Not All Bookstores Are Created Equal

Hey sportsfans! I was supposed to be reviewing a self-pubbed title today, but unfortunately, the book ended up being not the best fit for this space. Instead, you get me again! I’ve been a little self-indulgent here, and written a post that’s been on my mind for a few months – particularly since so many publishing professionals have been struggling through this weird pandemic year. I love these details, but I hope that even if it’s not usually their jam, readers will be able to use this knowledge to support authors during this ongoing, trying time.

I’m going to make my own shameless plug for support with this post as well. At the end, like all of my posts, I’ve put a link to my ko-fi. As a bookseller at a local indie, I lost most of my income due to COVID this year. I’ve been lucky enough to figure out ways to make it work, but your support is always appreciated! If you enjoy this post, please consider supporting my work on this blog!

Book Retail 101

The publishing industry is so huge that its inner workings can be mystifying even to those with a peek behind the curtains. When you walk into a retail outlet, and purchase a new book published by a trade publisher, there is a whole globalized ecosystem behind how that object came to be.

Photo by Streetwindy on Unsplash

The Short Version

First, the author writes the book. Generally, an agent then partners with the author to edit and submit the book to publishers. An acquiring editor purchases the book, and then works with the author, a marketing team, and artists to create the final mock up. That is then sent to a printer, generally in China. Advance review copies, or ARCs are the first prints of books that are created, pre-publication, and then the final product is printed. Cases of the book are shipped to the distribution company. Bookstores order copies from the distribution company, and they have 90 days to sell the books, or return them to the distributor. The books that are left over are called “remnants”, and depending on the title, they are either destroyed and recycled, or purchased in bulk at a lower price from a different kind of book retailer, who can then mark them down and resell them at discounted prices.

Types of Book Retailers

You can see even from this really brief breakdown that there are many different versions of every book, and that there are many kinds of book retailers. In this post, I’m going to break down what the different kinds of book retailers are, and how you can use that knowledge to best support the person that is at the heart of this whole industry: the author.

Photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

New Books for Cover Price

I’ll start with the type of book retailer that most people know best: brick and mortar chain bookstores. These are stores like Chapters and Indigo in Canada (and recently the US), Waterstones in the UK, and Barnes and Noble in the US. They are one of the backbones of book retain worldwide. They sell new books, which they buy at wholesale prices, for the cover price. That difference in price is their profit margin. They sometimes get special prices from distributors, allowing them to have pretty great sales – like “bargain bestsellers” or Indigo’s well-known 30% hardcover markdowns, for example. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

Independent bookstores are my favourite kind of bookstores, and that’s generally because they are smaller, and have a more curated selection of books, than your average chain store. Although they may have more than one storefront location, independent bookstores are not owned by an umbrella corporation, and operate (as the name would have you believe) independently. You can find an independent bookstore in the US through IndieBound, or in Canada through the map recently created by Penguin Random House Canada. CBC also recently posted a resource for finding a Canadian indie that will ship books ordered online, due to the pandemic.

Photo by Ashley Byrd on Unsplash

If you ask me, libraries and indies are the cornerstones of the publishing industry and book distribution. Indies work so hard to support authors and reading communities, and often take political stances in the industry where chain bookstores can’t or choose not to. Indies sell new books, which they buy at wholesale prices, for the cover price. That difference in price is their profit margin. They are not generally eligible for publisher discounts, which means that any discount you receive from an indie is a loss to the store, that they’ve chosen to absorb for their customers. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

One important thing to know when you’re shopping for a title that a smaller independent bookstore may not have in stock is that indies have contracts with all of the major book distributors in their region. What that means is that just because you don’t see something on the shelf doesn’t mean that they can’t get it for you! If you drop by, call, or Email your local indie seeking a specific title, they can almost always order it in for you if it’s still in print. Unlike online book retailers, if you pick up your book in the store when it arrives, you won’t be left on the hook for shipping costs, either.

Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

The next kind of book retailer where you’ll see new books in the wild for regular cover prices is special markets stores: your pharmacy, grocery store, Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, big box stores like Target or Wal Mart, price clubs like Costco, or gift stores. These are different from off-price retailers like Marshall’s or Winners, and I’ll get to those later. These stores are curated, but in a way that’s very different than independent bookstores, and generally only carry household names, bestsellers, or lifestyle books that fit a certain niche, depending on the store. They are purchased from distributors through special markets sales reps that work with publishers and help curate these selections. They are sometimes sold in speciality packaging created specifically for the needs of that retailer, and can sometimes be offered publisher discounts to lower the price point for the store’s customer base. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

Discounted New Books

This is where bookselling starts to get tricky. Let’s zip back to the short version of this story. Remember where I wrote: The books that are left over are called “remnants”, and depending on the title, they are either destroyed and recycled, or purchased in bulk at a lower price from a different kind of book retailer, who can then mark them down and resell them at discounted prices? Well, these stores are where those remaindered books go. Books sold at these stores have been bought for radically discounted prices, and the pricing of the books is at the discretion of the retailer. When you buy a book that has been remaindered, authors do not generally get royalties on that sale. The bulk sale of these books is a way for publishers to recoup some of the loss of printing and distributing a book that did not sell well for its cover price, and to avoid landfill waste or the costs of bulk recycling.

It is important to know: remaindered books are new books. They are generally identified by a remainder mark, which can be a dot on the cover of the book, or a line on the pages, but otherwise, they will not appear drastically altered or damaged. For more information about remaindered books, check out this piece from the Guardian.

Who are the stores that sell remnants, and how can you tell whether or not you are actually supporting an author when you buy their book? Some of these stores are off-price department stores that sell all kinds of remaindered goods, not just books. The most recognizable are those owned by the multi-national TJX Companies: HomeGoods, HomeSense, Marshalls, Sierra, TJ Maxx, TK Maxx, and Winners. Ross’ Dress for Less is also an off-price retailer. These stores target middle-income households with more affordable prices than regular retailers.

