Julie C. Dao: Women I Write Should Never, Ever Be Underestimated

Originally published on Bookish.com, an editorially independent division of NetGalley.

Bookshelf, bookshelf, on the wall. What is the most anticipated fall release of all? To be fair, there are quite a few. But Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has been at the top of our list for a while. It’s a dark fairy tale retelling that reimagines the Evil Queen from “Snow White” rising to power in a world inspired by Imperial China. To celebrate the book’s release, we chatted with Dao about writing a villain, the power of beauty, and why you should never, ever underestimate any of her female characters.

Bookish: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a retelling/origin story for the Evil Queen from “Snow White.” Which elements of the original tale or character did you want to keep? Which elements did you want to leave behind?

Julie C. Dao: I wanted it to be a completely original reimagining of “Snow White” that was like nothing I had seen before in YA, but I also wanted to hold on to important elements of the old fairy tale. It’s crucial, when writing a fairy tale retelling, to ground the reader in your story. I wanted to make my reader feel comfortable, make them think this is going to be like the tale with which they’re familiar, and then… yank the rug from underneath them! From the original “Snow White,” I wanted to keep the magic mirror, the apple, and the stepmother/stepdaughter dynamic, but I twisted these concepts to fit my own purposes. In doing this, I hoped to make the reader still recognize the inspiration behind the story, but at the same time think of FOTL as fresh and new.

Bookish: What is the hardest part of writing a villain? What is your favorite part?

JCD: I knew I had my work cut out for me with someone like Xifeng who has a character arc that spirals downward. My biggest concern was making her somewhat sympathetic, even as she makes all the wrong choices and succumbs to her own greed for power. That was the hardest part: making her believable in some capacity. My favorite part was putting myself in the shoes of someone so completely different from me and everything I believe in—someone who has no moral boundaries whatsoever when it comes to their ambition. It was an interesting experience!

Bookish: The Evil Queen is famously vain, and in the book we see Xifeng grow from resenting how her beauty defines her to learning to use it as a gift and a weapon. How do you view the relationship between beauty and power?

JCD: I knew, in writing a “Snow White”-inspired tale, that I wanted to keep beauty as power and a status symbol in my story. Classic fairy tales favor youth and attractiveness above all and consistently depict older female characters as evil. So what would happen if a princess grew older and her beauty faded according to society’s standards? The stories seem to insist that the aging princess accept this fate, this loss of her perceived importance as a human being. If she dared to fight against this or resent a younger woman, then she was deemed the Evil Queen/Stepmother.

Basically, according to fairy tales, women were supposed to be young and beautiful until they were not, and then go away. I think our society would like to believe we are beyond this, but the worshipping of physical beauty persists. The perception of beauty may change, but the value placed upon it never does. Outward attractiveness—however defined, depending on the time and place—is seen to help get people ahead and earn them attention.

In Forest, Xifeng recognizes that her youth and beauty are vital assets. She’s clever and educated, but believes her physical attributes will win her the throne and help her keep it, and she’s terrified of losing them. This increasing fear and paranoia propel her toward a tragic choice: She essentially sells her soul for the assurance that she will never lose her looks. She is not a queen punished for aging; she is a queen whose self-inflicted punishment is that she herself cannot see her own worth beyond the prejudices of beauty.

Bookish: Xifeng has a Lady Macbeth moment of seeing blood that no one else can see. Did Lady Macbeth also serve as an inspiration for Xifeng?

JCD: Actually, she was not, but I can totally see what you mean! Lady Macbeth is the instigator behind her husband’s deeds and the blood on her hands is guilt for what she has indirectly wrought, if I remember correctly. For Xifeng, however, the blood that appears on her face is a symbol and a reminder that her beauty is fleeting—that once gone, she will have lost what she considers to be her greatest power. Also, Xifeng would never be content pulling the puppet strings in the background. She would want to be front and center!

Bookish: Underestimating women is a big theme in this book. We see Xifeng overlooked as “just a pretty face” time and again, but we also see her fail to realize how strong the Empress truly is. What drew you to this theme?

JCD: It is ironic that Xifeng hates being underestimated, yet falls victim to doing this to other women, isn’t it? I’m drawn to powerful female characters, and when I say “powerful,” I mean all different types of power. So often in fiction and film we associate female strength with perceived traditional masculine characteristics, like wielding a sword and being physically aggressive. But there are so many types of power people are often too happy to overlook: the power of knowing your truth, of being confident in yourself, of protecting the people you love and the beliefs you value, of charging toward your destiny no matter what cost. I wanted to show different types of female strength in book one, and in book two you will see even more. Every single woman I write has a power of her own and should never, ever be underestimated!

Bookish: We see Xifeng and other women judged harshly for their aspirations in a way the male characters are not. Was this element inspired by the Evil Queen’s lust for power or by more modern influences?

JCD: This element was mostly inspired by the patriarchal society in which I chose to set the book, which is a kingdom inspired by Imperial China. Female historical figures like Empress Wu dealt with much prejudice and censure for their methods in seeking power. And yet, when reading about her deeds, it didn’t seem to me like anything the Empress did hadn’t already been done by male rulers of her time. But they didn’t come under the same kind of scrutiny and criticism. The double standard still exists today, unfortunately, with powerful women in fields like business and politics being criticized for qualities for which their male counterparts are praised.

Bookish: At times, Xifeng’s motivation shifts from wanting to claim her destiny to wanting that destiny because of the freedom it promises. Do you think that, in a way, chaining herself to her fate means losing her freedom?

JCD: Absolutely. There’s an irony in that. The thing about Xifeng is that she doesn’t understand the concept of power. She believes that being Empress is all about being front and center, invincible, and feared and loved and respected—which it partly is, in this world. But it’s also a position of responsibility, in that she is tying herself to the fates of everyone involved: She would be the Emperor’s wife, the Crown Prince’s stepmother, and the ruler of everyone in Feng Lu, for whom she is expected to care and govern. It’s a case of not looking at the long haul, the whole picture. She’s charging toward something she does not fully understand yet.

Bookish: The Crimson Army is an army made up entirely of women who live in the mountains. These fighters are only briefly mentioned; will we get to see them in future installments?

JCD: Yes! Without giving away too much, you will find out a lot more about them in book two!

Bookish: Can you give us three words that describe book two?

JCD: Epic adventure quest!

Julie C. Dao is a proud Vietnamese-American who was born in upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her Kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is her debut novel. Julie lives in New England. Follow her on Twitter @jules_writes.

