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All YA Coverage

Rebecca Podos’ fourth YA novel, From Dust, a Flame, is a moving story about a girl discovering the heritage and history of a family she never knew she had. On the morning of Hannah’s 17th birthday, she awakens to discover that her eyes are golden serpentine slits, the first of a series of nightly transformations. Soon Hannah and her brother, Gabe, are catapulted into a quest for answers within their family’s hidden past as well as among Jewish myths and legends.

Podos spoke with BookPage about why she’s drawn to tales of self-discovery and how it feels to contribute to a golden age of Jewish fantasy.

How did this book begin for you?
A lot of my stories kind of begin with the theme of inheritance—the things passed down to you for better or worse, and how you navigate that as a young person still trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become.

From Dust, a Flame started when I felt ready to tackle that question in relation to Judaism. I grew up in an observant family and community, knowing the history of both. But I wondered what it would feel like to discover all of that just when you thought you had a pretty solid sense of yourself and what it would mean and how it would change you.

Tell us about Hannah, the main character of the book.
When we meet her, Hannah has plenty of questions about her mother: why she’s spent the last 17 years moving Hannah and her brother from place to place, where she comes from beyond the few vague hints she’s let slip over the years, and why she never seems to understand—or try to understand—her daughter.

But Hannah thinks she’s got a pretty good handle on herself. A chronic overachiever, she long ago chose the academic path and career path that would help her to become who she thought she wanted to be. She’s completely in control of every aspect of her own life, including the image she presents to other people, even the people who love her.

And speaking of that idea of “how it would change you . . . ”: The same night that Hannah makes a significant discovery about her mother’s past and her own identity, she is literally physically changed by a curse she’ll spend the novel trying to undo. At the same time, she’s unraveling the mystery of herself, including her Jewishness, her queerness and the truth behind the image she’s spent most of her life constructing.

“I wanted the book to feel as though it’s sinking deeper and deeper into the past, only for the past to catch up and collide with the present.”

I want to dig into the way you’ve structured this book. “The past has teeth,” says a character at one point. “It may catch you if you turn your back on it.” From Dust, a Flame jumps between multiple time periods, follows objects through generations and draws on folktales, letters and dreams—almost as though the novel itself would seem to agree. Can you talk about how you went about figuring out how to tell this story?
Trial and error, for sure! I’ve never written a book from multiple perspectives or in which a significant part of the story takes place in another time period. I knew that I wanted the book to feel as though it’s sinking deeper and deeper into the past, only for the past to catch up and collide with the present. I tried to pace it out so that Hannah’s timeline—most of which takes place in just one week—doesn’t lose its urgency. I also didn’t want the chapters spent in her mother’s timeline, and briefly in her grandmother’s, to feel less important or interesting just because those events happened long ago. For Hannah and for her family, the threat posed by the past is greatest when they don’t believe it can touch them.

One of the most complex themes you explore in this book is the idea of family—what it means to be part of a family, and the stories, histories and (sometimes) secrets that families hold. What drew you to exploring these ideas?
I really like stories where for the most part, there are no clear villains, just people trying and sometimes failing to do their best when faced with the toughest of choices. Don’t get me wrong, I love the villains, too, and there is a literal demon in the mix, but Hannah’s grandmother was shaped in part by the terrible things that happened to her, as was Hannah’s mother, as is Hannah.

A lot of what goes wrong between the generations in this book comes down to the secrets they keep out of fear, and because it seems too painful to share them, and because they want to protect the people they love. Families are complicated. Trauma is complicated. I wanted every character to have a moment in the story to share their perspective and to shed a light on their own demons.

There’s a lot of self-discovery happening in From Dust, a Flame, not only for Hannah but also for many other characters. When you began working on the book, did you know the discoveries that each character would make?
That’s a really interesting question! I did my heaviest outlining yet for this book. I’ve been a pantser in the past, but since I was juggling timelines and points of view and trying to build a magical system, it seemed pretty necessary to know where I was going. Also, I got halfway through without adequately planning out one of the bigger plot twists and basically had to go back to the beginning to fix it. But I still learned about the characters as I went and figured them out a little better with every draft. It took me a while to figure out not just what Hannah wanted, but what she needed. And that’s what I like to give characters in the end.

“I really like stories where for the most part, there are no clear villains, just people trying and sometimes failing to do their best when faced with the toughest of choices.”