Photo by Enayet Raheem on Unsplash

If indies are my favourite book retailers, “independent” bookstores that make the bulk of their income off of remaindered books, and often, other remaindered sidelines (non-book products sold by book retailers, like bookmarks, tote bags, stationary, etc.) are my least favourite. Technically speaking, these are still independently-owned stores, but they do not play the pivotal role in the publishing industry or the lives of publishing professionals or authors that indie bookstores do. Some of them even have contracts with major book distributors and sell a mixture of remnants and new, cover-price books. My local example of this is Book City, which claims the title of “Toronto’s leading independent bookstore”, even in a huge city with thriving indies who do incredible work. (Shoutout to Another Story, A Different Booklist, Glad Day, Bakka Phoenix, Page and Panel, the Beguiling, Mable’s Fables, Ella Minnow, Type, (the list goes on)…)

The last place where you will see remaindered books in their natural habitats is in second hand book stores, thrift shops, or online book outlets like Book Depot or Book Outlet. Anywhere where you see books selling for less than the cover price, you can be almost certain that you have encountered a book that has been remaindered. The important thing to know is that while this may appear customer or budget friendly, it is actually much worse for the industry than patronizing your local library. Publishers get pennies for these remaindered copies, and none of the professionals or content creators who work to make these books happen get paid when remaindered books are sold.

Second Hand Stores and Rare Book Sellers

Credit where credit is due, on my part: I don’t advocate purchasing books that are still in print at discount prices if you can access them through a library or purchase them at cover price. However, second hand bookstores, and especially rare and antiquarian book dealers, are so essential to the literary landscape. I have spent many hours in my life rummaging through dusty shelves of out of print, impossible to otherwise find, or internationally printed books, and that way I have found some absolute gems. My current favourite is the Monkey’s Paw, and if you want to check out your local, you might find them through the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada, or the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Just Me!

Hey friends! This week on the blog, I’m doing something a little different than the massive, exciting guest posts I’ve been throwing around lately. This week… it’s JUST ME. I’m going to tell you, 1, about this rad video game I played this weekend, and 2, I’m FINALLY going to let this post that I wrote in 2018 and for some reason NEVER POSTED go LIVE! Be free, ye olde blog post! Tell the world now VERY belatedly about the brilliant book Jonny Appleseed, by Joshua Whitehead.

Before we dive in, a quick plug that NEXT WEEKEND is the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) Kids Book Fest, which is free, live, and online this year. Don’t miss it! It’s one of my favourite events of the year. Photo evidence below.

Visual Novel: Neo Cab

I think probably more than I should about what “reading” means. The perennial question of, is listening to audiobooks reading? Semantically, maybe not, but practically, of course, especially in a world where visually perceiving words on a page isn’t accessible to all readers. In my house, we do a lot of reading. My partner reads braille, and I use a text-to-voice app to give my eyes a break from sensory overload, we both have eReaders, we have an impressive stash of audiobooks, and predictably, our physical bookshelves are full to bursting.

When I was a kid, I devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books. The series was immensely popular, selling over 250 million copies in the 1980’s and 90’s alone. It still continues to this day – the latest series is Choose Your Own Adventure: Spies, based on non-fiction stories. The next title in the series, Mary Bowser, written by Black author Kyandreia Jones, comes out in October. Later, I discovered interactive text games, and recently, I decided to try out a visual novel on Nintendo Switch.

Visual novels are otherwise known as point and click narrative games, and are distinct from adventure games, which incorporate narrative and other gameplay aspects, for example, puzzle-solving. Visual novels are text-based stories that integrate animation with interactive elements. I honestly didn’t know how I’d feel about this. I love slice of life anime, which seemed to have some of the same flavours as visual novels, but I wondered if they would just feel like really boring action adventure games. I’m not a … super patient person.

Turns out? I love them. They absolutely incorporate aspects of slice of life, and also simulation games, in ways that feel organic and engaging. When partnered with really stunning visuals, they are a really great way to spend an afternoon.

Neo Cab is described as an “emotional survival game”, and it’s available for Switch, Linux, Mac, iOS, and PC. In it, you play Lina, a WOC who is basically a near-future Uber driver, who just moved to the city to be with her (toxic) best friend, Savy. The game is queer-coded, heartwarming, anti-capitalist, AND has really skillful non-binary rep. It checked every box for me… and taught me weirdly uncomfortable truths about myself. (Are video games allowed to do that??) If you’re having trouble getting into conventional reading these days, for whatever reason, or you’re just looking for a new way to experience storytelling, this game is a great place to start.

Jonny Appleseed: Written December, 2018

Listen, yall. I wrote this piece around the time I created this blog. I didn’t know back then if I was going to really be able to commit to this thing, and it felt like A Lot. Also, the launch it’s about… fully changed my life. It was when I got to really meet the incredible Alicia Elliott, who continues to inspire me to this day. I had a lot going on at the time. Somehow, this fell down in my drafts and never got posted. So, consider this a time capsule, because Jonny Appleseed seriously deserves the air time.

When I found out that my book shop would be hosting the (belated) Toronto launch of Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed, I was so excited that I immediately messaged my managers to ask if I could work the event. Whitehead had been on my radar since spring of 2018. He was nominated for a Lambda award in the Trans Poetry category for his previous publication, full-metal indigiqueer, a collection that propels Two-Spirit (among other) identities out of a Eurocentric-imposed past and into an anti-colonial future.  I read and admired the clear and generous letter that Whitehead wrote when he turned down the nomination, calling for space to be made to celebrate Two-Spirit identities within (colonial) literary award frameworks. Then, I encountered Whitehead himself at the FOLD last spring, where his books sold out completely, and customers who had attended his panels raved about how well-spoken and spellbinding he was on stage. Jonny is one of the only books I’ve ever found myself searching through boxes for in the middle of the night at the book shop.

After all of this exposition, I was hungry for the months-late launch of Jonny Appleseed… and I hadn’t even peeled open the cover of the book yet. Ultimately, I didn’t manage to start Jonny Appleseed until five days before the event, which meant that I finally finished the book only a few hours before Whitehead would take the stage. I was still wiping tears off my cheeks when I headed out for work that day, as I sent a text to my partner to say that I was sobbing in our living room over the end of the book – in a good way.

