to propel us toward those same bloody ends. We can’t escape this interconnectedness, nor all the good, bad, sad, and beautiful things it bears.

Here’s another passage:

“I am superstitious about money now. It is like rainwater here. It pours from the skies. But if you try to catch all of it with wide hands and fingers spread part––it will slip through. If you try to catch it with cupped hands, it overflows. Here, I will tilt my head back, let it pour into my mouth, and consume it.

We have to become everything that we want. Consume it. Like our lwas.

Fabiola frequently sees the world through the lens of religion. That religion, and the power that comes with it, play a crucial role in the world of the story and its plot. Zoboi brings us closer to that world by deftly mixing “high” and “low,” crafting prose that is firmly rooted in the everyday––but with a cadence and poetry that evoke a world of spirituality and wonder. Of something beyond. Thus, she reminds us of the magic and power woven into our daily lives.

American Street is a beautiful story. And Fabiola is one of those protagonists who makes it sad to say goodbye. I recommend this novel to any writer looking to learn a bit more about their craft––and anyone who wants to reflect on the identity we create for ourselves, and the places and families we call our own.


Want to chat about American Street and other great YA and middle grade novels? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

 

 

 

 

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Seven Books to Get and Gift in a Post-Election World

As we process and prod the results November’s US election, we begin to search for a way forward. What can we do now? How can we work for change? We need a plan of action in an uncertain world.

Trump’s campaign fueled division and fear. He told Americans: immigrants are dangerous. People who pray a different way are a threat. Women are lesser than. Facts don’t matter.

He told us the world is a scary place. He told us we need a strong man on our side.

There’s a lot we can do––must do––to combat this hateful logic. And one of our greatest weapons will be something as simple as it is powerful: knowledge.

So, as we’re looking for gifts and a path to healing this holiday season, here’s a list of books from all sections of the library to help make sense of, and make change in, a post-Trump world.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de le Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

The United States elected a man whose central boast is that he has a lot of money––much of which he seems to have made on the backs of others, through deceit, unfair

last-stop-on-market-street
LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET––PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN BOOKS

business deals, and tax laws favorable to the rich. Meanwhile, a large part the anger and uncertainty in the country comes from the loss of economic stability, decreased wages, and hard financial times for the working class.

Where does this leave us? And what do we tell the kids?

The Last Stop on Market Street, the 2015 Newbery Award winner, is a good place to start. In this gorgeous picture book, CJ and his nana ride the bus across town. CJ wonders aloud why they don’t have a car, why they have to wait in the rain, and why a man on the bus can’t see. His nana gives him an education in appreciating the little things, in finding the music and poetry in an imperfect world.

Nana tells CJ, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” There’s a lot of work ahead. CJ’s nana has shown us how to begin.

The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

This book is from 2008 and continues to be relevant today. In friendly, flowing prose, Ali-Karamali delves into common misconceptions about Islam and provides a refreshing

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THE MUSLIM NEXT DOOR––PUBLISHED BY WHITE CLOUD PRESS

counterpoint to prevalent myths.

Though no single perspective can represent the entirety of a diverse, global religion, this book offers a great introduction. It includes chapters like “Everyday Islam: How Muslims Practice Their Religion”; “Women in Islam”; “Jihad and Fundamentalism: Not the Same”; and “Who’s Who in Islam: From Ayatollahs to Whirling Dervishes.” In a Trump-led country, we’ll have a lot of misinformation to fight. Read this book, then pass it along to a friend.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Rape and sexual assault have come to the forefront this election, and much of the discussion has been

exit-pursued-by-a-bear
EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR––PUBLISHED BY DUTTON BYR

painful for survivors. This Shakespeare-inspired YA novel brings us Hermione Winters, a cheerleading captain and outspoken role model who’s drugged and raped at her summer cheer champ.

As Hermione searches for a way to regain control of her body and life, the story explores politics, abortion, friendship, rape culture, identity, and faith. It offers a blueprint for supporting survivors. And it will make you want to hug all the women and girls in your life––and believe them and trust them, always.

George by Alex Gino

George is an award-winning, heartwarming middle grade novel. Its central message is even more important in a Trump-threatened world: BE WHO YOU ARE. (I wrote about what this book can teach writers here.)

George wants to be Charlotte in the fifth-grade play. George also knows she’s a girl––but everyone thinks she’s a boy, and boys can’t be cast as Charlotte. As the story progresses, George gains confidence, learns about what it means to be transgender, and finds an ally

george by alex gino
GEORGE––PUBLISHED BY SCHOLASTIC

who helps her stand up for who she is.

