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All YA Fiction Coverage

Vanja Schmidt has never led a charmed life. From a young age, she was forced to work as a maid at Castle Falbirg, where she suffered everything from petty cruelty to unspeakable abuse at her employers’ hands. Even Vanja’s friendship with Princess Gisele left her with more scars than support. So when Vanja saw a chance to swipe a magical string of pearls that she could use to steal Gisele’s identity, she seized it.

After a year of posing as Gisele and continuing her covert crime spree, Vanja’s latest theft earns her a deadly curse from the goddess Eiswald. If Vanja can’t find a way to make up for her crimes in the next two weeks, the curse will turn her into the same precious gemstones she’s been stealing. To make matters worse, Eiswald sends her shapeshifting daughter to keep an eye on Vanja, there’s a frustratingly talented young detective hot on her trail—and the real Gisele is still out there, furious at Vanja’s betrayal.

This colorful cast is the best part of Little Thieves, and author Margaret Owen pursues every opportunity for her strong-willed characters to clash, banter and bond with one another. Whether they are scheming over breakfast sausages or teaching knife tricks to orphans, the characters’ vivid personalities always shine through.

Owen dedicates Little Thieves to “the gremlin girls,” and Vanja wears that descriptor as the honorific it’s intended to be. Vanja’s heists are clever, her insults are creative and her vulnerabilities are striking. She’s a complex protagonist, and Owen expertly demonstrates how her devious personality is simultaneously a flaw, a strength and the direct result of her past experiences. The compassion and sensitivity Owen displays toward Vanja will easily earn her a place in the hearts of all her fellow gremlins.

Amid the book’s plentiful action scenes and witty repartee, Vanja also offers biting commentary on power and privilege. Characters wield authority over one another—whether through divine magic, mortal law, the threat of violence or familial obligation—and these power imbalances shape every interaction and drive the novel’s many intertwining conflicts.

Little Thieves is an endlessly entertaining fantasy tale about characters on their worst behavior learning to be their best selves.

Little Thieves is an endlessly entertaining fantasy tale about characters on their worst behavior learning to be their best selves.

One hot summer day, Syd storms into work at the Proud Muffin—the best queer-owned bakery in Austin, Texas—full of breakup woe and ready to channel it into baking delicious treats, including a spur-of-the-moment special, Syd’s Unexpected Brownies. To Syd’s horror, everyone who eats the sorrow-laden sweets soon finds their love lives in disarray. So Syd and Harley, the bakery’s bicycle delivery worker, embark on a mission to serve everyone who ate the brownies an antidote, like a piece of Very Sorry Cake or a slice of Honest Pie. Getting the right treats into the right mouths turns out to be more complicated than Syd thought, and then Harley begins to look awfully cute in their (or sometimes his; pins on Harley’s messenger bag signal Harley’s pronouns that day) bike shorts and Western boots.

In The Heartbreak Bakery, author A.R. Capetta describes both baking and the excitement of first love in luscious, sensuous detail. The book’s sumptuous recipes combine real directions with Syd’s colorful commentary; the first ingredient in Breakup Brownies is “4 oz unsweetened chocolate, broken up (I mean, it’s right there, how did I not see this coming?).” Plus, Capetta folds in food metaphors throughout: An awkward situation feels like a crumbling sheet of pastry dough, and at one point Syd’s heart “wobbles like an underbaked custard.”

Syd, who is agender, is an expertly constructed protagonist and a notable step forward in representing the full spectrum of gender identities in YA fiction. Syd’s earnest musings about gender, bodies, performance and identity are likely to resonate deeply with teens who’ve shared those thoughts and experiences, while offering cisgender teens an approachable lens through which to begin to understand their peers. The Proud Muffin’s welcoming atmosphere provides Syd a home away from home. Among its customers, a range of identities and relationships are modeled and celebrated. Capetta offers a multitude of ways to use and share one’s pronouns, as well as techniques for avoiding pronouns altogether.

Like the contrasting flavors in a peach strawberry basil pie, Syd's journey of self-discovery melds perfectly with the quest to find and repair the brownies’ damage. Suspend your disbelief in everyday magic and enjoy this frothy, fulfilling confection with a lemon ginger scone and a tall, chilled glass of iced green tea

Like the contrasting flavors in a peach strawberry basil pie, this frothy confection melds a journey of self-discovery with a quest to repair broken hearts.