The blurbs and press copy on the back of Jonny Appleseed describe it as a fever dream that centres on a Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer glitter princess, who is returning home to attend his stepfather’s funeral. I cannot emphasize enough that even with all the hype that I experienced around this book, so much was still completely unexpected for me.

The non-linear novel is peppered with nostalgic and evocative anecdotes about Jonny’s close relationship with his kokum (grandmother), and I hadn’t anticipated that being such poignant part of the book. I was raised in a small rural city by my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother all under one roof. Although my relationship and memories of my familial matriarchs looked very different from Jonny’s in some cases, there were striking similarities, and I found these sections of the text to be heart wrenching. Whitehead has what seems to be a careful willingness to delve into the complexities of the relationships that exist between people who exchange caretaking; a tactful ability not to shy from the grittiness in these relationships, but to describe them in such a way that they don’t lose sweetness in the process.

Jonny Appleseed also wrestles with the reconciliation of identities with the environments that the character inhabits. On the rez (reservation) where Jonny was raised, he struggles to find space to safely express the queer and gender-defying aspects of his Two-Spirit identity. After moving to the city, he struggles instead to find space for his Indigineity. For a reader like me, the experience of this theme was twofold. While carving out space for a complex identity is relatable, it was also educational, and any white settler reader would do well to learn from this book.

Perhaps most unexpectedly? I laughed. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I have trouble laughing. Whitehead cleverly weaves pop culture references into this book, and through them had me chuckling and reading passages aloud to other people. 

I’ve already passed on my copy and an additional two copies of Jonny Appleseed to friends and family. It was released in paperback, and it’s well worth the investment required to check it out.

Also, check out Joshua Whitehead’s new collection, Love After the End, a young adult anthology of stories by Indigenous authors, featuring Two Spirit and queer heroes in utopian and dystopian settings.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Miss Meteor Blog Tour

I know I’m shaking up the schedule a bit this week, but it’s a big week over here, so I hope that it’s worth the wait! I’ll be back to my regular schedule next Monday at noon ET like usual! For now, I have a few exciting announcements to share, and then a review and (what I think is) a cool creative, quarantine-friendly project in honour of the release of Miss Meteor, a new contemporary YA with speculative elements from incredible non-binary author Anna-Maria McLemore, in collaboration with Tehlor Kay Mejia.

Cemetery Boys Makes History

First, I want to take a quick minute to shout out trans author Aiden Thomas, his agent Jennifer March Soloway, and the editorial team at Swoon Reads, for the breakout success of the paranormal romance novel Cemetery Boys. Not only did it hit the NYT Bestsellers list, but it also made the National Book Award long list!

Thomas is in good company on the National Book Award long list – Black non-binary author Kacen Callender also made the list with their newest offering, King and the Dragonflies.

New Non-Binary Author: The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass

In my corner of the world, we’re also celebrating the debut YA from #SpineSquad author Adan Jerreat-Poole, The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass. Adan is a non-binary author, and their YA fantasy officially released this week from Dundurn, after quietly sneaking onto some shelves in advance earlier this summer. This is the first in a duology, and Adan’s working on some amazing new LGBTQ2S+ SFF projects for the future – so watch this space.

reddietoread

I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce all of you to a new non-binary content creator who is now supported by Books Beyond Binaries: reddietoread! The human behind this account is Eddie, a college student studying literature, creative writing, and art history. They are currently
fulfilling their middle school dream of being a booktuber, and they are working on their other
childhood dream of becoming a published author. In their spare time they can be found reading
YA and middle grade fiction, learning how to use power tools, and obsessing over anything dark
academia-related.

Check out their channel for all kinds of rad content, including a playlist of non-binary book reviews and recommendations! The video below is the first in that series. Welcome to the team, Eddie! So glad to have you!!

Last But Not Least…

I just want to take this opportunity to wish an INCREDIBLE book birthday to my friend and author Cecilia Lyra on her sophomore novel, The Faithfuls, which comes out TODAY!!! CeCe is a badass Brazilian feminist woman living in Canada, and I was thrilled when my pre-order landed in my inbox this morning! Pick this one up, and when you do, if you can guess the twist ending? Make sure to let CeCe know… so far, no one has!

#MissMeteorOnTour

I jumped at the chance to be an official stop on the blog tour for this book (thanks, Caffeine!) for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because the level of hype Miss Meteor is seeing leading up to its release is truly not on par with the level of excitement I felt when I discovered this title. Also – I want to interrupt myself for a second here to give a special shoutout to @MeteorReadathon on Twitter, because their Meteor Shower Readathon is such a great idea. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up some of these authors’ other works, check out their feed for great inspiration.

Tehlor Kay Mejia

I’ve gushed about Tehlor Kay Mejia’s incredible YA duology We Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Storm in this space before. What I have never written about is how Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty is one of the first books that brought me back to reading YA fiction after a long time away from the category. I picked it up when I first began working at Another Story, during my many years in academia, and had to reintroduce myself to YA after being exclusively immersed in scholarly non-fiction for way too long. Wild Beauty was one of the first queer YA books I ever read, and it is still one of few books that I see dimensions of myself reflected in that don’t really show up anywhere else. Later, when McLemore celebrated their non-binary identity publicly, it was super heartwarming for me, and their books hold a special place in my heart for all of that.

Anna-Marie McLemore

When I heard that these two incredible queer Latinx powerhouses were teaming up on a project, I was over the moon – and Miss Meteor does not disappoint. My preface to this glowing review is this: I didn’t bother to read much about the book before I picked it up, because I was so excited to see what Mejia and McLemore would come up with together. I had skimmed the jacket copy and seen the cover, and that was it. This book was not at all what I expected.