This book brilliantly dramatizes the reality of growing up trans. This simple, sweet story can, and should, be read and enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein

It’s easy to become numb to climate change and environmental disasters. It’s easy to think the problem is either so big, or so slow, that we may as well ignore it––especially now that the US will have a president who’s unlikely to make great strides against this vast global tragedy.

this-changes-everything
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING––PUBLISHED BY SIMON & SCHUSTER

But Naomi Klein knows that we can’t ignore it. And in This Changes Everything, she refuses to look away.

This is a scary book. But it’s also hopeful, and adds some context to current events like the efforts at Standing Rock Indian Reservation to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. Klein offers up a game plan for rallying the left, for allying with indigenous groups and marginalized people worldwide. She shows us the future can be better, if we’re willing to take unified action to save the world and save ourselves.

The Rise by Sarah Lewis

A book about “creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery” may seem like an odd addition to this list. But Lewis’s book is a lovely antidote to the misguided, racist idea that white people are the main source of American greatness. (Someone may want to put it in Steve King‘s stocking.)

In writing about how failures and “near wins” are an essential part of success, Lewis’s anecdotes include Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement, as well as MacArthur Fellowship–winning psychologist Angela

the-rise-cover
THE RISE––PUBLISHED BY SIMON & SCHUSTER

Duckworth. Finally, her premise––that failure is simply another step on the path to success––is heartening as we make our way through a challenging time.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This is a novel about the end of civilization as we know it. That doesn’t sound particularly uplifting. But hear me out.

In a post-collapse world, Kirsten forms part of the Traveling Symphony, bringing Shakespeare and classical music to the tiny villages dotting a violence-ridden landscape. At one point, after the Symphony faces the kidnapping of some of its members, Kirsten finds these words on a folded piece of paper:

A fragment for my friend––

If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you

Silent, my starship suspended in night

station-eleven
STATION ELEVEN––PUBLISHED BY KNOPF

Kirsten is “impossibly moved” by this poetry, reminding us: even in a world where people struggle to find food, to stay warm, to stay alive, poetry matters. Theater matters. Music matters. Amidst struggle, art sows hope. And if we feed it, tend to it, care for it, that hope will continue to grow.

The pain is still raw. The confusion still fresh. But we must always, always remember: knowledge trumps fear. Love trumps hate.

And we will read and learn and fight our way to a better tomorrow.


Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

And I Darken by Kiersten White

This book is an enthralling, disturbing, seriously messed up trip. And I loved it.

An alternate history of Vlad the Impaler (recast as a woman, Lada Dragwlya), Mehmed the Great, and Radu the Handsome, this book takes us to the heart of the Ottoman Empire as it sets its sights on Constantinople. Lada and her brother Radu become pawns in their father’s capitulation to the Sultan and befriend young Mehmed before his rise to the throne.

and-i-darken-cover
AND I DARKEN––PUBLISHED BY DELACORTE

Above all, And I Darken, the first book in a trilogy, is Lada’s origin story. It recounts the childhood and adolescence that forms the ruthless ruler she’ll become.

Here a couple things writers can learn from White’s gender-bent history of an intriguing historical trio.

1. Use POV to your advantage.

In alternating third-person close POV chapters, Lada and Radu tell the story of their childhood in Wallachia (modern-day Romania), their captivity in the Ottoman Empire, and their growing friendship––and maybe more––with Mehmed, one of the Sultan’s sons. And this may be the best use of alternating POV chapters I’ve ever read.

Lada is an intense, driven, violent character. She has her reasons for being so––I’ll dig into this in the next section––and White takes care to build empathy for this complex, wounded girl. Even so, spending the entire novel in her head would have been…a bit much. White made a savvy choice to alternate Lada’s first-person perspective with her brother Radu’s. In many ways, the siblings are foils for each other. The novel is all the richer for their interwoven, conflicting, nuance-crafting points of view.

Where Lada is strong and guarded to a fault, Radu is vulnerable, self-doubting, and sensitive. When the siblings are young, all Radu wants is to belong––but Lada rejects him, preferring to spend time with their nurse’s rough-and-tumble son. As Lada and Radu grow, their relationship does, too. It’s fascinating to watch their dual perspectives as they navigate misunderstandings, conflicts, and sibling love.