In Bad Girls Never Say Die, author and teacher Jennifer Mathieu reimagines S.E. Hinton’s groundbreaking 1967 YA novel, The Outsiders. She spoke with BookPage about “good girls,” “bad girls” and writing stories that help teens see beyond those labels.

Tell us about your relationship to The Outsiders before you started working on Bad Girls Never Say Die.
It was the book of my heart as a young girl. I read it in one night in the sixth grade instead of studying for a science test. I did poorly on the test, but I’ve never regretted that life choice. I was captivated by this book that was all heart but also packed with action. The characters became so real in my mind. 

Many years later, I had the experience of teaching the novel to my middle schoolers, and I discovered the book still has enormous staying power. Kids today love the emotion and the story just as much as I did. 

Which elements of The Outsiders were you excited to explore and preserve in your book? Which elements did you hope to challenge or reenvision?
I wanted to preserve the intensity, emotion and fast-paced plot of the original novel. As a teacher, I have seen how The Outsiders works magic on young reluctant readers, and it’s my hope that Bad Girls Never Say Die will have the same effect. 

As for what I wanted to reenvision, by centering the female experience, I wanted to broaden the reader’s understanding of the unique challenges and obstacles facing young women of that time period. I wanted to push the reader to see that while some things have changed for the better, there are many parallels to be drawn between contemporary life and 1964, the year in which I’ve set my novel. Certainly this is true with a novel set in Texas, my home state, which continues to enact legislation that oppresses women and girls.

In this book, you explore themes that readers will recognize from your earlier work—especially, as the title suggests, what it means to be a “bad girl” versus a “good girl.” Can you introduce us to Evie and Diane and how these notions play out in and are challenged by their stories?
Evie, our main character, is a girl from a working-class neighborhood. Her father is absent from her life, and she has chosen to align herself with girls who wear too much makeup, cut class and hang out with boys. She is seen as a “bad girl” for all these reasons. Evie’s mother’s biggest hope is that Evie will find and marry a good man who will support her; she believes it’s the best chance for Evie to improve her life, even if Evie sees this as limiting. 

Diane is a stranger to Evie at the start of the novel. She’s recently moved to Evie’s neighborhood from the wealthiest part of Houston, and she’s keeping a secret. For much of her life, Diane has been considered a “good girl” because she dresses neatly, lives with both parents and is polite. That said, if Diane’s secret were to be revealed, she would be seen as transgressive and bad by most people. 

While Evie and Diane seem different at the start and on the surface—in fact, Evie is at first quite suspicious of Diane because of where she comes from—the girls soon discover that they are both “bad girls” because they want to follow their hearts, speak their mind, and stand up for themselves. 

Without giving too much away, it’s also my hope that through Diane’s story, we can understand how often girls and women are shamed for being sexual beings, and how this common practice is so devastating to women and girls. Ultimately, I hope the reader is able to reflect on how we continue to label women and girls as “bad” and “good” based on stereotypes and sexist thinking.

“When I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman.”

You’ve mentioned that Evie is a character with whom you personally identify. How so?
In many ways, my life was very different from Evie’s. I grew up with both parents, I was the oldest sibling (Evie is the youngest), and I was a rule follower who earned excellent grades. That said, when I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman. While I was seen as a “good girl,” my growing interest in feminism and women’s rights made me suspicious in the eyes of some adults in my life, including teachers at my very conservative high school. I sensed a growing inner conflict as I began to really question some of the rules and systems around me, even if I couldn’t always articulate my thoughts.

Much in the same way, Evie senses something is not right in her world. What has happened to Diane is not right. What has happened to Evie’s older sister is not right. Evie’s mother’s limited plans for her are not right. Through the events of the novel, Evie begins to question all of that. By the end of the story, I think she is primed to act and make change. I think I felt much the same way as I headed off to college, found myself liberated by the environment there and fully embraced the label of feminist.

In The Outsiders, rival gangs of young men are always raring to fight, spitting at one another, switchblades at the ready. Who or what occupies the role of the antagonist in Bad Girls Never Say Die? Why was this reframing important to you?
Oh, I love this question! While violence between the social classes is touched on in my book like it is in Hinton's, I would say the antagonist in The Outsiders is the pressures the characters are under and the misconceptions they have about one another. In Bad Girls, I think the antagonist is, similarly, the sexist system in which the characters live, a system that oppresses and represses them. In addition, the misconceptions Evie and her friends have about girls like Diane at the start of the story reflect what often happens in contemporary life. Instead of seeking solidarity in order to fight back against a suffocating patriarchy, women fall victim to that same patriarchy’s message that we should judge and shame each other, which only limits our collective power.