The best way I can think of to pitch Miss Meteor is if Dumplin’ were super queer, and had a little touch of magic. I was a kid who grew up closeted in a small town that’s truly supportive and sweet as long as you abide by don’t ask, don’t tell… and there there were a lot of moments of searing truth in this story. There aren’t enough queer books that take place outside of the sprawl of metropolis, and we need them. I don’t think that LGBTQ2S+ folks think enough about how different it is experiencing queerness and gender non-conformity outside of urban centres. McLemore and Mejia paint a picture of a small town that’s believable and quaint and chilling, and there is skillful, diverse representation in every direction in this narrative.

Miss Meteor has so many things to love, including food descriptions that left me drooling onto my eReader. It has Wild Beauty‘s fingerprints all over it in the character of Lita – after reading this, I want to go to a cactus birthday party so badly! The only criticism that I really have of the book overall is that I could have used just a touch more of the magic that we get a hint of through this main character. It had everything else – the thrust of a powerful friendship story to keep to keep the plot momentum in forward motion, touches of romance and truthfulness, and the spectacular, voicey writing that I’ve come to expect from the authors’ other works. I just fell a little bit in love with the girl who was made of stardust, and I wanted to know more.

Miss Meteor Stitch Project

For those of you who don’t know, when I’m not reading, I’m usually stitching. I discovered embroidery a few years ago when I was adjusting to a new psychiatric medication, and I still love it. It’s cheap, it’s not super difficult, and I love the outcome. For my creative project for #MissMeteorOnTour, I decided to make a sheet of stitchable (or colour-able, if you’re not a stitcher!) Miss Meteor Merit Badges!

What’s your favourite part of this book? The pageant, the cactus birthday parties, the delicious diner food, or the awesome space rocks and star dust? The choice is yours.

Project materials:

  • large wooden or plastic embroidery hoop – nothing fancy required
  • scissors
  • fabric! You can use an old T-shirt (or bedazzle a new one), a swatch of cotton, or really anything you have lying around. Choose something with a fun pattern for a decorative background.
  • medium-sized embroidery needles. I would suggest DMC Size 5, if you’re a beginner!
  • graphite transfer paper to trace the pattern onto the fabric
  • embroidery floss. Use any colours you want! I would suggest DMC six-strand embroidery floss. It’s inexpensive, you can get it at lots of craft stores, and it comes in LOTS of colours. Sometimes, less expensive floss can tangle more easily, but you can also dig into your childhood friendship bracelet supplies for this project!
  • basic felt sheets
  • Mod Podge matte – you can use the spray version, or use a sponge to apply the regular version

Resources used to create the merit badges:

Instructions

All you need to do is print the pattern above, use the graphite paper to trace it onto fabric (be careful, these lines won’t wash off), and then get started! Before you thread your needle, you’ll want to cut off a few feet of embroidery thread, and separate it into 3 strands. Only use 3 strands at a time to thread your needle. Once you’ve threaded your needle, and tied it off at the end, you’re ready to get stitching. You can use a simple straight stitch or back stitch for any of these designs, or get creative and choose something more complicated! There are loads of Youtube tutorials for learning embroidery stitches.

Once you’re done, and you love your badge, you can iron it flat, or leave it under a stack of books for a few days to flatten out. Then, cut the felt sheet to make a backing, and glue it to the back of the badge, and you’re done! If any of you decide to stitch (or colour!) a Miss Meteor merit badge from these patterns – PLEASE send me a note through the contact form! I would love to feature it on the site.

Happy stitching!

Trans (P)review and FOLD Kids

Books Beyond Binaries Editorial Services

A little shameless self-promotion to start off this post, before I get to the good stuff!

As most of you know, as well as being a full time student, I am also a fledgling literary agent and a bookseller. I make most of my living in my student life, taking on freelance research projects, and I’ve usually had the comfort of a small but reliable paycheque from the bookshop where I work part time to fall back on. Unfortunately, because of COVID, both of these sources of income have all but disappeared from my life these days. As such, I’ve decided to start offering book doctor services to writers alongside my agenting career. I’m putting my experience of 3 years as a bookseller, nearly a decade in academic publishing, and my first year in traditional publishing to work with competitive rates to support writers at all stages of their careers. You can check out my Fiverr page here if you’re interested. While I am available for bigger contracts, I love offering thorough first pages critiques to strengthen longer projects and pitch packages.

FOLD Kids

Before I jump in to this week’s feature, I want to highlight an amazing event coming up TOMORROW for educators, supported by The Festival of Literary Diversity’s Kids Book Fest. Details for Decolonizing Education and the Role of Restorative Justice in Schools is a free webinar, and details can be found below. While you’re looking, registration opens on September 2nd for the Kids Book Fest being held in October that is not to be missed if you’re a supporter of diverse literature for young readers, a parent, an educator, or a young reader yourself!

Kit Mayquist’s Review of FIRST, BECOME ASHES, by K. M. Szpara

I cannot say enough how excited I am to host this review, written by up and coming #SpineSquad author, Kit Mayquist, who recently celebrated the sale of his debut novel, Tripping Arcadia, to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

There is nothing I love more than trans stories being reviewed by trans readers. While Kit is just beginning a promising literary career of his own, K. M. Szpara made waves with his debut Docile, and his sophmore release First, Become Ashes is expected in April of 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

To readers of First, Become Ashes, Kit would also like to recommend one of my favourite haunted house books of all time, The Good House, by Tananarive Due. Tananarive Due is an epic horror author who I didn’t learn about until way too recently. If you’ve been sleeping on her work, definitely check it out. It will give you chills, no matter how hot this summer is getting.


There is magic in the world, though it depends on who you ask.

Being raised in a cult of Baltimore-based, monster-hunting wizards, the main character Lark is awaiting his 25th birthday where he will undertake his mission as one of The Anointed, and fulfill his oath to rid the corrupted world of monsters. When we begin, he is bidding his partner and lover Kane goodbye, watching him leave the guarded gates of Druid Hill and venture into the world to complete his own mission, but for Lark, this ending is the largest beginning he could imagine, as Kane betrays them and reports the Fellowship of the Anointed to the FBI, resulting in a sting operation and their arrest.

