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YA author Kate McGovern’s first novel for younger readers is the story of a girl who has been keeping a big secret: She can’t read very well. When her secret is discovered and she is held back a year, she struggles to conceal the reason from her friends and classmates.

Secrets are an important theme throughout the book: why we keep them, how hard it is to continue them, the effects they have on our friends and family. What drew you to exploring the power and peril of secrecy?
I was interested in exploring the question of how and why we keep secrets from ourselves as much as from other people. Maple obviously knows she has a hard time reading. But she has also been hiding from this reality, by finding tricks to avoid facing her struggles head-on. I think when we don’t want to tell other people something about ourselves, it’s very often because we are afraid that saying that thing out loud will make it more real—even though of course that isn’t usually true! So keeping this secret from other people is really Maple’s way of protecting herself from dealing with her own emotions about how hard it is for her to do something that she perceives other people can do more easily.

In your acknowledgments, you note that you’ve worked in education for many years, including as a reading tutor for young people, and that this book is “the meeting of my worlds.” Will you share a bit more about that with us?
I’ve always loved working with kids. Even as a high school and college student, I gravitated toward opportunities to volunteer with younger kids, to babysit and to work as a camp counselor, that kind of thing. One of my first jobs out of college was with an incredible organization called the Harlem Children’s Zone. I should be clear that I was not a certified or even particularly well-trained reading interventionist! But I was hired to help middle school students who were struggling with reading, so that’s what I tried to do. And that kicked off a deeper passion for working within education. After graduate school, I spent a year as a teaching assistant at an elementary school in London, and when I came back to the U.S. I started working in education nonprofits. 

For the last decade or so, I’ve been writing fiction for kids in my “spare time” and working directly with students or writing about education in my “work time.” There hasn’t been much overlap. With Maple, I’ve had the chance to tell a story that deals with issues I’ve been exposed to through work, such as how and why students can get to older grades without fluent reading skills, which is really much more common than you might think.

“I want readers to understand that Maple’s experience is truly just one person’s experience.”

You do a wonderful job of immersing readers in Maple’s mind so they can experience her reading challenges, from how words and pages appear to her to her feelings as she struggles to comprehend what she sees. Can you tell us about the research you did that helped to ensure these moments felt true and real?
Since I’ve been working in education for a while, both in and out of schools, I’m lucky in that I have a lot of colleagues and former colleagues who know a lot more than I do about reading instruction! I started there, just asking them to talk to me about what Maple’s struggles might feel like, tricks she might use to hide them, what types of interventions her teachers could use to support her and that kind of thing. There are also a lot of online resources that I found incredibly useful, such as understood.org, which has these great videos that show students talking about what it feels like to have different kinds of learning disabilities. 

Through one of my former colleagues, I was introduced to an amazing reading interventionist named Trish Geraghty, who was generous enough to read the entire manuscript, give me notes and make sure everything rang true based on her and her students’ experiences. I also drew on my own experiences with students. I thought a lot about how they were gifted in so many ways, but how often they didn’t have a chance to show off those gifts in school because reading had become a barrier. I was really inspired by my former students and how wonderful and special they each were in their own ways.

Learning differences are quite common in children and adults, especially dyslexia. What stood out to you most as you learned about the range and scope of reading challenges?
That’s a really important point. I want readers to understand that Maple’s experience is truly just one person’s experience. We often tend to think of dyslexia as that thing where you flip letters around, but it’s much, much more than that. It was eye-opening to me when one of the reading experts I spoke with used the phrase “characteristics of dyslexia” to refer to this huge umbrella of reading challenges. She helped me see it as much more than just a single diagnosis.

Maple’s parents are very interested in her life and sincerely care about her happiness, so they’re disappointed with themselves when they realize they missed how much trouble she’d been having with reading. Why was it important to you to include their perspective?
I wanted to explore how Maple’s parents might have missed this big thing that was going on for their child—not to blame them for missing it, but to show how parents are human, too. We make mistakes, and sometimes we are guilty of putting our own expectations on our kids without recognizing who they really are as their own people.