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Reader Spotlight

Blog name: Feed Your Fiction Addiction
Blog URL: http://feedyourfictionaddiction.com
Your name: Nicole Hewitt

A nice place to start is with your blogger origin story – how did Feed Your Fiction Addiction get started?

I actually had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started blogging four and a half years ago. I thought, “Hey, I love books and I like to review them on Goodreads, so why not start a blog?” It was really something of a whim. I had no idea at the time how much of my passion, time and energy would eventually go into blogging, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way!

On your blog you mention that you homeschool your three children – do you pull from your experience as a book blogger (and vice versa) when creating your lesson plans?

I do! I actually taught a Blogging 101 class at our homeschool co-op last year, which was great fun! I think my students were surprised at how much work it takes to create a high-quality blog and to find a readership, but it was a fantastic chance for them to get acquainted with the blogging world. I also often teach book reviewing in my language arts classes. I find that reviews can be a great way to get them thinking about the things in a book that got them excited—and the things that left them wanting more. It’s also surprisingly difficult for students to write a review without spoilers, so that’s a skill in itself. 😊

We love your “Bite-Sized Reviews” feature, where you review four different books with a star rating and what you thought, briefly, about each. Can you explain a little bit more about this feature?

Bite-sized reviews are great because they give a brief snapshot of the book and my thoughts on it without going into too much detail (and let’s face it, sometimes less is more). This can be especially handy for books where it’s really best for readers to go in relatively blind—I want to give my feelings about the book without giving away too much. I also often use this review style for extremely popular backlist books because many people already have their own impressions of them and I’m just adding in my two cents, so to speak. Sometimes I just have too much to say and nothing but my standard review format will do, but there are times when a bite-sized review is just perfect.

Are there particular subgenres that you prefer or find more interesting at the moment? Are there any trends that you are excited to see come or go?

Right now, I’m loving topical contemporaries that send you on an emotional roller coaster—things like If There’s No Tomorrow by Jennifer L. Armentrout or What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum. These are the types of books that tackle tough issues in such a way that you can’t help but relate to their main characters.

As far as things I’d like to see go… well, there are always plenty of tropes in YA that get overused. I’ve recently been reading the upcoming Brooding YA Hero: Becoming a Main Character (Almost) as Awesome as Me by Carrie DiRisio, which hilariously highlights a lot of them (like the “perfect” star-athlete boyfriend who falls for the quiet, bookish girl who has no idea just how wonderful she really is). I will say that a talented author can make almost any trope work, but when a book is packed full of them… I could definitely do without that.

  

Which upcoming Teens & YA book(s) on NetGalley are you the most excited about recommending to your followers?

I HIGHLY recommend Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed. It looks like you can only Wish for it right now on NetGalley, but I think absolutely everyone should go and do that right now… Really, I’ll wait…

I have to admit that I tend to read books close to their release dates, so I haven’t read a lot of others that are still upcoming, but I can tell you about two others that I’m really excited to read. First off, my contact at Disney has me super intrigued when it comes to Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne. She says it’s one of her favorite books of the year, and I can’t wait to read it! Then there’s Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, which looks fantastic—plus I just love Jason Segel. (Who doesn’t?)

    

Lightning Round!

Your favorite character in a book or series:

August Flynn from the Monsters of Verity Duology by Victoria Schwab.

The one book you wish was never-ending:

Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

Your favorite two publishers for Teens & YA titles:

HarperTeen & Disney-Hyperion.

Your favorite snack(s) to eat while reading:

Gum (though I guess I technically don’t eat it).

And to finish off our interview, what is the last book that made you smile?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (which was technically a reread via audiobook, but I think it counts).

Thanks so much, Nicole, for spending time with us and answering our questions! 

Please make sure to check out the Feed Your Fiction Addiction blog and more Teens & YA on NetGalley!

Would you like to nominate someone to be featured in our Reader Spotlight series? Fill out this form!

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Kendare Blake: “I Don’t Really Believe in Endings.”

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

In Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns series, three young queens are vying for the throne. The one to wear the crown will be the one willing to dirty her hands by killing her competition. The second installment, One Dark Throne, takes readers back to this dark world and follows each queen in her attempts to stay alive. Here, Blake shares the inspiration for her murderous storyline, her thoughts on endings, and where our favorite characters may go from here (if they survive).

Bookish: At its heart, this is a story of young women taking their power and agency back from a society that strives to control them. Can you share with us what drew you to this theme?

Kendare Blake: I’ve always enjoyed putting people in sticky situations and seeing how they deal with them. And I enjoy working with complicated women. But the premise of Three Dark Crowns was wholly inspired by a beehive: a matriarchal system where an exiting queen will bear multiple queens and those baby queens kill each other. So it was that brutal bit of nature that drew me to this story specifically!

Bookish: Katharine emerges from the Breccia Domain a changed queen. She starts to break free from Natalia’s plots, but she isn’t completely in control herself. What can readers expect from her in the next book?

KB: In One Dark Throne, expect for her to be almost completely changed, as far as her drive for the crown is concerned. Her physical weaknesses don’t seem to be bothering her anymore either. But the new strength comes at a price.

Bookish: Unlike her sisters, Mirabella spent her life believing she’d face no competition for the throne. But now, everything she thought she knew is slipping away, and she’s struggling to face a future where she may be killed. What were the challenges of writing a character who is experiencing that kind of realization?

KB: Ah, Mirabella, the most powerful and favored triplet. When I started writing, I didn’t think I would like her. She was so sheltered and, despite her love for her sisters, I thought she would react badly when confronted with the realities of her situation. She was the most difficult character to write, perhaps because she and I are the least alike in personality, but I thought she showed surprising spunk, and was open to learning and changing her mind in a way that the other sisters weren’t.

Bookish: With three protagonists each making decisions that impact and change the story, is your plotting process for this series different from the way you plot your other books?

KB: The setup is more complex, setting all the pieces on the board at the start of the game, if that makes sense, but I still don’t really plot. I let the characters go and see what happens. With this many conflicting interests, and this many forceful personalities, they’re bound to get into the dickens without much interference from me.

Bookish: You’ve said you were thinking about this story for a few years before writing it, and now it’s developed from a duology to a four-book series. Who or what has changed the most since that original conception?

KB: Actually, not much has changed, despite adding books and other content (novellas, bonus scenes, etc.). One Dark Throne still ends more or less where it always would have. Now I just get to write the after, when before it would have been left to the imagination. I’m glad to be able to spend more time on the island, and with many different queens, but part of me is melancholy about that. Knowing the end. Knowing the rest. I like unanswered questions, and I don’t really believe in endings. But, I suppose by the time I reach the close of the fourth book, enough questions will have spun out from new conflicts to be able to leave some things unknown.