It is rare to find a story where two realities can exist simultaneously and still seem rooted in our own, present day. First, Become Ashes deals with many topics that readers will find familiar, topics such as growing up and discovering your own beliefs versus those you were raised in, and the rocky path of wrestling with belief when everyone seems to have a different opinion on it. Much like in Szpara’s debut novel, Docile, First Become Ashes is a story of a man discovering who he is in the world as he undergoes a deprogramming. In fact, for many readers of Docile, the themes in First, Become Ashes will seem very familiar. Our protagonist, Lark has an inner narrative and voice that is strong-headed and yet, gives the reader full insight into the unraveling (and lack thereof) of his beliefs and of his identity as he wrestles with what it means to exist beyond life as a chosen one for a cult that the world is all too happy to condemn. Much like how Docile followed Elisha as he lost sense of himself and struggled to regain it, our protagonist takes the reader on a journey full of bravado and surety, with his fingernails clinging so hard to his beliefs that he practically bleeds. His is a story of agreement with his cult’s beliefs and a resistance to the efforts of those around him to tell him otherwise. Along his journey Lark meets a cosplayer, Calvin and in him he finds companionship as well as another soul desperate to believe there is magic in the world.

 From a meet-cute beside the dumpsters in cosplay (relatable for many of us, I’m sure), to unashamed enthusiasm for the 21st century nerd and fan culture (so many references, so many!), Calvin is just like any one of us. Eager to go on a quest, and above all else, eager to believe that the rumors about The Fellowship of the Anointed’s ability to wield magic is genuine. For Calvin, Lark’s presence in his life is a much awaited turning point, and a choice he makes to find out for once and for all if he can live the life of the characters he dresses up as, and possibly find love in the process. What he does not expect, is to go on a road trip with a bag of BDSM toys in the trunk, and to discover that for some, magic does not come from a loving, joyous space, but from something darker.

 First Become Ashes comes with a warning of sadomasochism, and it is a warning well-deserved if that is not your thing. If it is your thing, you will be well rewarded. Much like in Docile, themes surrounding consent, and what it means for our protagonist, develop through a narrative that makes such lessons poetic and extremely grounded in the story’s plot and world-building. For Lark, there is no question magic is real, he feels it in his body, becoming weak when he is drained of it. It is a very real thing. It is also something that requires a partner to hurt him in order to produce, and it is a process his scar-marked body enjoys arguably more than any other member of The Fellowship.

 As his bond with Lark develops, it is revealed Calvin is no stranger to BDSM and the world of kink, though Lark’s approach to it, and his relationship to a life where pain is a necessity and not something pleasurable, is concerning. This raises an internal debate throughout the book for Calvin and Lark’s Fellowship partner, Kane, about if Lark is even aware of his own kinks, and if he can come to understand his own enjoyment and embrace pleasure in his life aside from shoving down any positives for the sake of self-discipline. One final note on the BDSM link to magic and ritual in the book is that there are two major instances of sexual abuse and rape on the page as we learn about the actions of The Fellowship and their leader. Though not glorified, the scenes highlight the link between spiritual and sexual abuse in a way that may be extremely triggering for some readers, so please be advised.

However as serious as the themes discussed in First, Become Ashes are, it is not without humor. References to protein shakes as ‘potions’ and glow sticks from your classic convention rave being used as evidence of magic come with a nod and a wink that feels like that assignment I had once in Anthropology 101 to discuss current items as if they were being discovered 100 years from now. That being said, the humor serves a dual purpose in showing us just how isolated Lark and the other Fellowship member’s lives have been, and while some pick up the intricacies of modern day objects like hotel key cards and Google Maps with ease, for others, it is a reminder of just how much they’ve been denied, and a challenge to avoid a deep seeded fear of spiritual corruption.

It is no shock that the beliefs of First, Become Ashes feel so rooted and real, knowing that Szpara himself has a Theology degree. What was perhaps most refreshing to me was seeing a classic ‘Doomsday cult’ without the Christian lens. Instead the Fellowship reminded me most of my own childhood spent in metaphysical circles and having soul paintings done and being taught to bend spoons with my mind when all I wanted to do was play Pokémon. I think this is why for myself especially, the experiences of the various Fellowship members in the book feel truer to life than anything else. In First, Become Ashes we see all sides of the belief debate. The one who chose to leave, the one who was abused, the one who was never chosen, the shunned Preacher’s Kid, and the outsiders who want to believe, as well as those who hate them. Seemingly every perspective on The Fellowship and their actions is explored at least briefly, and readers are likewise taken on the journey of whether the magic is real or not, bouncing between proof for both sides, and unexplainable instances that will continuously leave you guessing yourself, just how much is fact or fiction.

Last though certainly not least, as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community myself, First, Become Ashes is full of inclusive language and gender identities (one of the best things about The Fellowship is the normalized greeting of “What are your pronouns?” ) making it as comforting a read as it is a challenging one in terms of themes. Queerness is on the page in a celebratory way, as are discussions of polyamory and different types of love; something I’d personally like to see much more of from publishing. Ultimately First, Become Ashes is an excellent, well-awaited sophomore novel to Szpara’s Docile, while treading equally in familiar territory as well as new. Szpara’s ability to connect sex and identity to the plot in an inseparable way are what make his writing memorable long beyond the last page, and what make this novel shine.

Starred Rating: 5/5


PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

BREAK OUT THE SCISSORS

Happy Monday, theydies and gentlethems. This week, I’m pleased to share with you a review of Avalon’s Last Knight, an #OwnVoices LGBTQ2S+ novel by trans author Jackson C. Garton. I’m also thrilled to host a guest post from dark fantasy author A. J. Vrana on one of my favourite editorial topics: HOW TO CUT WORDS. Thank you so much for your continued support of this space! If you want to throw a coin to your blogger, my ko-fi is linked at the end of the post.

Review: Avalon’s Last Knight, by Jackson C. Garton

I’m so pleased that author Jackson C. Garton sought me out and shared this book with me, and I owe him a public apology, because it took me forever to finally pick this up. 2020 has been a hard year, and if I had known that I would enjoy this as much as I did, I may not have waited so long. Sorry, fam!