Maple and her parents refer to her as a “Hin-Jew” because she’s Hindu and Jewish, and as “Whindian,” white and Indian. You’ve said that Maple’s family reflects your own. Why was it important to you that the Mehta-Cohens reflected your family? Did basing this aspect of these characters on personal reality make writing them easier, or more challenging?
I wanted to write a book that my own kids could (eventually) pick up and see themselves in. It’s a wonderful thing to watch children’s literature diversifying so rapidly, but biracial and multiracial protagonists and families are still a little bit less common. I especially wanted to write a story in which the family looked like ours, but in a narrative that wasn’t all about being a multicultural family, because in our house, our lives are made richer by our mix of cultures, but we have a lot of other things going on, too. 

Using our family as the jumping-off point definitely made the writing process easier. I was able to pull in very familiar details, and I also had readily available readers (i.e., my husband) who could fact-check for me! (I should add, though, that Maple’s family isn’t exactly ours. They’re still fiction! One fun way that we’re different is that my family has grandparents raised in four different traditions—Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Jainism. I simplified!)

Read our review of ‘Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen.'

Some characters are mean to Maple when they find out she was held back a grade, but Maple’s harshest critic is often herself. Will you share a bit about why reading challenges might be so central to her identity and to how she feels about herself?
I think Maple feels conflicted internally because she identifies as a person who loves books and stories, so she feels like she should be able to read well. Her reading struggles don’t fit with her idea of who she is. Of course, her challenges with reading independently have nothing to do with her love for great stories and her own gift of storytelling. There’s no reason you can’t love stories and also have a hard time with reading fluently! But it takes time for Maple to recognize that and to embrace all the parts of who she is.

Will you tell us a little about fifth and sixth grade Kate and who she was as a reader? Do you think your teachers would be surprised to learn that you grew up to become a published author?
I don’t think they’d be surprised at all. I was a lot like Maple, actually, although I did not personally struggle with reading fluency. I used to tell myself stories out loud in my room, pacing back and forth. For years and years, my mind was constantly spinning stories. I was and still am very much a nose-in-a-book kind of person.

YA author Kate McGovern’s first novel for younger readers is the story of a girl who has been keeping a big secret: She can’t read very well.

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.

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.

Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall are two of the most decorated children’s book creators working today, so their first collaboration qualifies as a major event. The Beatryce Prophecy is an illustrated fantasy tale about a girl, a goat and the power of the written word, and DiCamillo’s and Blackall’s many fans are going to adore it. BookPage spoke with the author and the illustrator about the surprises and joys of working together for the first time.


Kate, you’ve said that you wrote this story by “following the goat and the girl.” Can you introduce us to Beatryce and Answelica? Did this story begin with them?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloKate DiCamillo: Beatryce is a girl who can read and write in a time and place when it is against the law for a girl to do either. And Answelica is the hardheaded, large-souled goat who becomes Beatryce’s friend and protector.

OK, that’s the introductions—now, on to the thornier question of where the story began. I’ve gone back through my notebooks, and all I can find is a few words right before I started to write: monk, moon, goat.

Two of those words became central to the book. Which is to say, I started with the goat, and she led me to the rest of the story—a story that was a complete surprise and wonder to me.

You began writing it in 2009, then you put it away for almost a decade, only to rediscover it while cleaning out a closet. Do you remember why you initially put it away? How do you think the years between impacted the book?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: I don’t know why I put it away. I can’t find any notes about that. My guess is that I wanted a story that was lighter, funnier (my mother had passed away at the beginning of the year), and I had this story about a squirrel and a vacuum cleaner and poetry that seemed funny to me.

When I did unearth the early draft of Beatryce, it had been so long that I was able to read it as something that I didn’t write—and that helped me see that there was something there, a story that needed to be told. Does that make sense?

“I feel like I became my true self when I learned how to read.”

Kate DiCamillo

As to how the years in between impacted it—I guess just that. There was this sense of urgency. As if the story had been waiting, as if Answelica and Beatryce had been waiting. They needed me to tell their story.

And all the closets (and drawers and file cabinets) have been cleaned now!