From Dust, a Flame contains so much cultural, historical and mythological detail. In your author’s note, you write that in spite of your religiously conservative upbringing, it’s common for a Jewish writer to feel that they’re not “Jewish enough to translate their identity into fiction.” How did you work through those feelings?
I think I just had to release myself from the expectation of perfectly representing “the Jewish experience” or “the queer experience” or any of my identities and accept that it’s OK simply to write one single experience out of infinite possibilities. Nobody is qualified to write “the experience” of anything, but I’m qualified to tell a story about a Jewish girl struggling to understand herself. So that’s what I tried to do.

What was the most enjoyable part of the book to research?
The most enjoyable part of research—of which there was so much—was the lore. One Jewish folktale in particular plays a very important part in the world building of this book, and it was one I’d never heard before! I also found the podcast “Throwing Sheyd: Better Living Through Jewish Demonology,” which brilliantly sifts through the Jewish texts to explore mentions of shedim, both well known and obscure, and I wasn’t really familiar with any of it. It was all fascinating to explore and engage with these stories that are artifacts of culture and history and religion combined.

Your author’s note also mentions a revelation you had while drafting the novel, when you realized that you needed an answer to a question Hannah asks: What does it mean to be Jewish? If someone were to ask you this question today, would your answer be different than if someone had asked you before writing this book? If so, how?
I think it would! Like I said earlier, I didn’t really grow up wondering what it meant to be Jewish, because I just was. It was a fact. If it had been a question, I probably would’ve answered that Judaism is a shared history as much as a set of present-day beliefs and practices (a pretty wide range in modern Judaism). And it absolutely can be that.

“When it comes to where and who we come from, we don’t really get to pick out the good and ignore the bad or separate the burdens we inherit from the blessings.”

But in writing Gabe, Hannah’s brother who was adopted at birth and who wrestles with what his mother’s history means for him, I wanted to be more purposeful. We don’t always make enough space for Jewish converts or patrilineal Jews or anybody who falls outside of what we think a Jewish person should look like. Like the character who answers Hannah’s question on the page, I’d say that Judaism is also very much a story that you can choose to write yourself into, with knowledge and curiosity and respect.

From Dust, a Flame is one of a growing number of recent YA books that explores Jewish identity and mythology. How does it feel to be adding a volume of your own to that group?
It’s wonderful. There are such amazing Jewish fantasies and folktales out recently and coming up next year—Katherine Locke’s This Rebel Heart, Aden Polydoros’ The City Beautiful, Allison Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic, Phoebe North’s Strange Creatures, Kalyn Josephson’s This Dark Descent. . . . It’s a little bit of a golden age at the moment, and I’m excited to be a little part of it.

This book has a lot of moments in which characters speak—or Hannah thinks—some really stunning words of truth. One of the most meaningful moments for me involved a word written in some spilled sugar. Is there a truth in the book that’s particularly meaningful for you?
Oh, I’m glad you like that scene! It was actually the source of the book’s original title, which didn’t make it (luckily, I like this one better). I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are some big moments where Hannah has to reckon with the idea that, when it comes to where and who we come from, we don’t really get to pick out the good and ignore the bad or separate the burdens we inherit from the blessings. We have to find a way to live with it all, and being honest with ourselves and the people we love can be the key to moving forward.

Read our review of ‘From Dust, a Flame.’

Author photo of Rebecca Podos courtesy of Zaynah Qutubuddin.

Fantastical secrets come to light in a moving tale inspired by Jewish mythology and history.

The nightly transformations begin on Hannah’s 17th birthday. First, she awakens in the bedroom of her family’s Boston apartment with the eyes of a snake. The next morning, she has a wolf’s teeth. Six weeks after Hannah’s mother leaves in search of a cure, an envelope arrives in the mail. It contains an obituary for Jitka Eggers, the maternal grandmother Hannah has never met.

Hannah and her brother, Gabe, are desperate to find their mother and get some answers to what’s happening to Hannah. They travel to Jitka’s village in upstate New York, where the large Jewish family they never knew they had welcomes them into shiva, a Jewish period of mourning.

As Hannah, Gabe and their new friend Ari keep digging, they stumble onto family secrets; meet a folk healer called an opshprekherke; discover a golem and a vengeful, demonic sheyd; and find that, like the present and the past, the real and the fantastical aren’t as far apart as they might seem.

Rebecca Podos explains how it feels to contribute to a golden age of Jewish fantasy.