Bookish: This series is set in a matriarchal society. Did you research similar societies for inspiration or was your focus instead on subverting patriarchal norms?

KB: The only real inspiration was the beehive. It was fun to write the boys who come to the island from patriarchal cultures and watch them try to acclimate. And it was interesting to watch myself make mistakes, like giving characters the wrong last names (the last name should follow the mother’s line) or the wrong inheritances (daughters inherit first).

Bookish: Both titles follow a pattern of Number Dark Object (Three Dark CrownsOne Dark Throne). What’s your process for coming up with titles? Can readers expect them to follow the current pattern?

KB: Ha, you noticed! Yes, we’re sticking with the pattern. It might irritate some people that we’re not going in order—one, two, three—and I’m pretty sure there won’t be a title with the number four in it. So for the folks who like things just so with their numbers, I’m very sorry!

Titles usually show up fully formed for me. If the book is ready to be written (meaning I’ve tossed it around in my head for a few years), it has usually titled itself. Anna Dressed in Blood was one of the first titles that came to mind. It named the ghost and was wholly the title from day one. Three Dark Crowns was originally titled Three Black Witches, but then I wrote the book and they were more queens than witches. Witches is a mainland word in their world, a foreign word.

Bookish: Which character’s journey are you most excited to explore in future books?

KB: I’m excited to continue on with the relationships between the characters. I want to see how they change within their new situations. But I don’t want to name names… because then readers will know they live!

Bookish: Which scene are you most excited to see readers’ reactions to?

KB: The whole thing, really! Those last hundred pages or so the ropes tighten and the bodies start to drop. I just hope they enjoy it. I hope the queens take them for a ride.

Kendare Blake holds an MA in creative writing from Middlesex University in northern London. She is the author of Anna Dressed in Blood, a Cybils Awards finalist; Girl of NightmaresAntigoddessMortal GodsUngodly; and the New York Times bestselling Three Dark Crowns series. Her books have been translated into eighteen languages, have been featured on multiple best-of-year lists, and have received many regional and librarian awards. Kendare lives and writes in Kent, Washington. Visit her online at www.kendareblake.com.

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Jennifer Mathieu on Feminism, Moxie, and Fighting Back

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

Picking a favorite book can be tough for any reader, but we can’t deny that Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie is high on our list. This young adult novel takes readers to an average high school where a quiet girl named Vivian decides that she’s done putting up with sexist behavior. Inspired by her mom’s punk rock zines from the 90s, Viv decides to start a feminist movement, encouraging other girls to join together, stand up, and fight back. Here, Mathieu talks about young feminists today, the importance of intersectionality, and why this book is a love letter to her students.

Bookish: You dedicate this book to teens and women fighting for equality, but also to a teacher who called you a “feminazi.” How, at a young age, did you find the strength to turn an insult like that into an empowering desire to learn more about feminism?

Jennifer Mathieu: I’m not really sure! At the time that teacher insulted me, I knew that it hurt inside and was deeply humiliating. However, in my gut I also knew that the teacher was wrong. I hadn’t explicitly started calling myself a feminist yet, but again, I knew the teacher was not correct in using that term and I knew he wasn’t correct in taking sexist stances in class, which he did so often. It was a challenging experience and at the time I didn’t speak out against him like I now wish I would have. With hindsight, I can see how transformative this experience was for me because it was one of the first times I felt like I was being ridiculed for holding beliefs I knew were good and true.

Bookish: What does having moxie mean to you?

JM: To me having moxie means having guts and gumption. It means speaking your mind, speaking truth to power, and resisting in ways big and small.

Bookish: It’s easy to be caught off guard when something demeaning or sexist happens to you. Through Viv and her friends, you’ve offered readers a script of sorts: things to say or do in those situations. Was that something you were conscious of when you were writing?

JM: I think so, yes. I’ve always shied away from writing for teenagers with any sort of preachy tone because teenagers can see right through that sort of thing. That said, I think Moxie is the closest I’ve ever come to writing a book that I hope teenagers, especially teenage girls, can use as a touchstone or guide as they navigate the world around them. They may not necessarily mimic exactly what Vivian and her friends do, but they might just be inspired by them and come up with their own ways of reacting when confronted with sexism.

Bookish: The book opens with quotes from real teenage girls. How have your experiences as a high school teacher helped to shape the world of this novel?

JM: My female students inspire me every single day. I have been co-sponsor of the feminist clubs at the schools I’ve worked at, and it’s so wonderful to be able to watch young women (and men!) discover gender equality and to fight for it! Young feminists today have a much more intersectional view of the world, and they’re so convinced of their ability to change the world for the better. I love it! At the same time, so much of the garbage that I faced as a teenage girl still exists in high schools today. As a teacher I call it out when I see it, but so much of it goes on when I’m not looking. Writing Moxie felt like a love letter and a thank you letter to my students sort of wrapped into one.

Bookish: Some of the sexism in the book is so extreme (school dress codes, the bump-n-grab) that it feels out of a dystopian novel. But as readers we know that these are real things happening in real schools to real girls. What was it like writing those scenes?

JM: Honestly, I have regular moments of feeling like we live in some dystopian world given everything that happens to women and girls in this country and this world! As for what happens to Vivian and her friends, everything that happens in Moxie I’ve either experienced or witnessed, so I knew I wasn’t making it fantastical and I knew girls and women would relate. Writing it was so validating, though, because I gave these girls the tools to confront their situations and they confronted them and won. That doesn’t always happen in real life, unfortunately.

Bookish: You include a number of well-meaning characters who don’t “get” the movement at first—from a best friend who is disinclined to use the word feminist to a boyfriend whose mantra is “not all guys are like that.” Why was it important for you to feature characters like these?

JM: When I got to college and really heard the word “feminist” and what it meant I jumped in with both feet. I was an immediate believer because I quickly made connections between my lived experience and what the feminist movement was fighting for. I felt like I’d met my tribe. But I also know that for a lot of women and girls the word feminist has a negative connotation, mostly due to how it’s represented in popular culture or because of things they hear from their families. I wanted those girls to feel like they had a place in Moxie, too, and it’s my hope that even if at the end of the book they don’t necessarily feel comfortable embracing “the f word,” they do feel comfortable fighting for their rights.

As for the character of Seth, I wanted to create a believable guy who means well but doesn’t always get it, because so many men and guys I’ve encountered over the years think and act like Seth. Really decent guys who mean well but are still learning and who can benefit from feminism, too. I just wanted a variety of entry points into Moxie. I wanted this book to have as broad of an appeal as possible because I believe in its message so much.