One of the ways that Bad Girls Never Say Die departs from The Outsiders is how you not only highlight socioeconomic divisions between groups of teens but also touch on the history of integration and the unique challenges facing Mexican American students who, like Evie, live on the wrong side of town. The character and story of Juanita, one of Evie’s best friends, is a great example of how you did this. Can you talk about how and why you included this perspective in the novel?
I loved researching this novel, and I definitely felt my former reporter muscles kick in as I got to work on it. I spent the summer of 2019 taking several older people here in Houston out to lunch to discuss memories of their teenage years. I also spent hours in the downtown library paging through old yearbooks and newspaper clippings. (Shoutout to librarians!) As a proud Houstonian for over 20 years, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the nation. I teach at the most racially diverse high school in the city. We are not a perfect city, of course, and while I’m proud of many elements of my hometown, I also wanted to be honest about it in this book.

Set in 1964, Bad Girls Never Say Die reflects the reality that Houston, like much of this country, has a history of segregation that is quite complicated and painful. The school system in Houston was still racially segregated until the late ’60s and early ’70s. Black Houstonians attended different schools and lived under a racist legal system that oppressed them and still has ripple effects today, even if certain laws regarding public transportation, schools and restaurants have changed.

Since it is relatively close to Mexico, Houston also has a large population of people with Mexican roots. As I researched, I learned that although Houstonians of Mexican heritage were classified as “legally white” and attended school with white Houstonians, they were often subjected to discrimination. For example, their names were often Anglicized without their consent. In one of my interviews, a man with Mexican heritage shared with me that his teacher suspected him of cheating because he was Mexican. This informed the character of Juanita, Evie’s neighbor and dear friend.

At the same time, in 1964, the world was changing rapidly. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed just a few months before the events of this novel. Evie is a white girl, but like most teenagers of her day, she is aware of the events going on around her and has thoughts about them. While I could not write a fully racially integrated school like the one I work at now because it would not have existed at the time of the novel, I wanted to make sure that I crafted a world that was authentic and reflected the reality of the city and the country at that time.

I would be remiss not to mention the book Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City by Dr. Tyina Steptoe. Dr. Steptoe’s book about Houston’s complex racial and ethnic history was instrumental as I crafted this novel, and I’m grateful not just for her work but also for her time on the phone and via email.

Read our review of ‘Bad Girls Never Say Die.'

Did you learn anything about Houston’s history that surprised you or that made you see the place you live in a new way?
Something that made me laugh was the fact that so many of our city’s highways had not been built yet in 1964. Houston is a very freeway-centric city, and it sort of blew my mind to hear interviewees reminisce about a time when you went everywhere on surface roads. It’s almost hard to imagine!

You’re a high school English teacher. Do your students influence your work as a writer for teens? 
I am currently in my 17th year in the classroom. My job as a teacher keeps me around the rhythm of adolescence and reminds me daily that young people deserve good stories that treat them like the nuanced, complex human beings they are. My students sometimes want to know if they are in my novels, and I have to honestly tell them that the characters are fictional, but the energy, hope, rage, frustration, joy and confusion that surrounds me daily certainly makes its way into my work.

What’s the best or most rewarding thing about writing for teens?
The best part is how sincere teenagers are and how enthusiastic they are. If they like your work, they REALLY like your work, and they share that with you. There’s no artifice with teenagers. Young people are the best fans because what they love, they love deeply.

What kinds of teens do you hope find their way to Bad Girls Never Say Die? What do you hope the book offers them?
As an English teacher, I hope this book makes it into the hands of reluctant readers. Its short chapters and fast-paced plot will hopefully hook some of them. I’m a big believer that everyone is a reader, but sometimes we just haven’t discovered the books that work for us. 

I also hope this book empowers young women to make connections to their own lives and draw parallels between the past and the present in terms of how women and girls are treated. I think it offers them a way to understand that, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner, the past is never dead. Bad Girls is historical fiction, but I also hope it’s a call to arms for modern-day girls to stand up for themselves and follow their hearts.