Avalon’s Last Knight from Pride Publishing is loosely categorized as LGBTQ Urban Fantasy, but I think it is more accurately described as an LGBTQ2S+ romance with speculative elements. I’m not usually all about retellings, but Garton managed to skillfully integrate the old and the new in a way that wasn’t distracting from the thrust of the narrative. Set in the rural American south – a rare bird for LGBTQ2S+ fiction – Garton’s book follows Lance and Arthur, high school BFFs turned sweethearts, as they learn to navigate their new relationship, and all the complications that come with it.

With strikingly raw prose reminiscent of the fiction of the Trans Vanguard, Garton expertly weaves thematic aspects of the original tales of Avalon through a diverse and contemporary romance flavoured with a taste of the occult. Emotions right on the surface, this book tackles the complexity of transition, love, and the cultural tension of progressive life in a conservative setting.

My only criticism of this book is that, to my knowledge, the racial representation is not based on lived experience. For me as a reader, it felt as though the diversity aspects were handled sensitively, and this remains a book that I would recommend. As a white reader, I would be interested to see reviews of this title from POC.

When I asked Garton what book he would recommend by a Black author, he suggested Kacen Callendar’s Felix Ever After, which was featured on Santana Reads! I’m thrilled to have been introduced to Avalon’s Last Knight, and I look forward to seeing what Garton comes up with next.


The Baldwin quote above is the banner that I use on my editorial reports for my lit agent clients. It feels appropriate here, because today, I am completely stoked to be hosting one of those clients with a guest post on one of my FAVOURITE editorial topics: how to make deep cuts. There is nothing more satisfying than a manuscript with good economy of language, and no one knows how to achieve that better than A. J. Vrana. Her method is just… *chef’s kiss*. I asked her to write this as much for my nerdy brain as for anyone else’s benefit. I hope you’ll all enjoy as much as I did.

In the meantime, if I haven’t shouted about it enough, A. J. Vrana’s beautiful debut dark fantasy novel is also now available for purchase, if you’d like a book-length example of the kind of results you can get with her editorial methods.

How to Cut Words: Guest Post by A. J. Vrana

There is no shortage of jokes about writers. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, you’re bound to encounter a quip or two about creative types and their stubborn dedication to their artistic vision. Creative people are sometimes incorrectly stereotyped as being spacey, unmoored, and impractical, much to my personal chagrin. Of course, if that were true, none of us would have succeeded in making a living with our creative work, least of all in a business that is primarily concerned with one thing: making money.

There is no separating creative writing from the publishing industry if, well, you want to be published. While there are many talented, visionary writers out there, navigating the business side of publishing can prove frustrating and alienating for many people. However, if we want our work read, we need to come to terms with the fact that publishing is a business, and businesses will always be concerned with how to maximize their profits. One of the ways they do this is by becoming intimately acquainted with the market. For a book to be publishable, it needs to have commercial potential. It doesn’t matter how breath-taking, eloquent, or poetic your writing is; if it isn’t something a publisher feels they can sell to a market they themselves have carved out through a long history of curated publication and advertisement, there is little hope the manuscript will be acquired by an agent or an editor.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

One of the often understated facets of marketability is word count. See, when I say, “markets that have been carved out through a history of curated publication,” I’m talking about genre conventions that have slowly but surely become cemented in readers’ understanding of literature, and subsequently inform their expectations. Word count is one of the many markers of how well a work fits within its intended genre. It has implications not only for a publisher’s production costs and returns, but for how the market will actually receive the work.

So, what is an acceptable word count for your next best seller? Well, it depends on the genre. Here are some general figures for popular genres; these can be easily found on the interwebs:

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000
  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

With the exception of kidlit and SFF, you’ll notice immediately that the upper end of the word count bracket for most genres is 100k. However, I would argue that if you’re a debut author, your SFF should also be around or under 100k. Once you go over this mark, the work becomes an increasingly difficult sell for both agents and publishers.

I myself am a verbose gal. When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words! I justified this massive word count by convincing myself it was what I needed to tell the story, but I was a DIRTY LIAR. In truth, the long word count reflected several of my weaknesses as a writer: I sucked at pacing. My first 50 pages were way too slow in getting to the action. I overwrote emotions. I spent too much time on scenes that didn’t move the plot forward, and I did so under the guise of ‘character development’. I underestimated how few words I needed to get my point across. After several rounds of substantive edits and several more of line edits, I parred the beast down to 97,000 words. The final manuscript upon publication? 98,300 words. The best part? The major plot beats and structure hadn’t even changed.

But how the heck do you chop a novel’s worth of words out of your manuscript to appease your agent or editor’s pragmatic bones? Well, let me tell you. Here’s how to murder your beloved in three, excruciating steps.

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

STEP ONE: Reverse Outline Your Book

The first step to chop-chop-chopping is to get rid of any large chunks of text that are unnecessary to the plot. But how do you know what’s unnecessary to the plot? That three-page meditation on the movement of celestial bodies and their implications for the fate of the family cat provide the reader with such a keen glimpse into your character’s psyche.

To figure out whether your reader will give a rat’s ass about the family cat’s natal chart, try a reverse outline. To do this, make a note of your book’s conclusion, then work your way backwards. What event prompted the ending? What then triggered the event that prompted the ending? Keep working your way backwards until you reach the beginning of your book. The catch? Don’t look at your manuscript when you do it. You, as the author, should be able to backtrack through your entire manuscript and communicate the book’s major inciting events without analyzing the text.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at your manuscript and make note of everything that falls outside of those core events, then ask yourself if those scenes are truly necessary. After reverse outlining your book, you should have a little more distance to judge whether these outliers are really needed. If you aren’t sure, cut and paste them in a separate document and see if the story still works without them. If the answer is ‘yes,’ DELETE DELETE DELETE. I don’t care how much you like it; GET RID OF IT. You won’t notice it after it’s gone, I promise.