Bookish: Viv often feels empowered and energized when she’s making the Moxiezines. What were you feeling as you created them, and this book?

JM: I felt like I was traveling back in time. In the late 90s and early 00s I made a zine about my life called Jennifer (I’ve never been so hot when it comes to titles, obviously) and it was such a fun, creative outlet for me. I used to put on music and make my zine that was full of silly stories and cartoons about my life in my early 20s. It was just a joyful time of self-expression. I felt that again when I was creating Moxie, but there was an additional layer of excitement because I knew more readers would be able to connect with these zines than they ever did with my Jennifer zine. (And I think that’s a good thing!) Overall, writing this book was such a joyful experience. I put on Bikini Kill and started typing. It was so much fun.

Bookish: Viv is a truly relatable protagonist for this story because she experiences a lot of fear. She’s afraid to be seen, heard, judged. She’s angry but often silent. What message do you most hope she brings to girls like her, who want to stand up but maybe don’t know how or are afraid of what will happen if they do?

JM: I was a lot like Viv when I was in high school. I spoke up a bit more, but I was more Viv than Lucy. I was also terrified of what other people thought of me and was super anxious to fit in. In many ways, writing Vivian’s story was a bit of wish fulfillment for me. I was getting the chance to rewrite my past with what I know now. There are so many times, looking back, that I wish I’d stood up and spoken my mind when I was in my teens. It’s my hope that Vivian inspires some girls to not be afraid to speak up for themselves.

Bookish: You cover a lot of feminist territory in the book, from its history to its intersectionality problems to its modern connotations. Which aspect of it was the most challenging to write about?

JM: I would say my top concern was making sure I made the book as intersectional as possible. The feminist movement has often struggled to include and amplify voices beyond those belonging to white, straight, middle class women. The Riot Grrrl movement was more progressive in terms of its inclusion of queer women, but it was still a primarily white movement. I have zero interest supporting white feminism or a feminist movement that erases and ignores voices of women of color, queer women, trans women, women with disabilities, and other women from marginalized groups. So I knew I wanted to address intersectionality in a very explicit way within certain scenes and with certain characters. At the same time, I didn’t want the book to feel like an after school special with “the gay girl” and “the black girl”—just these perfunctory stand-ins for bigger groups. I was determined to write a book that painted feminism as a big tent, and I want young women to be able to talk about this aspect of the feminist movement with openness. There’s so much work to be done in this area and it’s my hope that Moxie sparks some important conversations. Hopefully I pulled it all off in a way that felt believable even though I know no writer is perfect and I’m super open to feedback.

Something I’m really excited about is the Moxie Tumblr. It’s being run by a former student of mine, a Latina who understands the importance of intersectionality and who is embracing it so beautifully on our amazing Tumblr. You can check out her original art and other awesomeness at moxiegirlsfightback.com.

Bookish: Moxie was already written at the time of the January 21st Women’s March, but there are some clear parallels between the march and one particular scene in the book. Looking back on that scene, did you feel the connection between it and the march?

JM: There is a scene in Moxie that parallels the march, yes, and I’d written it before the march took place. When I marched in January I thought about Vivian and her friends, about all the Moxie Girls, and I knew if they existed for real they would absolutely be marching with me. In my heart, they were.

Jennifer Mathieu started writing stories when she was in kindergarten and now teaches English to high school students. She won the Teen Choice Debut Author Award at the Children’s Choice Book Awards for her first novel, The Truth About Alice. She is also the author of Devoted and Afterward. She lives in Texas with her husband, son, and dog.

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Ben Hatke on Visual Storytelling, Fairytales, and Genre-Blending

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack duology takes readers on a wild adventure inspired by the fairytale character who climbs beanstalks and slays giants. The series comes to a close this fall with Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, which follows Jack and Lilly as they travel to a different realm to rescue Jack’s sister Maddy. We had the chance to chat with Hatke and ask him about his obsession with goblins, his thoughts on genre-blending, and more. Here’s what he had to say.

Reader beware: Minor spoilers ahead.

Bookish: In writing your series, which elements of “Jack and the Giant Killer” did you want to preserve and which did you want to get rid of?

Ben Hatke: I really just took the original concept—a young person trades something the family needs for some seeds—and ran with it. Some elements I kept, some elements I discarded. It was all a balancing act between the structure of the earlier tellings and the world that I wanted to build. The elements that I added tend to be things from my own life. Jack’s house, for instance, is modeled almost exactly after my own house. The treasure in the older stories becomes, in my tale, buried Civil War gold, because that’s the history of the Shenandoah Valley.

In the second book, they travel to a realm that has been usurped by giants. There are still fairytale elements, but I really just threw everything in a science fiction blender and focussed more on a good story than sticking to “Jack the Giant Killer.”

Bookish: In this series, you blend fantasy and science fiction without drawing a hard line between the two. Do you feel the two should be less separated in fiction?

BH: Well, I’m certainly not one for hard lines in general fiction. I think the line between science fiction and fantasy is more more about flavor than ingredients. I’d draw a sharper line between sci-fi/fantasy on one hand and speculative fiction on the other. In spec-fic you’re more concerned with spinning out an idea than with telling a good yarn (though you can certainly do both at once). That’s a difference in ingredients more than flavor. Anyway, the edges of genres are delightfully fuzzy and I always hesitate to define them.

Bookish: You’ve been working on this series since 2006—which character has changed the most?

BH: Oh, Maddy for sure. She started out as a goofy six-year-old. She had pigtails! It was just awful. She’s a much more fleshed out character now.

Bookish: You’ve said stories are the language of humankind, which is a beautiful sentiment because it isn’t limiting. Stories can be told in any language. They can be heard, read, seen, or felt. How does that idea connect to Maddy, who barely speaks at all and sometimes simply has speech bubbles appear with strange symbols in them?

BH: Stories are how we make sense of the world. The stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others help us explain ourselves to ourselves. We look at people in airports or on the street and say “I wonder what her story is” or “What’s that guy’s story?”

Visual stories transcend language. Silent films were amazing at this, and comics are too.

I’m intensely interested in storytelling through body language and Maddy, beyond my love for her as a character, always reminds me to tell without words.

Bookish: In the original tale, Jack is on his own, and your Jack declines help at first. But ultimately, this is the story of three characters who work together to save the day. Why did you want to have a larger cast surrounding Jack?