You’ve dedicated The Beatryce Prophecy to your mother. Beatryce’s mother, Aslyn, plays a critical role in the novel, instilling strength, courage and a love of books and stories in her daughter. Are there connections between your mother and Beatryce’s mother?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: It wasn’t until the book was done that I started to think about my mother’s impact on me as a writer, but most importantly as a reader. I struggled to learn to read. Phonics didn’t make sense to me. And I was so desperate to read. I remember crying to my mother in first grade about how I didn’t understand phonics. And she said something like, “Oh, for the love of Pete, don’t get so upset. You’re smart. We’ll just work around it.” And then she made me flash cards. A word on each flash card. And she had me memorize the words. And that worked for me.

Word by word, my mother gave me the world. She taught me to become myself.

This isn’t the first of your novels to function as an ode to reading, writing and storytelling. Why do you return to these themes?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: I feel like I became my true self when I learned how to read. I felt, then, as if anything was possible. I still feel that way about books and stories. They let us be ourselves, discover who we are and who we can become. I guess I keep returning to this thematically because I can’t get over the wonder and gift of books, stories, the written word.

I think readers love your willingness to ask big questions and to explore big ideas and emotions. “Who could understand the world?” and “How much could a heart hold?” are two of the questions posed by The Beatryce Prophecy. What does it feel like when you’re writing and a question like that comes out?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: What does it feel like? It feels like a cry from my 8-year-old heart. I remember doing an event in Boston and a boy raised his hand and said something like, “Why do you pose all these philosophical questions in books for kids?” And I said, “Because kids are the ones who are brave enough to ask those questions. When you’re an adult, you stop asking, you stop wondering.”

“When my editor sent a new piece of Sophie’s art, I couldn’t resist emailing her directly and saying, ‘This art, this art. What a gift in such a dark time. You are drawing my heart.'”

Kate DiCamillo

Did you always envision The Beatryce Prophecy as an illustrated novel? How did Sophie come to be involved with the book?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: I knew as I was working on it that it had to have (at least) illuminated letters. And when I was done writing, I asked my agent and Candlewick, my publisher, “Is there any way that Sophie Blackall could illustrate this?” And miracle of miracles, it happened. Sophie said yes.

Author photo of Sophie BlackallSophie Blackall: In Iate 2019, I received an email from Chris Paul, the creative director at Candlewick Press, with Kate’s manuscript for The Beatryce Prophecy attached, along with an outline of the publishing plan for the book. It mentioned a special slipcase edition. The words slipcase edition are hypnotic to an illustrator. But even without the slipcase, I would have said yes on the spot.

Sophie, you were probably one of the first people to read The Beatryce Prophecy ever, in the whole world. What did you think the first time you read it?

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: When the email with the manuscript arrived, I was about to step out the door, on my way to somewhere or other. I read the first page. I put down my bag, took off my coat, canceled the something or other and, with goosebumps on my arms, read The Beatryce Prophecy from beginning to end. I felt a rush of gratitude for these characters. I felt I already knew them like dear friends. The honor of being one of the earliest readers is not lost on me, but I have also been impatient to share this book with the world. Keeping it a secret was almost too much to bear.

Authors usually don’t communicate directly with illustrators. Sometimes they don’t even meet each other! But you emailed back and forth as Sophie worked on the illustrations during the pandemic. What was this correspondence like?

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: I can’t remember who emailed first. I know I was bursting to talk to Kate. I tried to be restrained, but my messages tumbled out, all essentially thanking her for this gift. The gift of a story that brought me solace and comfort and joy during an otherwise uncertain and worrying time. The gift of Beatryce and Answelica, Brother Edik and Jack Dory and Cannoc. The gift of beautiful things to draw: a mermaid and a wolf, seahorses and bees, meadows and moons.

“Kate DiCamillo writes up. Her sentences, which are full of beautifully arranged, interesting and even challenging words, are honest, fearless and clear.”

Sophie Blackall

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: I had already written the text and Sophie was working on the illustrations during the pandemic, and technically (as you say) we shouldn’t have communicated directly, but we already knew each other. Every once in a while, when my editor sent a new piece of Sophie’s art, I couldn’t resist emailing her directly and saying, “This art, this art. What a gift in such a dark time. You are drawing my heart.”

And things like that.