Author Rebecca Podos packs a lot into From Dust, a Flame, including lovingly detailed descriptions of traditional Jewish practices, tales of creatures from Jewish mysticism and depictions of life in Prague during the Nazi invasion. Its narrative encompasses two time periods plus assorted letters, dreams and folktales—and references to everything from the legends of King Solomon to Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Throughout the novel, Podos explores themes typical of YA literature, including self-image and self-discovery, as well as more mature questions, such as when to protect children and when to let them go. A mystery component encourages readers to question their initial assumptions, and a first romance found when least expected adds queer sexuality to the range of experiences represented.

From Dust, a Flame sits comfortably beside other works of Jewish American YA literature, both classical and recent. As in Jane Yolen’s 1988 novel, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Holocaust-era visions inform a present-day teen’s circumstances, and as in Gavriel Savit’s The Way Back, published in 2020, a host of magical creatures from Jewish mythology intervene in our world and influence the destinies of young adults.

At its core, From Dust, a Flame is a moving story about the enduring power of telling stories.

Read our Q&A with Rebecca Podos.

Rebecca Podos draws on Jewish mythology and culture to craft this moving novel about the enduring power of telling stories.

Readers who revel in sweet and swoony stories will be won over by this trio of tales that celebrate adoration and affection.

Golden Boys

Gabe, Sal, Reese and Heath have been best friends for as long as they can remember. They’re all high achievers and the only openly gay boys at Gracemont High School. But the summer before their senior year, the Golden Boys are heading off in different directions for the first time. Gabe is volunteering with an environmental nonprofit in Boston; Reese is jetting off to Paris for graphic design classes; Sal’s mom got him an internship with a U.S. senator in Washington, D.C.; and Heath is the newest employee at his aunt’s arcade in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The summer holds plenty to look forward to—even for Heath, whose trip is also an escape from his parents’ impending divorce. But as their group chats indicate, the boys’ futures loom large and nerve-wracking. Might their travels help them figure out what they want to do with their lives, or at least with their last year of high school? Will their tightly knit bonds loosen, fray or even completely unravel?

As in his previous novels, The Gravity of Us and As Far As You’ll Take Me, bestselling author Phil Stamper creates winningly realistic characters who earnestly explore the muzzy space between youth and young adulthood. Readers will root for the foursome to find joy and purpose. Stamper’s detailed depictions of the boys’ summer gigs are fascinating, and their interlocking stories give the narrative a buoyant momentum.

Naturally, there are romantic entanglements afoot as well. Gabe and Sal question whether their friends-with-benefits arrangement is sustainable, while unrequited crushes blossom into real love for . . . no spoilers here! Suffice it to say, there is some smooching amid all the moments of inspiration and revelation as the four boys make their way through a perspective-changing, horizon-broadening summer.

Fools in Love

Do you like your love stories fantastical, or perhaps futuristic? Are you a sucker for a superhero, tantalized by time travel or convinced that one day you’ll have your very own meet-cute with a royal in disguise? Whatever your fancy, Fools in Love: Fresh Twists on Romantic Tales is sure to satisfy. It’s a delightful assemblage of 15 swoonworthy short stories that put fresh spins on classic romance fiction tropes such as “mutual pining” and “the grumpy one and the soft one.” The settings are refreshingly varied, ranging from a space station to a fairy-themed sleepaway camp to a sled race through snowy mountains. There are puppeteers, golf champions, novice magical investigators and an aspiring starship repair engineer, too.

The stories in this romantic treasury were written by a mix of acclaimed and up-and-coming authors including Natasha Ngan, Mason Deaver, Lilliam Rivera, Julian Winters and 2021 National Book Award winner Malinda Lo. Editors Ashley Herring Blake and Rebecca Podos also contribute a story each. The table of contents helpfully delineates not only each author but also the trope included in their story, so that readers can search out their favorites. Of course, they can also just dive right in and let themselves be swept along into the wildly creative worlds the writers have created.

And what worlds they are! In “Boys Noise” by Mason Deaver, two boy band members take an undercover trip to New York City, where they realize love songs just might be in their shared future. A modern-day annoyance—mistaking someone’s car for your rideshare—sets the stage for a shyly sweet flirtation in Amy Spalding’s “Five Stars.” Time travel is both suspenseful and achingly beautiful in Rebecca Barrow’s “Bloom,” while cheesy takes on a hilariously adorable new meaning in Laura Silverman’s “The Passover Date.” Fools in Love truly has something to please anyone and everyone who loves love.