The alternating perspectives allow White to explore nuances of the novel’s historical and cultural setting, too. Lada and Radu experience their world in such a different way, both at home in Wallachia, with a cruel father who hates Radu’s weakness and reluctantly comes to respect Lada, and under the care of the Sultan in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Radu embraces Islam, with its rituals and brotherhood and sense of belonging and peace. Meanwhile, Lada finds the religion useless––it cannot give her the thing she craves most: control over her life. While Radu finds the call to prayer calming and stirring to his soul, Lada detests it as a frequent reminder of how far she is from her home.

2. Deeply understand your characters so your readers can, too.

Many Goodreads reviewers called out the same brutal paragraph of Lada’s dialogue:

“On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”

When I read that, I figured Lada would be a Frank Underwood–style antihero: one I love to hate, but am not exactly rooting for. But Lada’s not a Frank Underwood at all. She’s a complicated hero, but one we can root for without reservations (…so far, at least). White achieves this by understanding her protagonist deeply, so readers can understand her, too.

Lada bites and stabs and plots and kills, but it’s out of necessity: it’s what she has to do to secure her place in the world. To gain power. And above all––in my reading––it’s what she has to do to distinguish herself from her mother.

Early in the book, young Lada watches her mother crawl across the floor at the behest of Lada and Radu’s father. In an instant, Lada learns: women are powerless. Women are weak. And she will do anything she can to keep from being one of those weak, powerless women.

Later, this assessment grows more complicated, as Lada begins to see there’s more than one way to gain power. But the important piece here, the one we can take away as writers, is that Lada’s fear of weakness has an origin. We see this image so clearly on the page––young Lada, horrified as her mom prostrates herself. And just as the image burns into Lada’s mind, it burns into our minds, too.

From then on, we’re unabashedly cheering for this ambitious, complicated, troubled, brilliant girl.


Want to chat about And I Darken or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

enter-title-here-cover
ENTER TITLE HERE––PUBLISHED BY DISNEY-HYPERION

Reshma Kapoor is your new favorite anti-hero. An almost-straight-A student at an elite Silicon Valley high school, she’s vying for the top rank in her senior class and an early-action spot at Stanford.

The book opens with a literary agent contacting Reshma about an article she published in The Huffington Post. The agent asks if she’d be interested in writing a novel. Despite having no free time and a study regime held together by a heavy dose of ambition and a burgeoning Adderall addiction, Reshma senses an opportunity here––and grabs it.

Reshma decides she’ll write a novel about her transformation from a serious student into a fun-loving American Girl. And thus begins Enter Title Here. The book is written in first-person as though Reshma’s crafting it as she goes along. Reshma, the “author” and the narrator, often intervenes to remind us of this fact:

By the end of the novel, I’ll turn into a whimsical girl who harvests all the possible joy from each moment and lives a carefree existence and lets the future take care of itself and all that other bullshit.

This YA novel is a fun, if at times disturbing, ride. It does so many things well, and it’s hilarious and terrifying and profound and troubling, all at once.

Occasionally, it almost veers into satire, but each time Kanakia could take the easy route, making Reshma too malevolent, or the story too clean, he complicates things instead. The book has a lot to say about self-punishing overachievers and the hyper-competitive culture that’s nurtured them.

Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from this fresh, fascinating debut.

1. Meta can work. If you do it right.

Enter Title Here is frequently, almost constantly, self-referential. Reshma writes about looking for a character arc, getting her word count in, and worrying about a resolution for the story’s major and minor plotlines.

Often this kind of intrusion throws me out of the story, but Kanakia pulls it off. And I think what works here is that the book is self-referential and aware of itself as a book because it has to be, in order for the story to work. When we see Reshma struggling to discover her protagonist’s next move, it’s not really authorial intrusion; it’s the character herself moving towards her goal––and working to discover what that goal really is.

So this act of grappling with form and pace and plotting serves to heighten the stakes and dramatize Reshma’s predicament. In searching for a resolution to the story, Reshma’s also searching for a resolution to her own problems: what does she really want? And how’s she going to get it?

 

2. Play with expectations.

Reshma’s Indian-American, and she’s very aware of how this affects the way people perceive her. Kanakia plays with these expectations and stereotypes, subverting both the “strict immigrant parents” stereotype and the model minority myth.

There’s an especially satisfying plotline featuring Reshma’s English teacher, Ms. Radcliffe. Ms. Ratcliffe has a tattoo and a QUESTION AUTHORITY poster on her classroom wall. She’s constantly asking Reshma to “go deeper” with her papers. Sounds like a decent English teacher, right?