BH: Oh yes. Jack needs his friends! He needs them even, and most especially, when he doesn’t think he does. And really, the relationships in this book were much more interesting to me than the adventure. Or, rather, they’re all of a piece. In the first book Jack is really pulled in different directions emotionally. He’s pulled between his mom on the one hand, who wants him to be responsible. And there’s Maddy, on the other hand, who clearly benefits from the garden, despite the danger. Then there’s Lilly, this new outside influence. Lilly is a call to adventure. It’s all very confusing for poor Jack.

The second book is a more straightforward rescue mission, but it tests those bonds (I think) (I hope). In the second book Jack has sorted himself out a little more and has a single minded drive to bring his sister home. We do end up delving a lot more into Lilly and who she is and what she’s about.

Bookish: In this book, Lilly is crowned king, not queen. Was that an important distinction for you to make?

BH: It was the work of a moment, really. And it’s hard to talk about without going deeper into spoiler territory. The Goblin King wants to marry her and make her his queen. Instead Lilly fights and kills him. It didn’t seem quite right to me that she would still become the queen.

There’s a deeper discussion, of course, about the way we use gender in language, but I’m going to dodge that one for the moment.

Bookish: You’re very drawn (no pun intended) to goblins and seem set on redeeming their less-than-stellar public image in your works. What’s the allure?

BH: Yeah, what’s the deal with me and goblins? I’m still figuring that out! I like drawing goblins. I like thinking about goblins. I like the fact that they are little and weak and they only become formidable when they work together. I have this feeling that there’s a little bit of goblin in all of us. It’s that part of us that is grubby and small and awkward and also sort of owns it.

I really like goblins.

Bookish: If you were a mythical creature from one of your books, what would you be?

BH: Hard to say. I think I’ll let others decide.

Bookish: The machinery and pipes infringing on this formerly-green world reminded me of similar elements from the Lord of the Rings series. Can you tell us about why you wanted those two contrasting images?

BH: Like so many others, I’m deeply influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories. If you read those books early they never leave you. But beyond that, I think that this juxtaposition of the industrial and the organic is part of our modern consciousness now. It’s part of our story.

It’s an instantly relatable image, and it seemed to fit the story I was trying to tell. In that in-between realm, it’s the green growing things that make the links between the worlds. And the industrial encroachment is what breaks down those bonds and isolates the worlds.

…It’s a little heavy handed, maybe. In retrospect.

Bookish: There’s a lot of fun crossover in this series for fans of Little Robot and Zita the Spacegirl. Is this an inside nod to fans or a hint at a larger crossover?

BH: Some of those are just little winks, others are maybe a hint of things to come…

Bookish: Perhaps my most important question: Where can I find the seed packet that will give me one of those adorable little onion-heads?

BH: I’ve been scouring the flea markets, believe me. Let me know if you find anything!

Ben Hatke is the author and illustrator of the New York Times–bestselling Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, the picture books Julia’s House for Lost Creatures and Nobody Likes a Goblin, and the graphic novels Little Robot and Mighty Jack. He lives and works in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife and their boisterous pack of daughters.

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E. Lockhart on Antiheroes, Action Movies, and Genuine Fraud

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

Young adult readers who want a twisty tale that keeps them guessing won’t want to miss E. Lockhart’s Genuine Fraud. The novel starts with its protagonist on the run and slowly moves backwards to reveal an antihero who is always a step ahead of everyone around her. To celebrate the book’s publication, we chatted with Lockhart about the book’s narrative structure, the difference between villains and antiheroes, and action movies.

Bookish: Genuine Fraud moves backwards in time, slowly revealing Jule’s past and motivations. How did this format affect your writing and plotting process?

E. Lockhart: I love to write challenging structures. Many of my books play with narrative devices of one kind of another. We Were Liars has the two intersecting timelines with fairytale interstitials. For Genuine Fraud, I wrote the plot out forward in distinct beats, then reversed it. Then I rewrote it to make sense going backwards, which was quite a lot of rewriting.  Then I wrote the story going forward and revised it going backwards.

Bookish: One of the common themes in the book is that Jule is underestimated. She’s seen as being harmless, “just” a teenage girl, when in fact she’s strong, intelligent, and generally always two steps ahead of everyone around her. What inspired this theme?

EL: I always felt underestimated, both as a kid and as an adult. It’s a complicated and angry feeling that’s hard to act on. I think a lot of women feel this way.

Bookish: There’s an ongoing question in the book about whether a person is as bad as their worst actions. Jule could be easily viewed as an irredeemable character because of her actions. What do you think of her? Is she as bad as what she’s done?

EL: I love her because she represents what I might be capable of, laid bare. To me, she’s humanity. That’s why we love antiheroes—it’s not that we love to hate them; we love to hate villains. With antiheroes, it’s that we love the release of seeing them act out what’s inside us all.

Bookish: Friendship seems like the wrong word for what Imogen and Jule have; rather they seem inescapably drawn to each other. What elements were important to you when shaping their dynamic?

EL: They look enough alike to share a passport, but that’s not their only connection. They’re both wrenching themselves away from their families of origin in dramatic ways.  They want to make new lives. They’re searching for new ways to define themselves in relation to men, to their bodies, to education, and to the world, generally.

Bookish: Jule views herself as an action hero, and she invents an origin story to fit her narrative. When her true origins are revealed, we learn that the reality she’s pulled herself out of is quite impressive. But for her it wasn’t enough. Why not?

EL: I often write about the desire to live a Big Life. To make a mark. Superhero stories and action movies tap into that desire, and that’s why I love them. So many stories about women in those action and superhero genres are written by men. Jule wants not only to live a big life, but to be the author of her own narrative.

Bookish: Jule references Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, a sociology book that says people behave differently based on who they are around or the situation they are in. What were the challenges of writing a character who was constantly aware of her behavior and intentionally seeking to change it based on her situation?

EL: I think that mindset is something of a norm for anyone who isn’t a member of the dominant culture, and in the USA that includes anyone who isn’t a cisgendered white hetero Christian male. Jule is an exaggeration and dramatization of that experience for someone of her background.

Bookish: In your dedication, you write “Here is my heart with all its ugly tangles and splendid fury.” Those are powerful words. Can you share what this book means to you?

EL: It’s a very honest book, even though nothing in it ever actually happened. I took dark parts of myself and tried to share them in an entertaining way.

Bookish: Jule believes that there are powers that live in our bodies that never leave us. What are your powers?

EL: Jule is referencing things like playing the piano or martial arts—training to a point of mastery gives you access to a power that can stay with you your whole life. Me, I touch-type about 90 words a minute. Not a very sexy power, but I use it every day and it makes my life infinitely easier.