One True Loves

Lenore Bennett’s parents are the epitome of Black excellence. They know the power of a plan and have instilled that ethos in their kids: Wally, their oldest, is going to law school; Lenore is off to New York University; and 10-year-old Etta is taking college classes.

But as Elise Bryant’s One True Loves opens, Lenore, a talented artist with fashion sense to spare, has other things on her mind. First, there’s senior prom, which she’ll attend dateless while dodging her jerk of an ex. After graduation, her family is embarking on a European cruise, which sounds wonderful but also stressful. Lenore’s parents already disparage her for trying lots of things instead of mastering one. What will they say if they discover that she’s been concealing the fact that she is still (gasp!) undecided about her college major?

While on the cruise, Lenore guards her secret and fends off her irrepressible best friend Tessa’s well-intended text-message advice about all things romance, which Lenore treats with great skepticism. She’s also highly irritated when she meets handsome Alex Lee, whose parents hit it off with hers. Lenore’s folks are, naturally, impressed by his carefully laid-out plans for medical school. As the cruise sails on, Lenore’s secret weighs ever heavier on her mind, even as her eye-rolling at Alex turns into meaningful glances. Might there be hope for Lenore to find love and fulfillment?

One True Loves is a heartfelt look at what it’s like to feel different from those closest to you and a cautionary tale about the ways in which people-pleasing affects mental health. It’s a winning companion to Bryant’s 2021 debut, Happily Ever Afters, that stands easily on its own, though fans will enjoy the glimpses into familiar characters’ futures. One True Loves offers warm empathy and wise perspective to readers who, like Lenore, are trying to figure out where—and with whom—they might fit in the big wide world.

Three YA novels capture the agony and the ecstasy of being young and in love.

Mirror Girls blends historical fiction and horror to tell the story of Charlie and Magnolia, biracial twin sisters separated at birth after their parents’ murder, and the unforeseen consequences of their unlikely reunion 17 years later.

Author Kelly McWilliams spoke to BookPage about the deeply personal experiences that inform the novel and what it’s like to write what scares you.

Can you introduce us to Charlie and Magnolia?
Magnolia has been raised to believe she’s a white Southern belle, with no knowledge of her racial heritage. When her grandmother admits the truth on her deathbed, Magnolia’s reflection suddenly disappears from every mirror: She’s unmoored after the loss of her self-conception.

Charlie begins the story in New York City, living with her Black grandmother. It’s the dawn of the civil rights movement, and she dreams of being a protester and fighting for justice. But then her grandmother falls ill and wants to be buried in the place she was born: the rural town of Eureka, Georgia, where Magnolia still lives on an old plantation.

So, at the start of the story, both girls have just lost crucial aspects of their identities. Charlie has lost her life in New York, where it was safer (though not fully safe!) for her to defy the racist status quo. Magnolia, in turn, is reeling from the revelation that despite her skin tone, she’s not, in fact, white. Both girls desperately need to find each other in order to construct a new, mixed-race identity from the ashes of their old lives.

You’ve said that your debut novel, Agnes at the End of the World, was inspired by a dream you had. How did Mirror Girls begin?
Mirror Girls is more personal than Agnes, and I think I’ve been making my way toward writing that story for a long time—possibly decades. I grew up in a mixed-race family, and families like mine always have to fight to be seen as family. I can’t tell you how many times people challenged the fact that my brother and I were blood related, just because our skin tone is different. Mixed-race families have to affirm their existence over and over to a society that often chooses not to reflect us. This story was inspired by my own childhood, my own life.

“I grew up in a mixed-race family, and families like mine always have to fight to be seen as family.”

I was also inspired by the photographs of twin sisters Marcia and Millie Briggs, who made the news as infants because one baby presented as white (complete with red hair) and the other as Black. While I found these sisters sweet and inspiring, I recognized that the world was quite puzzled and uneasily fascinated by their existence. The subtext was: What does race even mean if twins can be born with such different racial presentations? And I thought, well, I know the answer to that! In order to survive a world that is still inhospitable to mixed-race families, I had to learn the answer to reconciling my own identity, and it was hard. That journey to self-acceptance felt like a story worth telling.

Mirror Girls has quite a few excellent names for both people and places. How do you find the right names?
For the most part, I just wait for names to come to me—and I know in my gut when I’ve found the right one. Sometimes it’s instant; other times it takes months.