You both realized, independently of each other, that you were thinking about Joan of Arc as you developed Beatryce’s character and appearance. What impact did this historical figure have on Beatryce?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: I was working on Beatryce’s story when I took a trip to Washington, D.C. I was in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I walked into a room with this huge Joan of Arc triptych (“The Adoration of Joan of Arc” by J. William Fosdick), and it just kind of . . . undid me. I took a picture of it and kept the art nearby. It just felt like the story to me, like Beatryce.

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: I think the image of Joan of Arc popped into my head at the moment when Brother Edik cuts Beatryce’s hair. Beatryce, like Joan of Arc, is a girl who defies expectations. Like Joan, she is determined, brave and resourceful. Like Joan, she carries hope in her heart and faith that “we shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home.”

Sophie, what other things did you research as you worked on these illustrations? How did that research find its way into your work?

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: I worked closely with the creative director, Chris Paul, who had a detailed vision for the way the book would look, inspired by wallpaper, textile and type patterns of the designer William Morris, who in turn was inspired by medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts. This was another gift, because after reading the manuscript I found myself strolling through museums and poring over books on Morris and medieval manuscripts, making involuntary sounds of delight, and so we were very much on the same page.

Can you tell us about the nuts and bolts of illustrating the book?

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: Considering we were hundreds of miles apart and in the midst of a pandemic, Chris and I worked very closely on the art direction for this book. It is a beautiful object and we considered every fraction of every inch of every page. There are stories within stories, which gave us many creative opportunities. Ordinarily I work with Chinese ink and pencil and watercolor, but because we were all sheltering in place and I wasn’t sure about sending physical art, I decided to work digitally. The beauty of this was that once I had found what the characters looked like, I could direct them in a scene as though they were actors in a film. I would find myself talking to Jack Dory, for instance, asking him to lift his chin a little. Raise his arm. Look a little more pleased with himself. And I could move the images around and experiment with scale and perspective far more efficiently than if I was using pencil on paper.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Beatryce Prophecy.

I have to ask about goats. Kate, there are a number of prominent animal characters across your body of work, from Ulysses the squirrel to Despereaux the mouse and Winn-Dixie the dog. Was Answelica always a goat? Did you know much about goats before beginning to work on the book? Did you spend time with goats as you worked on it?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: Ha! I wish that I could spend some time with goats. I didn’t. I haven’t. But this character of Answelica arrived so clearly, so emphatically, that it really was just a matter of following along behind her. I did spend quite a bit of time gazing at goat eyes in various books. They’re spectacular, those eyes, and I’ve always been fascinated by them.

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: I hold a special affection for Answelica. When I was 10, I had a goat. Her name was Josephine and her ears were like velvet. I had to give her away when we moved (we moved a lot), but the Josephine year was a good one. All children should have a goat year.

Kate, what do you love most about Sophie’s illustrations in the book? Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: There’s a two-page spread of Beatryce being spirited away and a story in the sky above her (like a constellation) that literally makes my heart skip a beat.

Every piece of art that Sophie did is so heartfelt, luminous. It’s a gift to me and to the reader.

Sophie, what do you love most about Kate’s storytelling in the book? Do you have a favorite passage you could share with us?

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: E.B. White once said, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting [their] time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”

Kate DiCamillo writes up. Her sentences, which are full of beautifully arranged, interesting and even challenging words, are honest, fearless and clear.

As for a favorite passage, I might choose a different one tomorrow, but right now I am going to give you one that arrives quite early on. Brother Edik has discovered Beatryce, sick and lost, guarded by a fearsome goat. He tells the goat, Answelica, his plan to care for the child, which gives us a sense of the transformative relationship between the three. The way he feels at the end of the passage is how I felt while reading this book.

Brother Edik bent and gathered her in his arms. Her skin was hot to the touch. She was burning with fever.

“She is very sick,” Brother Edik said to the goat who was staring up at him. “The first thing we must attempt to do is to bring the fever down. And we must wash her. We must remove the dirt and blood. She has come from some war, I suppose. Do you not think it so?”

Answelica nodded.

“Lord help me,” thought Brother Edik, “I am conferring with a goat.”

He walked out of the barn and into the light of day carrying the child. The frost had melted. The world no longer shone, but it was very bright.

Answelica was at his heels.

He turned and looked back at her. He saw that the goat’s eyes were gentle, full of concern.