E. Lockhart wrote the New York Times bestseller We Were Liars and the upcoming Genuine Fraud, a psychological thriller. Her other books include Fly on the WallDramaramaThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and the Ruby Oliver Quartet, which includes The Boyfriend ListThe Boy BookThe Treasure Map of Boys, and Real Live Boyfriends. She also wrote How to Be Bad with Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle. Visit her online at emilylockhart.com, and follow her on Twitter at @elockhart.

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Leigh Bardugo on Wonder Woman: “I Just Want to See Her Smash the Patriarchy”

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

The summer of 2017 turned Bookish’s editor into a ride-or-die Diana fan, and Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman: Warbringer played a significant role in that transformation. The novel tells Wonder Woman’s origin story, introducing readers to a young girl eager to prove herself and earn her place on Themyscira. She’s given the opportunity to do just that when she encounters Alia, a teenage girl and the personification of the Warbringer, destined to bring the world to blood and ruin. We had the chance to catch up with Bardugo at BookExpo America to talk about female friendships, writing kindness, and why the world needs Wonder Woman now more than ever.

Bookish: Diana is a hero in every way, but a lot of the characters in your other novels exist in a gray area. What was it like to write a character who is so defined by her desire to always do good?

Leigh Bardugo: It was an absolute joy. I was really worried when I went in because it was so essential to me that Diana not seem false and not be presented as a paragon. Just because you’re good and kind doesn’t mean you don’t have flaws or weaknesses or fears or that sometimes you don’t make poor choices, which she does.

When I wrote Six of Crows, depending on what section I was working on, sometimes I’d come out of Kaz’s POV and I would just be exhausted and sad and worried about humanity. Then I would write Diana and I would think, “All right, maybe we’re all going to be okay.” There’s a level of optimism that goes along with her character, and kindness. To me, it’s more about her being kind and compassionate than just being good. That is actually much more wonderful to write than I expected.

Bookish: When writing Diana’s origin story, what was one element of her original tales that you were excited to play with and one element that you decided to get rid of?

LB: I loved writing about the Amazons and putting my own spin on the mythology of Themyscira. I’ll admit I didn’t have any interest in writing about Steve Trevor. I was really charmed by his portrayal in the film, but I wanted this story to focus on the women.

Bookish: Diana, Nim, and Alia are a fantastic trio. They not only celebrate the importance of female friendships, but they showcase that there are many ways to be strong. How did you go about crafting their dynamic?

LB: I’ve written a short story set in our world, but this was very different for me. I spent a lot of time thinking about the way those relationships would be forged and how they would function. In crafting these characters, I was trying to keep them as authentic as possible. I had some wonderful readers who really helped me to work through some of the trickier issues they were dealing with.

It was important to me that even though Diana is the hero of the story, that Alia was a hero too. I wanted all of them to have opportunities to show what they’re made of and to show that feminism doesn’t belong to one person. Feminism doesn’t belong to one kind of person and adventure doesn’t belong to one kind of person. Magic, superpowers, all of those stories don’t belong to one kind of person.

I’m honestly a little heartbroken that I’m never going to write about these characters again. I’m not used to that. I’m used to writing a series or at least being able to say, “Well, maybe I’ll make it a series later.” Leaving them behind is so hard. There are so many stories for that group of characters that I would love to tell.

Bookish: The novel is infused with a lot of humor, both wit and physical comedy—Diana tossing the Lasso of Truth in a Duane Reade bag really sticks out to me. As a writer, how do you find that balance between comedy and the chaos of the world ending?

LB: I think if you only give the reader angst and intensity, the negative emotions start to lose their impact. The reader becomes desensitized. But if I’ve made you laugh and gotten you to let down your guard, it’s going to hurt that much more when I break your heart. (That sound you hear is me cackling.) The balance is one that really emerges in revision, fine-tuning the emotional turns and language so that the funny and tragic moments all get their due.

Bookish: We’re in a moment when Wonder Woman, as a character, is going through a period of rebirth. For years the name seemed to evoke the idea of a woman who manages to juggle a lot of responsibilities, rather than the heroine herself. What do you think it is about her story or about this period in history that is bringing her back into focus?

LB: Maybe because we need her. Maybe because we need her and because this is a great time to see a woman in an action film. We’ve seen more and more of that, and I would love to see even more diverse women in those roles, not just white women. But I think we also need a story of a woman who comes from Themyscira, who comes from a place where peace is a value, who comes from a place where compassion and kindness are values and where being strong is awesome and kicking ass is a delight. I love writing it so much, but those fundamental principles matter so much more now. And we’re all much more aware of that. I don’t know why, because we’ve all been waiting so long.

I wrote an essay about this for Last Night, a Superhero Saved My Life. I loved Wonder Woman as a kid and I stopped loving her as I got older and began to understand who I was as a girl and as a woman in the world. It wasn’t until later that I came back to her. I feel like in some ways all of us are reclaiming her and saying “I don’t care if she’s wearing straps. I don’t care if she’s wearing heels. I just want to see her smash the patriarchy.”

Bookish: Mortal women have a chance to join the Amazons if they call out the name of a goddess in their last moments. Do you know who you’d cry out for?

LB: Hera, Athena, Demeter, Artemis, Hestia, and Aphrodite. They’re my pantheon. But I don’t belong on Themyscira. Too much cardio.

Leigh Bardugo is the #1 New York Times bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of Six of CrowsCrooked Kingdom, and the Shadow and Bone Trilogy. She is the first author in the DC Icons Series, where the DC Comics super hero icons are written by megastar young adult authors. Forthcoming books include Batman by Marie Lu, Catwoman by Sarah J. Maas, and Superman by Matt de la Peña.

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Daniel Handler on Romance, Sexuality, and Getting Over Quotation Marks

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

You may know Daniel Handler by another name: Lemony Snicket, the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books. When he isn’t writing about the Baudelaire siblings, Handler is penning adult and young adult novels under his given name. We were lucky enough to catch up with Handler at BookExpo America to chat with him about his new novel, All the Dirty PartsIn it, a high schooler named Cole experiences firsthand the complexity of the “uncomplicated” relationship. Check out our conversation with Handler below.

Bookish: This story is, as the title suggests, is a love story in pieces—what the reader has is literally all the dirty parts. How do you think the story would have been different if the other parts had been included?

Daniel Handler: Well, I don’t think it’s possible to write the whole story of everything, and part of what this book came out of was the way in which sexuality is ignored or pushed aside in so much literature. And that’s a really big part of it—it’s part of the anxiety, and the desire, and the joy, and the anger and sorrow of young relationships. Not that we grow out of it later or anything.