I struggled mightily with the name of the plantation in the book for one horrible reason: There are so, so many plantations that still stand in the South, if only as historical destinations or people’s inherited homes, that I kept imagining names that had an analog in real life, which wasn’t ideal. I probably Googled 10 different names (many ending in –wood) until I found one that didn’t already belong to some plantation somewhere. It gives you a sense of the devastating scale of slavery to have that particular problem.

Both of your novels feature sisters as co-narrators. What elements of sisterhood did you want to explore in Mirror Girls that you didn’t touch on in Agnes? Do you see any commonalities between the two pairs of sisters in each of your books?
I’ll be honest: When I wrote Agnes, I wasn’t quite ready to take on the subject of mixed-race identity. It was too raw and personal for me at that moment in my life. Nevertheless, in that earlier novel, Agnes and Beth also lose their received identities—as oppressed members of a fundamentalist cult—and must fight to claim a new life and to redefine themselves. Part of that journey means understanding each other as sisters, despite their radically different temperaments and despite the fact that, while Agnes escapes the cult, Beth initially chooses to stay.

Charlie and Magnolia fight a parallel battle in the land of Jim Crow, which frankly has always seemed to me much like a malignant cult. In a cult, oppressive leaders tear down their members, trying to bend them to their will. During Jim Crow, Black people were told that we’re second-class citizens, that we don’t deserve what white folks have. Jim Crow explicitly targeted the Black sense of self, trying to force us to accept a damaged reflection of ourselves. To survive, Magnolia and Charlie must affirm, over and over again, their own worth—but they can’t do it alone. Their sisterhood, across class and the color line, becomes a key piece of their identity. Family and familial love is the greatest antidote to a world that insists, at the top of its lungs, that Black girls don’t count and don’t matter.

In addition to exploring sisterhood, Mirror Girls also dives deep into daughters, mothers and grandmothers, and the ways each generation’s actions ripple outward and affect future generations. What drew you to exploring these ideas in this story?
Every Black family in America suffers from intergenerational trauma, especially along our maternal lines. I heard somewhere that 95% of Black Americans are direct descendants of enslaved people, and the crux of chattel slavery as an institution was the separation of children from their mothers on the auction block. That’s an ever-present truth, an inherited cultural memory for every Black mother.

“Family and familial love is the greatest antidote to a world that insists, at the top of its lungs, that Black girls don’t count and don’t matter.”

But intergenerational trauma also takes very personal forms. On the day I was born in a hospital in Maryland, my mother was recovering from a cesarean section when a nurse took me for a checkup. My mother is obviously Black, but I’m extremely light. That nurse didn’t bring me back to my mother; they brought her a Black baby boy instead! Despite our identifying wristbands, that nurse just could not believe that we belonged together. My mother injured herself hollering in the hallway for me, and that story became a huge part of our family identity. In fact, when I gave birth, I remembered what had happened to my mother and worried that if my daughter’s skin tone didn’t match mine, there’d be trouble. It’s a terrible thing to fear that the world will deny your family their basic right to be a family.

Of course, terrible things happen to Black mothers in hospitals every single day, considering the horrible mortality rate. I firmly believe that every bit of maternal suffering causes intergenerational trauma down the line. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters bear so much of that pain. But we also tell the stories that help us to make sense of those traumas. It’s our heritage, and it’s also what we must pass down to help our descendants survive.

Mirror Girls is set in Georgia in 1953, with lots of references to Charlie’s life in Harlem. What sort of research did you do for the book? Were you able to do any travel- or interview-based research?
While deciding on a setting, I read Remembering Jim Crow: African-Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South, which is a collection of oral histories. Hearing those voices, I knew I would set the story during this time of struggle, when survival depended in part on Black folks’ own belief in their self-worth. At this time, elders worked so hard to imbue Black children, who were looked down upon by white society, with a sense of pride.

What I really loved about those oral histories, though, was the amazing specificity. Who knew that Coca-Cola once advertised itself in the South for being a “whites-only” drink in some states? And the segregated water fountains just came up over and over as a source of humiliation. It was really a deep laceration to the soul, to be segregated in those mundane ways.

I had desperately hoped to get down South for this project, but the pandemic prevented me from traveling. I did reach out to a sensitivity reader from the South to help with my understanding of the place.