One other option is to consolidate chapters that deal with similar events or circumstances. Are there two chapters where your protagonist visits a creepy old man in the woods to get information about a certain mystery? Slap ’em together, delete all the dialogue and prose that isn’t vital for your reader, and maintain the core purpose of both chapters—but in one!

Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

STEP TWO: Economy of Words

This is the more detail-oriented and pain-staking method of cutting words, but people grossly underestimate just how much can be excised with careful line edits. The goal here is to make sure that not a single word is wasted. There is no one method of doing this, but I’ve learned a few tricks that can go a long way.

Contractions. This one took me a while to get used to because I got my start in academic writing, where contractions are a big no-no. However, using contractions in non-academic writing, especially creative writing, can reduce word count significantly. Use Ctrl+F to find common phrases that can be replaced with contractions.

That. Many a time, the word ‘that’ is not really necessary. I was told that I’d have to cut at least 10,000 words from my book. See what I did there?

Sentence Structure. Sometimes, switching up syntax and playing with verb conjugation can spare a word or two per sentence. It may not seem like a lot, but when you have thousands of sentences, it adds up.

For example: He stared at the maskless buffoon and then wondered if humanity was done for.

Alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, then wondered if humanity was done for.

Even better alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, wondering if humanity was done for.

Now, you don’t want to use the same sentence structure over and over again. Don’t get too nitpicky with this, because sentence variety is more important than cutting a single word per sentence. Don’t forget that you can also change what order your clauses are in. Be conscious of modifiers and subordinate clause placement, as sometimes these can needlessly lengthen sentences.

Example from this very verbose blog: When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words!

Alternative: The first draft of my contemporary dark fantasy debut was 135,000 words.

Photo by Wajih Ghali on Unsplash

Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. This is probably the thing I struggled with most. I loooove starting sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but,’ especially when establishing a character’s voice. Sadly, it’s not necessary most of the time. Occasionally it’s fine if used for emphasis or in dialogue, but try to minimize this as much as possible.

Adjectives and adverbs. Remember when I said I overwrite emotions? Yeah, this. Listen, there is NOTHING wrong with a good adjective or adverb, but when you find yourself piling them on like a grocery list comprised entirely of snack foods, reign yourself in. Pick ONE snack food. Even better—ask yourself if there is a more accurate noun or verb that can replace the adjective + noun or adverb + verb you’re using.

Don’t repeat yourself. Sometimes when we try to communicate something, we spend too many sentences expressing the same sentiment. This is natural, as overwriting is how we explore the best way to get a point across. However, once we’ve done this, it’s a good idea to go back and pick one sentence that best communicates the intended point.

Metaphors > Literal Description. This can be a tough one as it forces you to exercise your poetic brain, but I promise it pays off and makes your writing more interesting. Literal descriptions of settings or a character’s emotional state tend to be quite lengthy, and if you have the attention span of a kitten like I do, they can be kind of boring too. Sometimes, an apt, pithy metaphor can convey all that needs to be conveyed in far fewer words than a very literal description. Don’t be afraid to experiment with similes and metaphors; if it doesn’t work, someone will let you know with their confusion! As with the suggestion about sentence structure, you shouldn’t turn every description into a metaphor, but it can help add some variety!

Example: On the weekends, the sidewalks were crowded with people pushing past one another.

Metaphor: On the weekends, the sidewalks [crowded] like an ant colony.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

Don’t start sentences with ‘There was’.  This is best illustrated with an example.

Example: There was a child napping in the shade.

Alternative: A child napped in the shade.

Eliminate the obvious. This is another trick best illustrated with an example:

Example: The sky was grey. The clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Alternative: The grey clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Since clouds are inherently in the sky, we don’t have to mention the sky and the clouds.

Eliminate absences. One trick to using precise language is to eliminate any mention of things being absent, and instead focusing on what is present instead of the absence. Here’s what I mean:

Example: She stared at her estranged mother and felt nothing. The love was gone.

Alternative: She stared at her estranged mother. The love was gone.

Here, it’s redundant for us to say that someone felt nothing; instead, we can infer that there is an absence by noting that ‘the love was gone’.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

STEP THREE: Repeat Step 2.

Seriously. You need to do the line edits like three times, because as you progress through your manuscript, you will grow lazy and let things slip. The first time I finished cutting on a line level, I’d eliminated 3000 words. After my second round, I’d eliminated 6000 words. By my third round, I’d cut a total of 8000 words.

And it was great.


Alex’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to check out is the Binti trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor. I had the pleasure of hearing Okorafor speak in Denver a couple of years back, and she blew my mind. This book is definitely worth the read!

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

All Eyes on Her

I could not be more excited for today’s post. I am super thrilled to welcome back BBB contributor Jack for another incredible review. This time, Jack writes about a forthcoming LGBTQ2S+ novel, Seven, by Farzana Doctor, an author of colour in my local, Toronto. Then, I am deeply honoured to be hosting a post by another Ontario author, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, whose new YA thriller, All Eyes On Her, comes out later this month. She addresses a super challenging topic in writing, and one that she proves herself to be a master of in her upcoming title that I couldn’t put down: multiple POV.

Before we jump in, I just want to put in a quick plug for an upcoming LGBTQ2S+ contemporary indie press book by my client, author CM Harris. Maiden Leap releases on September 1st, and you can read more about it here!

In addition, as a follow up to last week’s post on chapter books, huge congratulations to Theanne Griffith, Reggie Brown, and their whole team – there are more Magnificent Makers books on the way!

Jack’s Review of Seven, by Farzana Doctor

I have such a fondness for Farzana’s work, which I discovered years ago through our mutual connection to the social work profession. I was super glad when Jack chose this book to check out. Seven comes out later this year, and is available for pre-order now.

Farzana Doctor’s novel Seven is the kind of novel that, like the scent of baked bread wafting over from a bakery, lures you in. In her fourth novel, Seven, Doctor explores themes of personhood, motherhood, and the concept of individuality in a collective community. The novel borrows from Farzana’s Indian ancestry, specifically her Dawoodi Bohra community and carefully braids truth and fiction into a family’s intergenerational story. What begins as an insight into a familial tree takes Sharifa through past and present becoming a story of chosen family and the fortitude of relationships.