Strange world! Impossible world!

Brother Edik felt his heart, light within him, almost as if it were filled with air.

At one point, Beatryce tells Brother Edik, “Stories have joy and surprises in them.” What surprises did you encounter as you worked on this book? What joys?

Author photo of Sophie BlackallBlackall: While making the drawings for the book, I was so immersed in illuminating the world of Beatryce’s story that there were times I would look up and not remember making the lines on the page. It was as if the images appeared fully formed. When I wrote to Kate about this phenomenon, she reported something similar as she was writing The Beatryce Prophecy. As though this story and its characters already existed. That’s magic right there.

Author photo of Kate DiCamilloDiCamillo: The surprise for me was discovering (when I was done) how much my mother’s spirit is in these pages.

The joy? The joy was in getting to do it—getting to tell the story—and then to watch Sophie tell the story again in art. Talk about joy.


Author photo of Kate DiCamillo courtesy of Catherine Smith Photography.

Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall are two of the most decorated children’s book creators working today, so their first collaboration qualifies as a major event.

It’s difficult to think of a bigger children’s literature success story from the past decade than R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. The emotional tale about the importance of kindness has sold more than 12 million copies since it was published in 2012 and still regularly earns a spot on bestseller lists. In Pony, Palacio creates a very different tale: a slim, taut odyssey set in the American Midwest in 1860, anchored by a young boy named Silas, whom readers will find as irresistible as Auggie. BookPage chatted with Palacio about why she had to throw her new novel away (literally) in order to unlock the key to writing it.

Could you start by introducing us to Silas and Pa?
Silas is a 12-year-old boy growing up in an isolated house on the American frontier. He’s being lovingly raised by his widowed father, Martin, who’s an inventor and something of a genius, with only 16-year-old Mittenwool, whom no one else can see or hear, for a companion. Silas, it turns out, can see ghosts.

The story opens when three horsemen storm their little house in the middle of the night and take Pa away. Silas is left alone and quite shaken, so when the white-faced pony that one of the men had been leading shows up on his doorstep the next day, Silas takes it as a sign from the universe that he has to ride the pony in search of his father. Mittenwool, who is very protective of Silas, tries to talk him out of it, but Silas is determined to go.

The book is called Pony, so I have to ask: Do you ride? Do you like horses?
I love horses! When Iw as little, I used to draw them all the time. I would doodle them in my notebooks. I was obsessed—so much so that my parents got me horseback riding lessons when I was about 8 years old. Imagine two Colombian immigrants shelling out money they didn't have so they could give their daughter weekly riding lessons in Flushing, New York. It was kind of crazy, but they did it. I only took lessons for a few years, and no, I don't have a horse now or ride. I can still draw horses, though!

Family history, revealed in pieces over time, is such an important motif in Pony. Did any of your family’s stories inspire parts of Silas’ story?
The whole story of Pony was sparked by a scary dream my older son had when he was young. The events of the dream are different, but the imagery was taken right out of his head.

“We hold the people we love close to us, no matter where they are.”

I had my father in my mind when describing Martin. My dad was easily the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, an encyclopedia of knowledge. He could build anything, make anything, remember everything. He was the kind of father who would wake me up in the middle of the night so we could go up to the roof of our building to watch a meteor shower.

And of course, my mother is someone I speak with every day, even though she’s been gone for almost 20 years. We hold the people we love close to us, no matter where they are. I think of this book as a love letter to my mom and dad.

How did you develop the rules for the novel’s ghosts?
Silas sees and experiences the ghosts in Pony as they see and experience themselves. If they wear the wounds of their deaths, that’s how he sees them. If they don’t know they’re dead, Silas also doesn’t know they’re dead.

As to why some people stay behind and some don’t, Silas doesn’t know, and neither do they. He guesses that some people are more ready to go than others. Some people may have things they still want to see through. But in time, when they’re ready, they pass on. Everyone does eventually. Which is what I wanted to say: People leave us, but not forever.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had an encounter with something you couldn’t explain?
I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve experienced a sense of connection with loved ones who are no longer here. Whether that’s internal or external, whether there’s a science to it or it’s just wishful thinking, I can’t tell you. I don’t know. That’s part of the mystery of life, which is what this book is about. Silas learns to embrace the mysteries.