If Vivian, the protagonist of your novel Moxie (which was set in the present day when it was published in 2017), and Evie somehow found themselves at the same lunch table, what do you think they’d talk about? Are there things you think they’d be surprised to hear the other say?
Another amazing question! Certainly there would be a few laughs as Evie learns about social media and modern music, and Vivian might be fascinated by Evie’s eye makeup and clothing, but I sense the girls would be fast friends because they would recognize in each other what I see in the young women I teach every day: a fighting spirit that seeks out joy, validation, love and liberation in a world that constantly wants to tell them they need to shut up, sit down and be quiet. Evie and Vivian refuse to listen to that message, and it’s my hope that the young women who read my work learn they can refuse it, too.

The author and teacher discusses her reinterpretation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

Jennifer Mathieu swings for the fences in Bad Girls Never Say Die, a feminist retelling of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 category-defining classic, The Outsiders. It’s not quite the equal of Hinton’s grand slam, but Mathieu’s fresh spin makes for a home run of a read.

Evie Barnes is a self-described bad girl living in Houston in 1964. She wears heavy eyeliner and joins her “tuff” group of girlfriends in skipping school, smoking and drinking. When Evie is attacked and almost raped by a drunk boy at a drive-in movie, she believes her bad-girl status has been cemented. No good girl would put herself in a position where she could get hurt by a boy, right?

Wrong. Diane, the epitome of a good girl from the nice side of town (Evie calls her a “tea sipper”), stops the assault but unintentionally kills the boy in the process. This sends Evie and Diane on a police-dodging odyssey of unexpected friendship as they discover what it really means to be a bad girl.

Read our Q&A with Jennifer Mathieu.

In The Outsiders, characters regularly have the snot beat out of them for being part of the wrong crew, but the threat to the young women in Mathieu’s novel feels more existential. Yes, a young man attacks a young woman, but Mathieu doubles and then triples down on the horrors that women face every day. In a stunning moment of catharsis, Evie reflects, “It seems like if you want to really love and feel and breathe in this city, you’re labeled trash. Or bad. Especially if you’re a girl.”

Of course, that existential threat, which is the true antagonist of the story, has a name: It’s patriarchy. And Mathieu knows it. It’s why every female character in the book (and there are quite a few) is imbued with depth and purpose, no matter what side of town they’re from or how old they are. They’re all fighting the same cultural force that is determined to keep them down.

Best known for Moxie, another YA novel about young women fighting “the man,” Mathieu offers another rallying cry in Bad Girls Never Say Die and proves it’s good to go bad.

Moxie author Jennifer Mathieu swings for the fences in this feminist retelling of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

Squad is the first graphic novel from YA and picture book author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea), and it features eye-catching illustrations by comics artist Lisa Sterle. It’s the story of Becca, the new girl at Piedmont High School, who is invited to join the most popular clique of girls at school. Then she discovers that they’re not so much a squad as a pack. Of werewolves.

Maggie, tell us a little bit about Becca, the main character of Squad. What ideas were you hoping to explore through her story?

Maggie Tokuda-Hall: Becca is someone who wants to fit in so badly. She’s a try-hard who doesn’t have a natural knack for making friends. She thinks that if, somehow, she just does everything right then maybe, MAYBE she’ll fit in and everything will be OK, and she won’t feel so lonely anymore. And so when she has a group of friends, she’s willing to overlook anything about them: their microaggressions, their casual racism, their cruelty. The fact that they’re straight-up murderers. They’re bound by a sense of having been wronged, and they have been wronged. All of us have been. Rape culture hurts everyone. 

Becca is meant to be a stand-in for the rest of us. It’s so human to want to fit in. It’s so human to want justice. But are power imbalances ever the way to seek justice? Is the death penalty ever right? What does punishment accomplish, really? These are things Becca allows us to ask ourselves, even if she makes decisions we may disagree with.

What challenges did you encounter as you worked on this story?

Tokuda-Hall: The hardest thing was trying to find the right frame to tell this story. Ever since I graduated from the real Piedmont High, I’d been trying to figure out how to write about what I saw and experienced there. I didn’t have the language yet, but now I know it was rape culture. I was furious. Heartbroken. And it took me more than 15 years after graduating to be able to craft the right story in the tone I wanted to address it.

When Fred Rogers defended PBS’ funding before Congress, he read the lyrics of a song he sang to children to help them cope with being mad, and there’s a line from it that I think about a lot: “What do you do / with the mad that you feel / when you feel so mad / you could bite?” Sorting through my own anger was the hardest part of writing Squad, and the hardest part of talking about it.

