Maddie Hathaway grew up on the Renaissance faire circuit, living in an RV and attending school online. After her mom’s death from cancer, Maddie has been looking forward to returning to Stormsworth, her mom’s favorite faire. But Stormsworth’s new owners are making big changes, and their son, Arthur, thinks Maddie should play the role of the faire’s princess, though Maddie is certain she won’t be a good fit for the part—or its costume. The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway is a whimsical but grounded portrait of grieving, healing and falling in love against a truly magical backdrop.
I’m asked why I write YA during almost every panel, Q&A or interaction with readers.
The nice answer is that I love writing coming-of-age stories. There’s something so poetic and timeless about teetering on the point of decision, of having your whole life change. I don’t think that feeling of potential energy as you stand at the top of a slope, looking downward and wondering if you will soar or land in a crumpled heap or both, ever really goes away. For me, attempting to lasso that feeling and pin it to the page is a thrill and a challenge I’ll never tire of.
That’s the nice answer. The truer answer is far less pretty.
I write for teenagers because somewhere in my nearly 31-year-old muscles and sinew and suspiciously achy knees I’m still 16, my back against the wall of a funeral home chapel as I’m told over and over again that I’ll bounce back, that I’ll heal because I’m young. Like grief cares about age.
I’m still angry about that moment. If I think about it too deeply, my chest feels like a cauldron, bubbling and swirling as I stir in over a decade of hindsight, a dash of lessons learned and a heaping spoonful of indignation, well aged. I suppose writing YA novels is my way of reaching my hand back to myself and anyone else who was ever disqualified from the ultramarathon of grief under penalty of youth.
So it’s no surprise that my third novel, The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway, fits neatly into the Ashley Schumacher Literary Canon of Teenage Disgruntlement Concerning Grief. Over the course of the book, my main character, Maddie “Gwen” Hathaway, mourns the death of her mother and the departure of her best friend from the Renaissance faire circuit (and therefore from Maddie’s immediate vicinity), as well as the complete redesign of the faire that Maddie’s mother loved most—a place where Maddie hoped to find closure but instead finds compounded grief.
I should also mention that Maddie is fat. Like me. Like so many of my family members, of my friends, of my world. This is important.
I’ve tackled different kinds of grief in my writing. Mostly I’ve explored the grief of losing people, because that’s the one that aches the sharpest for me, but like Maddie tells her love interest, Arthur, on the night they meet, “I don’t think grief has to mean death. I think there are lots of different types of grief.”
I used to grieve my body. Not in the acute way that a death is grieved, but in the way of the dull ache I’d feel when I couldn’t find my size in the trendy brand-name stores everyone wore in high school, or when the drill-team teacher chastised me for eating more pizza at lunch: “Remember, girls, Spandex never forgives or forgets.” Sometimes it seemed like the world was not built for me. Well-meaning adults would offer obtuse platitudes. You’ll grow out of it, they’d say, or it’s just baby fat, or—the most witless of all—oh, honey, you’re not fat!
Spoiler alert: I did not, in fact, grow out of it. But I did grow into it. My own skin. My life. My body.
I learned that a lot of social conditioning went into how I felt growing up, that a lot of companies and nameless, faceless Wall Street gods stood to benefit if they could keep me in the shame cycle of buying products to turn myself into the ideal that they put on billboards and magazines. I gave Maddie a dose of that too, in the form of faire posters that advertise with clip-art images of thin princesses and muscular knights. I felt compelled to give Arthur the same insecurities, but reversed, so while Maddie wishes that she could take up less space, Arthur, who is insecure about being so thin, wishes to take up more.
When I was growing up, I never felt more understood or seen than I did in the pages of books. Not just because I was a voracious reader but because, when I was reading, I could be anybody—or, more specifically, anybody could be me. Any vaguely described character could look like me, and I would superimpose my own body onto theirs, rounding out thighs and chests and stomachs until I was the one running through enchanted forests or falling in love or saving the village from a dragon.
My dedication for this book reads, in part, “To anyone who hasn’t felt at home in their skin: I hope this story helps you lay out a rug, place a frame, hang up your coat, and stay awhile. Ad astra per aspera.” Through adversity to the stars.
I don’t grieve my body anymore, but I think I will forever carry the grief that I once did. Maddie is lots of things. She’s brave, observant, a great friend, someone who tries to tame the world and make it kinder for herself and for others. She is also fat. No superimposition or apologies necessary. My hope for Maddie and Arthur’s story is that it can be an oasis for those who are still struggling to see the beauty and validity of their own bodies, those who have not made it to their stars—yet.
Author photo of Ashley Schumacher courtesy of Hannah Meyers.