Except Ms. Ratcliffe is actually kinda racist. With little evidence, she’s jumped to the conclusion that Reshma’s parents must be pushing her too hard. Her assumption culminates in this cringeworthy dialogue:

In my travels, I’ve seen that some cultures don’t place as much value on original creative expression.

It’s so believable, so familiar somehow. And utterly depressing.

Kanakia reveals Ms. Ratcliffe’s true colors at the perfect juncture in the story, when, despite her flaws, we’re really on Reshma’s side. We know full well that it’s Reshma’s relentless drive, and not any pressure from her parents, that’s brought her this far. And we’re just as angry as she is that Ms. Ratcliffe has it wrong.

3. Keep it simple.

Kanakia’s prose is clean and straightforward. There’s not much metaphor and the sentences tend toward the no-nonsense.

Because Kanakia’s writing as Reshma, this really fits. Our protagonist is on a mission: to finish her book and get into Stanford. She’s been playing an academic game her whole life, always writing how teachers want her to write. She’s used complex sentences to get the better mark, imagery that didn’t really resonate with her because she knew her graders would like it. But now that Reshma’s telling her own story, she’s telling it in her voice. A voice that’s succinct, direct, and always driving forward.

Kanakia’s simple prose style also leaves room for particular sentences to stand out. I’m thinking especially about one line that, for me, got to the heart of Reshma’s character and motivation:

All I want is to stand up front at graduation and incinerate them all with my greatness.

All of a sudden, that one strange word––incinerate––turns everything on its head. Reshma’s not an everyday overachiever. And her goal is not your everyday goal. Instead of getting lost in a mountain of prose, this sentence really shines. And we can’t help but wonder what happens next.

Want to chat about Enter Title Here and other great MG and YA books? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

I read this book a while ago, but the story really stuck with me. With Naila and her goals and passion and determination still hanging around in my head, persistent and present, I knew I needed to write a blog post about Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars.

Here are three things writers can learn from Saeed’s heart-wrenching––but ultimately uplifting––YA debut.

written in the stars book cover
WRITTEN IN THE STARS––PUBLISHED BY NANCY PAULSEN BOOKS

1. Keep raising those stakes.

Naila is a young Pakistani-American girl. Her parents are supportive of her dreams of attending medical school, and she understands and follows their rules, including (mostly) staying away from her more-than-crush Saif. She’s always known her parents will choose a husband for her and she respects her family’s traditions.

At the book’s opening, Naila’s biggest concern is that her parents might catch her sneaking out to a dance with Saif. But when a last-minute trip to Pakistan turns into something far more troubling, suddenly it seems Naila might lose a lot more than her cell phone, her budding relationship with Saif, or even her chance at moving away to college.

Throughout the novel, Saeed does a brilliant job of continually upping the stakes. The book’s fast pace is appropriate for a story where the main character’s life is tumbling quickly out of control. Every time Naila finds a way to escape her situation and make her way home and back to Saif, her plans are foiled––and the situation becomes even more dire. This is an emotional book, at times difficult to read. But Saeed’s skillful pacing and plotting keep us turning pages even when the story has us utterly stressed and scared!

2. Let your characters be their complex selves.

When Naila discovers her family will be staying in Pakistan for longer than expected, she’s not all that upset. (This is before she finds out her parents are trying to find her a husband.) Naila misses home, and the privacy and quiet of her house, and of course her beloved Saif. But there are many things about the Pakistani village that she really likes: the bustle of the market, the lyrical sounds of the call to prayer, the soft, shady ground of the orange groves. Naila is American as can be. Still, there’s something about this village in Pakistan that also feels like home.

When Naila finds out she’s been brought there to marry, Naila’s relationship to her parents’ home country becomes much more fraught. But there are still many things about the place and the people that Naila loves. Saeed does a great job illustrating this complexity, and it’s a great lesson for all writers: in letting our characters develop a nuanced relationship with the world around them, we’re letting them grow into their real, three-dimensional, complicated selves.

3. #OwnVoices are powerful––and some stories best told by them.

This is going to seem strange, but stay with me! One of my favorite parts of this book was the Author’s Note. In it, Saeed talks about her own experience as a Pakistani-American in semi-arranged marriage––  “we were equal partners making a choice to spend our lives together.” She goes on to describe how she’s known girls forced into commitments far different from her own happy bond: marriages they felt they couldn’t say no to, including some that have led to abuse, or parents “threatening to disown them” if they leave.