“These girls aren’t role models, and they aren’t heroes. . . . They’re girls who have been beaten down by a world that will never love them back, no matter how ‘perfect’ they are.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Can you talk about the way that consent is represented in Squad, and what you hope readers take away from it?

Tokuda-Hall: Squad is about rape culture, obviously. And so of course there are terrible boys, exactly who you’d expect. But the girls also have a really unhealthy consent praxis. They think they’re these white knights riding against predators, and yeah, they are, I guess. But they also threaten to kill Becca if she doesn’t join them. Becca is so chuffed to be invited that she doesn’t think about it that way; she was going to say yes, but she couldn’t have said no if she wanted to and lived. The girls enforce horrible body standards that are, in my view, an extension of rape culture, this effort to always keep the female body obedient for the male gaze. They do this without questioning themselves, without seeing the ways they’re enforcers of the very culture they purport to destroy.

These girls aren’t role models, and they aren’t heroes. They’re murderers. They’re also victims. They’re girls who have been beaten down by a world that will never love them back, no matter how “perfect” they are.

Squad is equal parts revenge fantasy and a question of what justice is in our world, which is so deeply entrenched in patriarchy, rape culture, racism and misogyny. Law enforcement doesn’t help with any of these things—in fact, it is very much an extension of them. Revenge feels good, but that isn’t justice, is it? I don’t know what justice is. But I do know that I’m not equipped to dispense it.

Werewolves are usually portrayed as masculine creatures—but not so here. Where did the inspiration for your “squad” of werewolf girls come from?

Tokuda-Hall: I think anything that’s been arbitrarily gendered is begging for subversion. And honestly, who looked at werewolves and periods and didn’t connect the dots? Uterus-havers experiencing something secret and bloody once a month? I couldn’t possibly think of any real life situation that’s analogous to that.

There’s also something inherently camp about werewolves. They’re human/dog crosses. Even if they’re scary, they’re still goofy. I love that about them, how ripe they are for comedy.

“No matter what we do, we’re somehow monstrous. So fine. Let’s be monsters.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

What werewolf tropes—or general horror tropes—did you hope to challenge? Did you intentionally preserve any tropes?

Tokuda-Hall: The one werewolf trope that I love is that they’re monsters born out of trauma. Typically, a werewolf doesn’t ask you if they can bite you, at least in most of the stories I know. I’m a person who’s been sexually assaulted, and I know that feeling of monstrous violation leaving me with consequences I was ill-equipped to handle. It made werewolves an apt cipher. I don’t mean to say that everyone who’s been assaulted is made a monster by it, but I do think it can create a craving for revenge. At least, it did for me.

The trope I was most interested in challenging was that, in horror, female monsters only get to be scary if their power comes from sex or age. Making them disgusting bloodthirsty dogs was sort of a middle finger to that. Even when we’re monsters we’re supposed to be hot. If you’re a woman, people are going to judge you and find you wanting. There’s no “right” way to be a woman in our world. You should be smart but not a nerd! You should be hot, but you shouldn’t act like you’re hot! You should look presentable and good all the time, but you shouldn’t try too hard! Be skinny, but not anorexic! Be one of the guys, but don’t fart! It’s impossible. No matter what we do, we’re somehow monstrous. So fine. Let’s be monsters.

From its inception, was Squad always going to be a graphic novel?

Tokuda-Hall: I have wanted to tell some version of Squad for a very long time, but I wasn’t able to crack it until I decided it needed to have werewolves, and it needed to be a graphic novel. As soon as I did, it flowed really easily. It was a complete joy to write, and it was similar to writing a picture book in that you want to leave room for an illustrator to make it their own, too.

Can you give us a little behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Squad was made?

Tokuda-Hall: I wrote the script like I was possessed, then my fantastic agent, Jennifer Laughran, helped make it make sense, and then the marvelous Martha Mihalick at Greenwillow gave it a home. We edited it together and passed it to Lisa, who had a couple of smaller notes that I added in. Lisa and I didn’t get to collaborate much directly, but watching her take this book and make it her own amazing vision has been both humbling and career-affirmingly rad.