When I wrote Why We Broke Up, it was the first time when I went out to talk about the book that there was a big gender imbalance in my audience. It had always been kind of 50-50, and this time it was like 95% women. And that’s also, in adolescence, when many boys fall off of pleasure reading altogether. I did not fall off of pleasure reading when I was in adolescence. I started looking at what I read, what I really liked, and I saw that it had a really strong sexual streak in it. It was high-minded literature, but like, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a really powerful work when you’re 15. If you go back and read it, you realize that it’s full of threesomes, and you just think about what was interesting to you. So I was thinking about what segment of the population was falling off of reading.

That was a long way of not answering the question. How would it be different? It’d be longer.

Bookish: All the Dirty Parts is being billed as a companion novel to Why We Broke Up. Could you talk about how you see these two novels as being in conversation with each other?

DH: I think that Why We Broke Up is extremely romantic, and comes to sexuality through romance and that All the Dirty Parts is kind of the opposite—it comes to romance through sexuality. Certainly you can look at that as being gendered—that’s part of our own gender dysfunction around relationships, particularly when we’re young: Boys need to be nice to girls in order to get laid, and girls need to give it up to be girlfriends. So I thought about the ways those overlap: boys’ desire for romance and girls’ desire for sexuality, and how both those things are divisive.

Bookish: All the Dirty Parts reminded me of Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Both are explicit books about men whose lives are more or less ruled by sex. What drew you to this form as a vehicle for the story?

DH: It was actually the form that I found when I started thinking about books that are more fragmentary by Mary Robison, and Jenny Offill, and Maggie Nelson, and all these writers who are doing things in little, small parts. I got interested in that, and that kind of matching, not only the way sex can work in the imagination, but also the kind of fragmented, text-based conversations. It began to seem like the right vehicle to write a book in which those issues could be explored.

Why We Broke Up, for instance, is a long, written letter. That’s a very romantic idea, but it’s not realistic that you’d write a book-length letter to your ex-boyfriend. It’s not feasible.

I did a bunch of things I never thought I would do. I thought I would never write a fragmentary book. I like it a lot but I didn’t think it was my jam. I used to rant against books that had no quotation marks in them—I was kind of like, “Sorry, that’s how we do things.” But the way so many people communicate now, between talking and talking on the phone and emailing and texting and whatever else—it’s all kind of in the loam and I didn’t want to make any kind of division within that. In the book you often can’t tell when the characters are in the same room and when they’re not, and I like that.

Bookish: In this book, as in your Series of Unfortunate Events books, adults are unhelpful at best. The effect is that the younger characters are the only ones whose motives and actions make sense. Can you talk about why you write younger and older characters so differently?

DH: I think I’ve always done that. In my first book, The Basic Eight, there’s a high school girl and her parents are completely absent from the book and horrible things are happening. I think that it’s a major part of adolescence, that compartmentalization. You go to school or wherever you go and you’re in this huge thing that’s happening with people your own age and then you go home, and you’re a kid. I think even now that I’m a parent of an adolescent, and I meet so many parents of adolescents, I see that same division going on all the time. Even if you’re really close and you sit around the breakfast table and you talk about things, there’s still a whole world that’s happening that’s completely out of your hands. I eavesdrop on a lot of teenagers on public transportation and I have such a memory of being on the same public transportation–I grew up in San Francisco and I live there–literally the same buses, and I don’t remember anyone older than I am ever being on those buses and now, sure enough, I’m completely invisible when I’m there.

Bookish: You write in the book, about uncomplicated sex, that if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it. This seems like the central realization for Cole over the course of the novel, and it emerges slowly. Why do you think this is such an important epiphany for him?

DH: Because I think the sex in his world is being un-compartmentalized. It has nothing to do with his friends, even as one of his friends becomes sexually involved with him. It has nothing to do with the way he spends his time—it’s something that he sneaks off to do. To realize that it’s all part of the world that we’re in is a big maturation process.

Bookish: This book subverts the trope that women are the ones to “catch feelings” in a relationship—in your book, it’s the male partner who does. Why did you make that decision?

DH: It just seemed like the way the story was heading, I guess. I like to be surprised when I’m reading a book, so when I’m writing a book, I think about what would be surprising. I try to avoid the pitfalls of cliché and particularly with gender, it’s so easy to see when you’re planning a book how deep those clichés are and how easy it is to fall into them.

Bookish: What’s next for you?

DH: I have a picture book coming out in the fall. And then I’m finishing an adult novel and a Snicket book, so I’ll continue to keep one foot on each side of the seesaw I guess.

Daniel Handler is the author of six novels. As Lemony Snicket, he is responsible for numerous books for children. His books have sold more than 70 million copies and have been translated into 40 languages, and have been adapted for screen and stage. His first play, Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit, will be produced this fall at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He lives in San Francisco with the illustrator Lisa Brown, to whom he is married and with whom he has collaborated on several books, and one son.

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Cover Design 101: Behind the Scenes of Scott Westerfeld’s Spill Zone Cover

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but we think the same can be said of publishing graphic novels. Spill Zone was written by Scott Westerfeld and the art was created by Alex Puvilland. Once the book was ready for publication, an entire team stepped in to create the cover and jacket. Andrew Arnold, the associate art director at the graphic novel publisher First Second, was part of that team. Here, he takes readers behind the scenes and shares the secrets of cover design.

Click each image for a closer look at the design!

Hello, comics fans! Here at First Second, we take a lot of pride in creating thoughtful and beautifully packaged books. One of our biggest design challenges is creating the cover, and the jacket for Spill Zone was no exception. Here’s an inside look at how this cover came to life, from its earliest stages to the final printed book.

Spill Zone was one of the first projects on my plate when I joined the First Second team last summer. The first thing I did to familiarize myself with the project was read the book, and wow, what a treat that was. Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland have created an incredibly rich world that feels movie-ready. It’s a sci-fi adventure, but also has some dark and twisted elements, and we wanted to make sure the cover conveyed both of those facets.

The process began with several thumbnails from Alex, artist extraordinaire, who had come up with some pretty thought-provoking and eye-catching sketches. At this stage, we like to say that nothing is off-limits. I often find that only a small portion of what we look at during this stage makes it onto the final book. It’s pretty fun to look back at an artist’s initial sketches to see what was originally on the table!

After Mark Siegel (First Second’s editorial director), Danielle Ceccolini (First Second’s designer), and I processed Alex’s thumbnails, we decided that the more graphic approaches were working better than the more illustrative ones.