Saeed makes clear that forced marriages are a “problem that transcends race and religion.” This particular novel, of course, is situated within the Pakistani-American community, and Saeed’s being a part of that community has clearly informed the way she’s written this story. Saeed’s writing is steeped in admiration, knowledge, and respect: from descriptions of chai and sweet-salty lemonade, to the terms of endearment for different family members, to the profound friendship Naila forms with her relative Selma just a few weeks after arriving in Pakistan. There’s so much to take in here: so much texture and detail and love. As a member of this community, Saeed’s well-positioned to critique it in a nuanced, informed way, with a critique that makes room for both problems and beauty, and all the tension and subtlety and variety that only an author with firsthand experience can invoke.

Written in the Stars makes a compelling case for #OwnVoices. Saeed’s debut, and Naila’s sad, hopeful story, both serve as a great reminder of why it’s so crucial that, as writers and readers, we take special care to support our peers, authors, mentors, and mentees who bring a new or overlooked perspective to their work.


Want to chat about Written in the Stars or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and Fury Cover
A Court of Mist and Fury, published by Bloomsbury Children’s

This is the first time I’ve used a sequel as one of the Writer Reading Kidlit books. But this one was just too good to pass up.

**Note: Due to the nature of writing about a sequel, and that none of these tips would really make sense without them, this post has some serious spoilers.** So if you haven’t read both Book One––A Court of Thorns and Roses––and Book Two, A Court of Mist and Fury, I highly recommend doing so before you continue!

Go on, read the books…

Okay! Now that we’re all back and recovering from a wild ride in Sarah J. Maas’s sexy, intricate, thrilling magical world, let’s talk about what A Court of Mist and Fury can teach us about writing kidlit. And, specifically, sequels/later books in a series.

While we’re at it, let’s pray to the Cauldron that Book Three’s 2017 release date will come very, very quickly!

1. Up the ante.

Near the end of Book One, it’s hard to see how the stakes could get any higher. Feyre’s beloved Tamlin has been captured by the evil Amarantha; a terrible curse on the lands seems unlikely to be broken; Feyre herself is one wound away from death. But Amarantha, Book One’s central villain, turns out to be little more than an underling of the ultimate bad guy, who has darker, and more extensive, plans that could destroy everything Feyre knows and loves. Where A Court of Thorns and Roses was about saving Tamlin and the rest of the Fae, A Court of Mist and Fury sees the whole mortal and immortal world in peril.

Maas uses several tools to continually raise the stakes. One of the most effective is Feyre’s relationship to the world around her, and the way it shifts and evolves. In Book One, Feyre is an outsider, brought to the Fae world against her will. Feyre’s initial goal is simply to return home to mortal lands, and it’s only when she falls for Tamlin that she has some stake in the fate of his Court. But in Book Two, Feyre’s a hero in her new lands, respected and adored, and she’s developed a bond not only with Tamlin but with several Fae. The Fae world is now her home.

Throughout Book Two, Feyre develops news relationships, learns more about the Fae, and realizes just how much there is to discover and to love. Fighting to defend a foreign Court’s people is one thing. But with a new group of friends and a new home––perhaps the only true, loving home Feyre has ever had––Feyre suddenly has an awful lot more to lose.

2. Defy expectations.

(Warning: this section is *especially* spoiler-y! Highly suggest avoiding until you’ve read the books.)

The central love story of Book One, Feyre and Tamlin, doesn’t get the typical Happily Ever After. After the terrible events Under the Mountain, Feyre’s searching for freedom, for work and meaning, while Tamlin only wants to protect her, and forces her to stay home. Feeling like a captive in Tamlin’s Spring Court, Feyre flees. She ends up at the Night Court, where Tamlin’s longtime nemesis Rhysand rules as High Lord.

Rhysand ends Book One as an intriguing figure: cunning and a bit villainous, he thrills in tormenting Tamlin, yet seems to have a soft spot for Feyre––and mysterious plans of his own. Feyre begins her stay in the Night Court fearing for her life. But what she discovers there defies her expectations: a beautiful, art-filled city, and Rhysand’s closest allies, a group of damaged but lovely beings, doing everything they can to keep their lands peaceful and secure.