As for interviews, I guess I did sort of interview my own family! We have a family legend that our last enslaved ancestor, a grandmother, walked off a Georgia plantation after emancipation, which is why I set the story there. Black families have long memories, but you do sometimes have to specifically ask the elders in your life to tell them. There’s quite a bit that the older generation often keeps to themselves because the stories are so painful to speak out loud.

I loved the book’s references to three real-life figures: Caleb Hill, Walter White and Ella Baker. Why was including each of these figures important to you and to the story?
My book is in part about an imagined lynching, that of Charlie and Magnolia’s parents. I included Caleb Hill’s name and tragic fate because it’s so important that we remember that lynchings really happened, en masse, in the real world. Caleb Hill died at a time when New York’s NAACP headquarters was keeping very careful track of Southern lynchings, so it was also the exact type of event that would have formed a bridge between the South and New York at the time. Northern brothers and sisters never stopped decrying Southern brutalities, and lynchings especially.

“Knowledge is power, and feeling empowered leads to feeling less scared, in the end.”

As for Ella Baker, she’s Charlie’s role model, because she’s not only an activist, she’s also a leader in a sexist time. I imagine Charlie following in her footsteps.

Finally, as I’m a woman light enough to pass for white, Walter Francis White is perhaps my very favorite historical figure of all time. Naturally, he becomes Magnolia’s as well, as she’s establishing her identity as a biracial person. Walter White could easily pass, but he chose not to. This brother had blond hair and blue eyes! In his early years, he acted as a sort of spy, investigating Southern lynchings for the NAACP. He put himself in grave danger pretending to be white to extract information from murderers. There’s a story that, at one point, he had to jump onto a moving train to save his own life. I just love that though he could have chosen the easy way out—pretending to be white to further his own opportunities—he dedicated his life to the Black community. And he used his light-skinned privilege to do something good for others.

Your first book combined the “cult escape” narrative with a pandemic story, and Mirror Girls seamlessly blends historical fiction and horror. What do you enjoy about stirring different genres together? Are there other genres you’d love to combine in the future?
I love to stir up genres, and I think it’s because I genuinely feel that life is too messy to be captured by one genre alone. There’s also a tension that two distinct genres place on each other that leads to fruitful and interesting narratives. Genre mashups also help you to avoid writing plot points that are too cliché.

I do have some combos I hope to write one day! One is a Western combined with a spy novel (actually based on the life of Walter White), but my next project is a single genre: a contemporary social satire. Genre mashups, while rewarding, are hard to pull off, and I need a short break!

In an interview, you once said that you tend to write what scares you. Do you ever have to take a break from writing because you’ve scared yourself? What makes you feel brave?
The things that scare me exist in the real world: patriarchy, white supremacy and racism, and I’m thinking about and dealing with them every single day. In a weird way, writing about those things is itself my break from the awfulness of reality. Writing what scares you is oddly therapeutic, the way nightmares are. I have to work through my thoughts about these heavy topics in order to stay grounded in my real life. It’s like a very demanding form of self-care.

When I’m finished with a book, I’ve usually worked out some of the troubles in my own head and squared my thoughts on these heavy topics and how we should respond to them. Knowledge is power, and feeling empowered leads to feeling less scared, in the end.

What will you take away from the writing of this book?
When I was in middle school, I struggled to look into mirrors, because I just could not square the racial identity that I hold so dear with my own light face. By the time I hit my 20s, mirrors and I were on better terms, but in another, deeper way, I was still avoiding a certain type of mirror: my own writing. I did not write about white passing or light-skinned existence or the struggles of mixed families. Or, I suppose, I was writing about those things, but they were extremely sublimated.

Now, in my 30s, I finally feel strong enough to write more explicitly from my own personal experience. It’s been absolutely revelatory. I’ve never felt so at peace with my own racial ambiguity, and I’m finally beginning to process and even speak about the core traumas of my mixed childhood. My book is dedicated to mirror girls of every color, everywhere—and come to think of it, that includes me.

Read our starred review of ‘Mirror Girls.’

Author photo of Kelly McWilliams courtesy of Black Forest Photography.

Author Kelly McWilliams talks about the deeply personal experiences that shaped Mirror Girls and what it’s like to write what scares you.

A haunted, decaying mansion. A cemetery that’s being disinterred. Dead souls that seem to come back to life and beckon to teenage twin sisters separated at birth. These are just a few of the wonderfully mysterious elements in Mirror Girls, Kelly McWilliams’ second YA novel.