Lisa Sterle: I signed on as the illustrator after Maggie already had the pitch and the first draft of the script finished, so I got to read the whole thing pretty immediately. To be honest, I was sold at the first mention of girls turning into werewolves. I love supernatural fantasy, so this was a concept that hooked me in fast. After reading the first chapter of the script, I immediately had such a strong idea of who these girls were, and I hadn’t even really visualized them yet. The dynamics between the squad felt immediately familiar, and I related so much to shy Becca’s desire to fit in and her sense of longing to belong somewhere. I think it’s a familiar narrative to anyone who’s been a teenage girl. The horror aspect of boy-devouring werewolves was icing on the cake.

“I had a whole mood board full of outfit ideas for the squad, because I wanted them to each have their own sense of style and yet feel like they all coordinated.” 

Lisa Sterle

Though the script was completed before I started on the artwork, I did a lot of the directing myself as I formatted it for a graphic novel. I figured out the page breakdowns, panel breakdowns, which scenes needed to be splash pages or needed more breathing room, when to focus on characters or the surroundings and so on. So even though the story was done, I definitely appreciate that I got the opportunity to put my own special stamp on it through the art and the comics medium.

Maggie, what’s different about working on a book with a collaborative partner like an illustrator versus working on a novel where you’re the sole contributor?

Tokuda-Hall: IT WAS THE BEST. It is 100% better than working on your own. Illustrators are perfect magical creatures, and we don’t deserve them. She drew! So many! PICTURES! And they are all amazing! I cannot fathom what it’s like to live in her head and to be able to breathe life into drawings and to make characters come alive. But I can say that I am a huge fan of her work, and I cannot wait for her to achieve the unbearable fame her talent deserves.

Writing a novel is like being trapped in a room with yourself. You may be great company to yourself, but I know that to my own taste, I am not. Working with an illustrator relieves some of that great loneliness that comes with being a writer.

Lisa, you’ve illustrated lots of interesting things, from comics and comic book covers to a tarot deck. How did working on a graphic novel compare?

Sterle: Working on a graphic novel was a new experience for me! It was wonderful to not have to feel rushed by a monthly delivery schedule like in comics, and to really be able to take my time on each step of the process. Sometimes it was challenging to keep the momentum, though! 200-ish pages is a LOT, and at times it can feel like it never ends. I found ways to stay inspired and motivated though, such as inking a couple pages during the pencils stage to switch things up creatively.

What were your inspirations for the overall look and feel of the book?

Sterle: I knew going into this project that I wanted to do something bright and colorful, as it was the first comic I’d really fully colored myself. My Modern Witch Tarot was actually a bit of an inspiration, because through those illustrations I really uncovered a palette that spoke to my pop sensibilities. 

Fashion was also a big inspiration. I had a whole mood board full of outfit ideas for the squad, because I wanted them to each have their own sense of style and yet feel like they all coordinated as well. The Chanels from “Scream Queens” were an inspiration, as were Cher Horowitz from Clueless, Lirika Matoshi’s dresses and Cara Delevingne’s style, to name a few others.

I love how you differentiated the girls, even when they’re in their werewolf forms. What techniques did you use to give the werewolves their individual looks?

Sterle: Figuring out the werewolves was one of the first big challenges! I definitely went with a more wolflike approach than humanlike, and that meant that they could have been hard to tell apart from one another. I considered differentiating them with jewelry or some kinds of accessories at one point, but I landed on the surprisingly simple approach of just having their fur color match their hair for the most part. I did have to tweak slightly since two of the girls have black hair, but I think it worked out in the end.

“Lisa is a marvel at creating the emotional world of a character in their body language and on their faces.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Can you talk about how you used color in these illustrations?

Sterle: I love bright colors, especially when paired sparingly with pastels—kind of an ’80s/’90s vibe. I tend to stay away from earth tones, and I feel like that was an easy solution to unifying colors throughout the book. The daytime and school scenes are all very bright and warm, while the nighttime scenes tended to have a cooler, blue-green scheme, which worked out perfectly to really make the red POP when the werewolves and gore show up.

How did you approach illustrating those violent scenes?

Sterle: I’ve always been a fan of horror, so I’ve formed thoughts on what I like and dislike when it comes to gore and violence. I tried not to go too far into the realism, but I do think that in certain scenes it was important to show what these girls were really doing. No sugarcoating here! But I’m not a fan of gore for its own sake, so I tried to make sure I wasn’t going over the top unnecessarily.

Maggie, what are some things you love about what Lisa brought to the book?