After Feyre and Tamlin’s passionate love affair in Book One, it seems impossible that a deeper, sexier romance could emerge––but Maas pulls it off brilliantly. By revealing Rhysand and the Night Court’s backstory bit by bit, Maas has her readers slowly falling for the High Lord and his dream-filled world, just as Feyre begins to realize she might have it in her to love again. The slow-burning romance is sensual and tender, and the revelations also cast the events of Book One in a whole new light. It’s a brilliant pivot, both surprising and meaningful, as Feyre’s two loves illustrate so much about relationships, and independence, and what we need from our partners at different stages in our lives.

3. Don’t be afraid to take your readers to a very dark place.

The opening of Book Two finds Feyre reeling from the trauma inflicted by Amarantha at the end of Book One. Feyre’s been to hell and back, almost literally. A Court of Mist and Fury doesn’t gloss over this trauma. Mass’s portrayal of PTSD and depression is very real; at one point, Feyre is relieved to feel anger, after many months of not feeling anything at all.

“When you spend so long trapped in darkness,” Feyre tells another character, “you find that the darkness begins to stare back.” And Feyre does eventually find solace in the darkness, far from Tamlin’s suffocating Spring Court, in a place where the black night is not the abyss it initially seems. A place where Feyre can be honest with herself about the depths of her trauma, and begin to find hope again.

Feyre’s dark internal journey gives her external journey that much more meaning. When Feyre decides to master her new powers and join the war, it’s not just about showy fight scenes and flashy magic. Instead, it’s the culmination of Feyre’s psychological battle against the darkness inside her––and her own realization that she’s willing to give everything to protect this new life she’s won.

Want to fangirl over this lovely series, or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas

Sarah Prineas’s first foray into YA fiction is a retelling of the Cinderella story where the Fairy Godmother is evil and nothing is quite as it seems.

Ash & Bramble is a dark, superbly feminist take on the concept of story, narrative arc, and what the idea of a standardized Happily Ever After might really imply.

ash and bramble cover
ASH & BRAMBLE–PUBLISHED BY HARPERTEEN

Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from Prineas’s latest book.

(Mild spoilers below!)

1. Capture the power of a retelling.

Prineas’s retelling of the Cinderella tale is compelling. Glass slippers make an appearance, yes, but so do musings on identity and fate and what it means to play a role in someone else’s narrative. Ash & Bramble doesn’t just turn the Cinderella story on its head, it also speaks to the nature of stories themselves.

How do stories get their power? What does it really mean that so many of the Western canon’s fairy tales end in a similar way: with a marriage to a prince, and a bland, predictable Happily Ever After?

Prineas plays with the tropes and the characters found in so many classic Western tales, all the while spinning a fascinating, subversive story of her own. Without being too self-aware, the book works on many different levels—making the resolution all the more satisfying when it comes.

2. Embrace the dark side.

Ash & Bramble is also effective because it’s so utterly creepy. Taking the dark side of many well-known fairy tales and running with it, Prineas conjures a world in which the Fairy Godmother heads up a sweatshop and memories can be erased with the touch of a thimble.

It’s obvious Prineas spent a lot of time pondering elements of the Cinderella story that are often considered nice, even lovely—a new gown, fantastic! She’s transformed, how wonderful!—and then uncovering the fundamental strangeness within them. When the Godmother dresses Penelope (the book’s Cinderella figure), Prineas effectively portrays the vulnerability and fear Penelope feels as she stands there, naked, awaiting her new “look.”

In a way, Prineas tells a completely new story, one that begins in the Godmother’s sweatshop, and includes elements not present in the seminal Cinderella tale. Yet, in searching out the strangeness in the tropes as old as time, Prineas manages to both create her own narrative and inform our reading of the classic Cinderella tale.

3. A well-crafted message will never feel preachy.

This book is unabashedly feminist. There’s a whole cast of complex female characters, and time and time again, women both save the day and get the credit for once, too.

Ash & Bramble critiques commonly-held ideas of what a girl’s Happily Ever After should look like, and consistently makes the case that every woman deserves to choose how she wants to live out her life, and with whom.

But the real key is that the book manages this without being too overt or moralistic. Ash & Bramble is a fascinating story, full of quirky details and multifaceted characters. And rather than layering the message on top of all this, Prineas has woven it in, made it an integral part of a well-crafted story.

It’s a book with a message, not a message-driven book, and it’s stitched as deftly and tightly as the work of Godmother’s captives and their fairy tale thread.

Want to discuss Ash & Bramble or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.