Pony features incredible old photographs throughout the book. You discuss these in your author’s note, but can you tell us a little bit about them here?
This book takes place during the dawn of early photography. New processes were being invented all over the world. People were experimenting with the incredible notion of being able to use sunlight and a mix of chemicals to freeze an image onto glass or paper. It’s pretty extraordinary! Silas’ father is one of those early tinkerers and invents a new form of photography.

“If you answer every question, you ruin the mystery for the reader. We can’t see everything in the dark. We see only what we shine a light on.”

I’ve had a daguerreotype collection for years, long before I wrote this book. I’ve always been drawn to old cameras and photographs in flea markets and antiques shops. As I was writing, faces from my collection would come to me. They helped form the characters in my mind. Ultimately, as I designed the book, I decided to use the images that literally inspired the characters as chapter openers.

In addition to your passion for old photographs, do you enjoy photography yourself?
I was a photographer for my school yearbook in middle school, which is when I got my first Pentax K1000 camera, and I've been hooked ever since. I love taking photographs on film, but I shoot digitally now, though I do miss the feeling of processing a latent image in a darkroom.

Your author’s note begins, “I spent many years researching this book, and I hope none of it shows.” Authors are often asked to discuss their research process, but instead, I want to ask you: Can you tell us about the work you did to hide all that research?
I was 400 pages into the first draft of Pony, which represented about two years of work, when I realized it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I had so many notes, so much information. I knew how many miles and hours an Arabian horse could ride in a day. I knew their provenance, the name of the Bedouin tribe that Pony had come from. I knew the different photographic processes, what kind of lanterns were used, the names of real counterfeiters, the types of horse carts that were driven. I had topographic maps of the woods and the ravines and, well, so much!

I had a vision in my mind about the kind of novel I wanted Pony to be: a “quick epic.” That first draft, had I continued it, would have turned into a James Michener novel! So I literally threw it away. And I do mean that literally. But the story stayed with me, even as I worked on other projects. I knew I’d figure out a way to write it with the minimalism I had in my head for it.

“It was really challenging to tell a story with as few words as you can.”

After years had passed, I suddenly had a vision for how to approach it. I realized that I’d remembered all the essential parts of the research I’d done and forgotten what wasn’t important. The research had settled into the recesses of my mind, and that’s what made its way into the book. The woods became the Woods. The ravine was the Ravine. The only map of the world I needed was the one in Silas’ mind. That’s not to say the world wasn’t built, because it was—utterly and completely—but it didn’t need to be fully described.

The world is full of mysterious pockets and unexplainable and unfathomable crevices. That’s the kind of world I wanted to build. If you answer every question, you ruin the mystery for the reader. We can’t see everything in the dark. We see only what we shine a light on. That’s what I was trying to do here.

I kept saying I wanted to write Pony almost like it was a radio play, just voices in the dark, and then during lockdown, it started flowing out of me one day. It was a remarkable writing experience.

Your note also says, “Historical novels can be seen as road maps through history, but this book is more like a river running through it.” I love this metaphor. What were the challenges of telling a story with such a tight focus? What was rewarding about it?
It was really challenging to tell a story with as few words as you can. I kept trying to strip every sentence of words. Paragraphs. Pages. I wanted to get everything down to the bare minimum: enough to deliver an idea of the world, describe a linear sequence of events, and let the story almost tell itself. In that way, the narrative felt more like a river. It’s just barreling through. Going in one direction. And that’s all the reader gets.

Now, as the river passes through, we get the idea that it’s passing through other stories. We know there’s a lot going on with the other characters. The picaresque adventures of Chalfont and Beautyman, two characters Silas meets along his journey, could fill their own novel! But, see, that would have been part of that original epic that I had started to write. It’s not the epic I wanted to write, though.

The final version of Pony really is the closest I could get to the image in my head of what I wanted to do. Good or bad, right or wrong: It’s faithful to the image.

The bestselling author of Wonder reveals why she had to throw her new novel away (literally) in order to unlock the key to writing it.