Tokuda-Hall: The facial expressions. There would be direction in the script, like “Marley looks annoyed.” But then Lisa would imbue these facial expressions with so much depth and complexity. She’s annoyed, yes, but she’s also disappointed and a little embarrassed now that Lisa is done with her. Lisa is a marvel at creating the emotional world of a character in their body language and on their faces.

It is also worth noting that Lisa is like . . . a cool person. And I am not. And so she was able to lend the aesthetic a coolness that I wanted but in no way could have created on my own. The girls’ fashion is so correct and current. They’d all be dressed the way high schoolers dressed when I was in high school if I’d had to do it myself. Which, needless to say, wouldn’t be right. I’m almost old enough for all my teen fashion to have come back around, but not quite.

Do you have a favorite illustration of Lisa’s from the book?

Tokuda-Hall: All of Lisa’s work is exquisite. But probably the seemingly silliest thing that I really, truly, deeply love is that she added sound effects. I didn’t write any of those. So, for example, when Bart O’Kavanaugh gets eaten, there’s a “SPLORCH” sound effect. Has there ever been a word as onomatopoetic as splorch? Anyway, it lends the book the correct, campy, comic book-y vibe to help cut through the trauma. It’s really important for that reason, I think, because otherwise the book’s tone is a little off. This is a horror comedy. Splorch helps drive that home.

Read our review of ‘Squad.'

What are you most proud of having accomplished in Squad?

Sterle: I brought to life four very unique characters, each with hopes, dreams, insecurities and faults. I think we told a pretty complex story, disguised as a fun supernatural horror teen drama.

Tokuda-Hall: I wrote the first draft of Squad in the summer of 2018, just before Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings were held in the Senate. Like many other people who’ve been sexually assaulted, I was inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s courage, and I confronted the man who sexually assaulted me. He was a friend from Piedmont. Someone I trusted, someone I’d grown up with. The publication of Squad feels like the end to the time when I felt afraid or victimized or disempowered because of what he did to me. Men like him can’t scare me anymore. I’m the scary thing in the woods now.

And as the goddess and prophet Beyonce Knowles-Carter said, “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”


Photo of Maggie Tokuda-Hall © Red Scott. Photo of Lisa Sterle © Meg Mantia.

Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea) and illustrator Lisa Sterle discuss their first graphic novel collaboration, Squad, a story in which teenage girls are never quite what they seem.

In Loraille, the Dead are dangerous. If they’re not interred with the proper rites, dead souls can return in the form of spirits, ranging from harmless shades to rare and apocalyptically powerful Revenants. People blessed with the Sight can be possessed by the risen Dead, so Sighted children are brought into convents or monasteries to receive training.

At the Gray Sisters convent, Artemisia is different from many of her peers. She spent much of her childhood possessed by a violent spirit before the nuns found her. Now Artemisia has trouble connecting with others and no strong desire to try. She just wants a quiet life, performing rites and interacting with as few people as possible.

But lately, the Dead have been behaving more aggressively than they have in years, and the convent is unsettled by a harrowing attack. Amid the chaos, Artemisia is sent to fetch the convent’s most powerful relic, which contains a trapped Revenant. When the nun in charge of the relic dies, Artemisia must wield it to defend both the convent and herself against the onslaught. With no training in controlling the Revenant, however, she must rely on her natural ability and instinct to forge a tenuous and potentially heretical alliance with an unconventional, maddening spirit—an alliance that could be the only path to salvation.

Author Margaret Rogerson excels at creating fantasy worlds that feel lived in. In Vespertine, she draws on familiar influences, including medieval France, necromantic magic and a theocratic society, so that readers can fully engage in the world of the novel from the very first page. The book is remarkably psychologically grounded as well, unfolding in a first-person narrative that keeps readers close to Artemisia’s thoughts and her conversations with the Revenant. It’s a nuanced depiction of a protagonist who has been shaped by trauma and who seems, at times, neurodivergent. Artemisia’s intimate narration differentiates her journey in Vespertine from typical “chosen one” tropes and endears her to the reader.

Rogerson clearly delights in the gruesome and the grotesque, meting out choice details about horrifying spirits and unsavory causes of death. A few supporting characters (somewhat predictably to experienced fantasy readers) defy expectations and prove heroic in their own right.cVespertine blends darkness, thrills and satisfying characterization for an engrossing fantasy tale.

Vespertine blends darkness, thrills and satisfying characterization for an engrossing fantasy tale.

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