Once we were all in agreement on the general direction, Alex started to think about the background art and color palette.

As the overall design started coming together, we began to focus in on the details. In the previous stage, we liked what Alex did with the environment, but wanted to see if he could tone it down a little. Sometimes, less is more.

We started to get pretty excited about where it was headed, so we gave Alex the green light to move to pencils, and very soon thereafter, inks.

Once the inks were in, we started exploring the color palette a little further. A good chunk of this story takes place in a radioactive-colored world, so a lot of these early explorations focus on that.

As we got closer and closer to a palette we liked, we delved into a variety of title treatments.

And before you know it, we had ourselves a final cover!

Once the cover is resolved, we start thinking about the rest of the jacket. How will the back cover interact with the front? How can we create an effective spine, with such a tiny piece of real estate? How can the flaps inform the reader with descriptive copy, but still look good?

And then there’s the pre-printed case design! This is the art you see under the jacket, which is glued to the book board.

As all of these elements were being finalized, we were simultaneously communicating with our production team to determine what printing materials and techniques would work best with the design. This includes paper stock, special inks, embossing plates, and lamination. For Spill Zone, we decided that metallic stock was a must-have, not only because it looked good with the art, but it made a direct reference to the radioactive element. Our senior production manager, Alexa Villanueva, worked closely with the printer to make sure the proofing process moved along smoothly. At this stage, we made any last minute text corrections and color adjustments, and made sure all the special effects and materials were printing properly.

From start to finish, this project took several months, but when the books arrived I could hardly contain my excitement. Collaborating with this wonderful group of bookmakers was an incredible experience, and I can’t wait to relive it with their next book, Spill Zone: The Broken Vow.

Andrew Arnold is one of the co-authors of the Adventures in Cartooning series and moonlights [during the day] as a book designer for a children’s book publisher. His work has appeared in several publications, including Nickelodeon MagazineCambridge University Press, and Roaring Brook Press. Originally from Houston, TX, Andrew currently lives in New York City.

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Signs It’s Time To Say “Boy, Bye”

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

Heather Demetrios’ latest young adult novel explores one girl’s realization that her boyfriend’s behavior has turned from attentive to abusive. Demetrios was in a similar relationship herself and knows just how common the problem is. Here, she shares warning signs that can help readers to recognize abusive behavior.

Most of the female readers I talk to who’ve read my new book, Bad Romance, tell me that the topic hits really close to home. I’m not surprised: One in three teens is affected by dating violence. Almost every single woman I know has been touched in some way by the epidemic. After spending over two years in my own bad romance, I’m pretty good at recognizing the signs. If you go to the book’s website, you’ll find tons of resources, including a quiz that will help you see if you’re in a healthy relationship or not.

In Bad Romance, my main character, Grace, falls for a boy who is charming and sweet, manipulative and cruel. She doesn’t realize that he’s bad news right away, and once she does wizen up, she’s in too deep. Here are some of the things that she gets woke about by the end of the book:

Put-downs
This is one of the ways that abusers control their significant others. My boyfriend told me I wasn’t as “deep” as him, that I was a “wet blanket.” He knew just how to hit me where it hurt. Making critical comments about your personality, appearance, intelligence, or beliefs is a major sign of abusive relationships. It might seem harmless, but over time these comments can lead to suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and generally crap self-worth.

Controlling behavior
This was something it took me a long time to notice. At first I thought my boyfriend just really loved me and wanted to be with me. Eventually I began to see that it was about power. He would insist on being given priority over my friends, control the guys I could talk to, and say which schools I applied to. Control also often turns to obsession: My boyfriend would watch me sleep at night and insist on reading my diary. He wanted me to account for my schedule, wanted to know who I ate lunch with, and who drove me home after rehearsal.

Jealousy
This one is huge. It can be so hard to see jealousy for what it is because it almost seems romantic, right? He loves you so much that he can’t bear to see you even talking to another guy because he’s so afraid of losing you. It’s the whole Edward and Bella thing. My boyfriend made a rule that we weren’t allowed to hug someone of the opposite sex. He would spy on me at work to make sure I wasn’t flirting with other guys. He brought a baseball bat on campus so that he could beat the shit out of a boy who liked me (thankfully, I was able to convince him this was a bad idea). This jealousy started out small, but grew over time. A little bit of jealousy here and there is nothing to worry about, but if jealousy plays a big role in your relationship, this is for sure something to look at. You’ve gotta watch this sign like a hawk.

Threats
This is where it starts to get serious. “I’ll kill myself if you break up with me.” “I’ll kill you if you break up with me.” “I’m going to kick his ass if I see you talking to him again.” “I’ll break up with you if you don’t have sex/go out/do these drugs with me.” If any of this sounds remotely familiar, run like hell in the opposite direction. This isn’t love—it’s about power and that other person’s severe psychological problems.

Isolation
When I first started going out with my boyfriend, I had a huge group of friends and was very social. By the end, I’d dropped several friends, had major fights with my closest one (to the point that we weren’t speaking for months), pretty much left my church, and was ditching classes I loved because my boyfriend wanted to see more of me. I had never felt so alone in my life. It felt like no one could possibly understand what I was going through. When anyone tried to tell me I should break up with him, I built a wall between us—or my boyfriend did it for me. It was a very us-against-the-world mentality, and it was lonely and terrifying.

Manipulation
It’s hard to know when you’re being manipulated, and it usually takes a long time to get hip to how your partner is manipulating you. Usually this looks like making you feel bad if you want to do something with your friends or you want to do an activity that takes you away from your partner. Abusers might make you feel like you’re in the wrong when you confront them about something or convince you that you’re imagining things when they give you the cold shoulder or punish you in some way. This always looks like your boyfriend or girlfriend not taking personal responsibility for their own feelings and actions: They will make it seem like their reactions are normal, and that they’re only acting this way because you did X or said Y. Start paying attention, especially when you know they did something uncool, confront them, and then you wind up apologizing. This is a total mind game and it’s crazy-making.

These are just a few of the signs of an abusive relationship. If you even think you might be in a bad romance, please reach out to someone you trust. Tell them what’s going on. Don’t go through this alone. You need friends, a teacher, a sibling, or a cool aunt or parent to help you through. I promise that you will find the right person someday—someone who treats you with the love and respect you deserve.

Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know needs help further identifying or escaping from an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) or chat with them online.

Heather Demetrios is the author of several critically acclaimed novels including Something Real and I’ll Meet You There. She is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she isn’t traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, she lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home.

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