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, the acclaimed young adult and romance author Zoraida Córdova takes inspiration from her Ecuadorian heritage to create a family saga that’s more than worthy of its comparisons to works by Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. An instant classic, Córdova’s tale is complex but ceaselessly compelling, and features some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any genre this year.


You’ve won acclaim for your YA and romance novels, and Orquídea is your first adult fantasy. Who did you write Orquídea for? Was it for a specific audience, or more of a story you felt you just needed to tell?
Every book I write is for myself. My YA is for my teen self, who hungered for magical stories. My middle grade is for the painfully shy kid I once was, one who wanted adventure. My adult romance is for the version of myself that denies being a romantic (though I am). The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is for the person I am now. It was always meant to be an adult novel, though its inspiration came from a short story I wrote for the YA witch anthology Toil & Trouble. The more I explored the characters, who’ve changed quite a bit from the short story source, the more I knew there was no way this book could be YA.

Many of your previous novels have belonged to series or collections. Do you envision Orquídea as the start of a new series?
No, the story of the Montoyas was always going to be a standalone. I’m starting to become very partial to standalones. There are a lot fewer rules to keep track of from book to book.

“I wanted to pose the question, ‘What price would you pay for survival?’”

All of the names in the book have meanings that are important to the plot, but you only explicitly explain some of them. Where did you get the inspiration behind the names you chose?
As with all my books, I reach for family names first. Orquídea’s name [which means orchid in Spanish] was originally Rosa, but the more I wrote her backstory, it didn’t feel right. As for Marimar, Orquídea’s granddaughter, I borrowed the name from “Marimar,” my favorite telenovela starring Mexican superstar Thalia. I spend way too much time on names and will sometimes fill entire pages with a character’s name, plus alternates, until it looks, sounds and feels right when I speak it.

How did the story change between when you started writing it and when you finished?
This book taught me how to slow down. Young adult editors tend to give suggestion notes like “cut for pacing” quite a bit. When it came to Orquídea, my editor at Atria gave me breathing room and space to explore the heart of the story. Every editorial round was another layer of a large house, but that house needs a strong foundation.

There’s an amazing amount of detail in your characterizations! How did you go about deciding which details mattered and how to weave them into the final book?
I wish I had a better answer than “I write for myself first.” But I do. I’m a visual writer and spend a lot of time thinking about what a scene looks like. Smells like. Sounds like. I need to want to live there first. Then, my editor comes in and tells me when I’ve gone too far or not far enough.

You draw on your own family stories throughout the novel, but were there other key inspirations behind the fantastical elements of this book?
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is perhaps the first time some readers are going to read about an Ecuadorian family. That is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting for obvious reasons, but terrifying because it’s hard to encompass all the experiences of any one place. I pulled from my own family stories for inspiration. For instance, when I was a little girl, my uncle had a visible scar on his belly, and he told 5-year-old Zoraida that he’d wrestled a crocodile in the river. I don’t know if that actually happened, but that was the inspiration for the River Monster that Orquídea meets. It was also important to me to include bits of history about Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is why I set pivotal scenes on the Cerro Santa Ana, the birthplace of the city, as well as La Atarazana, which is where I grew up. I hope readers enjoy those details.

How did the need to incorporate both English and Spanish impact your writing, especially with a story that’s in conversation with classic Spanish-language magical realism?
Spanish is my first language. When I was in junior high school, I was embarrassed to speak it because there were a few kids who made fun of me. We’re also living in a xenophobic climate where we see videos of Spanish speakers getting screamed at or accosted for speaking something that isn’t English. I’m proud to speak two languages, and when I write a Spanish-speaking character or family, it’s only natural that Spanish should be incorporated, even if it’s in small phrases. Magical realism, as a literary movement, sprung from Latin America, which is another reason why I didn’t pull back from any instance where a character speaks Spanish.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina.


Do you think of the magic in your book as an intrinsic part of the world you built or as a foreign entity?
Absolutely intrinsic. The magic is a part of Orquídea’s journey and the very thing that gives her the ability to transform and survive. I did want to balance the magic with the contemporary world. I wanted to pose the question, “What price would you pay for survival?” The answer is of course extrapolated into the magical.

Author photo by Melanie Barbosa.

Zoraida Córdova’s first adult fantasy is an instant classic.

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