As if slowly building terror and suspense weren’t enough, the book is also an exceptional work of historical fiction set in 1953 Eureka, Georgia. McWilliams’ genre blending works remarkably well, although perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the days of segregation and lynchings were a horror show. What better way to confront this era than with a horror story?

As in McWilliams’ first book, Agnes at the End of the World, two sisters narrate Mirror Girls. Charlie and Magnolia are born in 1936 to Marie, who is Black, and Dean, the wealthy white heir to Heathwood Plantation. Their young parents are murdered as they drive north to be married, leaving behind their infant daughters. Marie’s mother takes darker-skinned Charlie to live in Harlem, where she becomes a civil rights activist. Meanwhile, Dean’s mother raises light-skinned Magnolia as a privileged white Southern belle in their crumbling plantation. The girls have no idea about each other’s existence until Charlie brings her dying Nana back to Eureka, setting the plot explosively in motion.

Author Kelly McWilliams reveals why she’s drawn to writing what scares her.

Once Magnolia learns that she is Black, she realizes that she will have to choose between continuing to live a lie or embracing her heritage as well as her twin sister. Her choice becomes a matter of life and death: After Grandmother Heathwood dies, Magnolia is unable to eat, drink or see her own reflection in a mirror. This is an effective device; as Charlie notes, “It never ceases to haunt me—the unpredictable ways colored folk are reflected in a white eye.”

McWilliams is an excellent stage manager, pacing the action well and keeping the stakes high. The sisters’ alternating voices immerse readers in what life was like during Jim Crow for both white and Black people, and Magnolia’s emerging consciousness is especially well done. A few characters, including Grandmother Heathwood and Magnolia’s beau, Finch, sometimes seem stereotypical; however, even they ultimately have a few surprises up their sleeves.

Mirror Girls is a spine-tingling, empowering look at justice and civil action that urges readers to be aware, to be true to themselves and to take action. As Magnolia observes, “As twin sisters, white and Black, we are a symbol of coming victory. A promise of change.”

Read our Q&A with Kelly McWilliams.

This story of biracial twin sisters separated at birth and the reckoning that comes when they reunite is a remarkable blend of historical fiction and horror.

In the city of Setar, the capital of the kingdom of Ardunia, Alizeh works her fingers to the bone all day cleaning the 116-rooms of Baz House, a noble estate. At night, she works on commissions as she tries to establish herself as a seamstress. She can only survive this exhausting schedule because of her supernatural strength and endurance. Alizeh is Jinn, and while Jinn and humans have coexisted for many years, Jinn are considered untrustworthy and are not allowed to openly use their magic.

Even among Jinn, Alizeh is extraordinary, with more reason than most to put up with the abuses of life among the servant class. She has been on the run since the death of her parents, and a noble house with a large staff and plentiful security is the perfect place to hide. Yet there are parts of Alizeh’s story that are unknown even to her.

Kamran, crown prince of Ardunia, is destined to succeed his grandfather as king. On a visit home from his military duties, Kamran notices a strange interaction between a street urchin and a servant girl, and fears the servant girl may be a spy from the rival kingdom of Tulan. His suspicions set in motion a series of events he cannot control as Alizeh becomes a wanted woman who is believed to be a significant threat to the king. Kamran’s conflicting principles—loyalty to his king and conviction that Alizeh is not a danger—draw him down a path to find out the truth for himself.

A retelling of “Cinderella” complete with an aspiring seamstress on a crash course toward a fateful royal ball, This Woven Kingdom masterfully incorporates influences from Persian and Muslim history, culture and mythology. Exceedingly powerful but not invulnerable, the novel’s Jinn are an intriguing addition to the YA canon of such figures. Setar is vibrantly evoked, and its wintry climate and snowy landscape set it apart from books with similar plots and themes.

The novel’s standout feature is its language. This Woven Kingdom is a fairy-tale retelling that actually sounds like a fairy tale: Its characters speak like they’re in one, using formal tones and sophisticated vocabularies. That is not to say the novel is devoid of levity. Indeed, the grandiosity of Alizeh and Kamran’s banter adds to the intoxicating sense of wonder and flirtation that marks their interactions.

Tightly paced, with a rollicking set of twists and revelations and a chaotic climax that leads straight to a whopping cliffhanger of an ending, This Woven Kingdom is an exceptional fantasy that blends its various influences to addictive effect.

Tahereh Mafi masterfully incorporates Persian and Muslim influences into this exceptional, addictive “Cinderella” retelling.

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