Seven, is a layered concoction which reveals itself to its reader in pieces. In the novel, Doctor questions how people define “harm”, challenging the notion of harm and family as mutually exclusive. Doctor represents social justice on the public scale we are familiar with, and through the individual experience which personalizes pain.

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash

CW for this book include sexual violence and gas-lighting. I found enlightenment in the presence of both sexual violence and strategies of healing. I recommend this book to readers in their young adulthood. It is also an insight into the different types of activism and stands one can take.

Farzana Doctor is a Canadian author, activist, and psychotherapist. She is a careful writer whose embroidery of Intergenerational trauma, the politicization of women’s bodies and the human experience, is both brilliant and alluring. What happens when trauma is weaponized as a vehicle of obedience and victims become perpetrators? How can multiple truths co-exist?

During this year’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), I had the pleasure of attending the virtual What We found discussion, where she posed thoughtful questions about identity, about writing. The thoughtfulness is evident once again in the configuration of Seven, a novel full of questioning.

The novel begins with Sharifa, a woman who feels broken. Sharifa and her family decide to go to India, where Murtuza (her husband) will be working and Sharifa will be on sabbatical. Sharifa plans on researching her family, specifically Abdoolally’s role as the family’s patriarch, while homeschooling her daughter.  Her daughter, Zee becomes a focal point, reminding Sharifa of herself as a child when she would travel back to India. During her research, Sharifa begins to identify the ways in which people can inflict harm their loved ones. Even though this is a work of fiction, the character of Abdoolally was inspired by Hussonally Dholkawala, Doctor’s great-great grandfather, and the character are based on the very real Dawoodi Bohras’ community.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

In many ways, the novel is an account of the experiences of a cultural transplant with sexual violence, generational trauma and belonging. By showing the varying ways in which trauma shows up for the same experience, Doctor explores the complicated nature of trauma.

In Seven, the reader is given pieces of a puzzle and asked: “what happens if we believe in the wrong thing, the wrong people?” What does healing look like?

Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, Author of ALL EYES ON HER

I met Laurie through this blog, when I first wrote about one of her titles, Last Girl Lied To, which I read during the #VillainAThon last year. I could not put this book down. Since then, I’ve learned that Laurie herself is as much of a delight as her books are, as she’s peppered me with recommendations for other un-put-down-able titles over the last several months. I think that I can safely say that we share a passion for messy teenaged femme characters, and I have never been disappointed by a book that she’s suggested for me.

I am honoured to have met Laurie, and to have received an ARC of her forthcoming YA novel, All Eyes On Her to screen read for my bookshop. It was the first book I read in 2020, while I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and it was immersive and escapist and everything I’d hoped. The ending drove me bananas in the best possible way. The last chapter was absolutely delicious, and kept me guessing through the very last page. All Eyes On Her comes out on August 18th, and is available for pre-order now.

More recently, Laurie has achieved incredible success, and as a reader I could not be happier, and as one of her supporters, I am deeply proud. Her adult debut was recently acquired by Simon and Schuster, and optioned for television by AMC. I can’t wait to read this book, and I hope desperately that we’ll all get to watch it come to live as a super bingeable series.

For this post, I am so grateful that Laurie addressed multi-POV writing. As I wrote at the top of this post, she executes it perfectly in All Eyes On Her, and it’s something that takes so much technique, precision, and dedication to master. Thank you so much for this, Laurie, and congratulations for all that is to come!

As is tradition, I asked Laurie to recommend some books by Black authors that readers of this blog should check out alongside All Eyes On Her. Her choices were Some Other Now by Sarah Everett, which releases in early 2021. She also loved Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson, and You Don’t Know Me But I Know You by Rebecca Barrow. 

Voices in a Crowd: Writing Multiple POV

When I started writing All Eyes On Her, I didn’t have a plot or an outline—just a vaguely drawn idea about a boy and a girl who went into the woods, and only the girl came back. The first voice that came to me was the main character Tabitha’s best friend, Elle, and the next thing I knew, Tabby’s sworn enemy needed a say too. Before I knew it, several other characters had emerged from my imagination, all of them with one thing in common: They knew, or had known, Tabitha Cousins, and thus felt qualified to weigh in on her guilt or innocence. To act as a sort of jury, convincing the reader of her true nature.

I drafted the novel in a fast and furious blur. By the time I finished, there were five main point of view characters, each with a different relationship to Tabby and her deceased boyfriend Mark, as well as several peripheral characters with their own chapters. To complicate matters, the story also involved news articles, blog posts, texts, diary entries, and police transcripts. 

I give huge credit to my editors for not balking at the idea of a novel with so many different POV characters and formats. They were fully on board and excited about the concept from the start. I knew the challenges I was facing—to successfully execute the style I wanted the novel to take, each voice had to sound unique, and each character had to provide different information that informed the narrative and moved the plot along. It was in editing and revising that I really learned what worked and what didn’t, and I came up with these tips for anyone else working on (or wanting to start) a multiple POV novel!

Know Your Characters

You need to know your characters no matter how many POV characters you have, or how the story is told. But it’s especially important when you have a cast of characters whose voices each need to sound distinct. Each time I entered a new perspective, I settled into that character’s head, and that informed the voice. I often asked myself, is this something she would say? Is this a reaction she would have? I also challenged myself to memorize each person’s motivations—why he feels this way, and why he thinks the reader needs to be made aware. I aimed to know instinctively how each character would react to a situation, even if it was a situation that wasn’t happening on the page. 

The Why

Ask yourself why a certain character’s POV needs to be included. What does it bring to the story? What information or insight does this person provide that another one can’t? A few side characters with POV chapters in the first draft of All Eyes On Her were cut in revisions, because as fun as they were to write, they weren’t adding any new or crucial information to the narrative.

Try Different Formats

While most of my POV characters have first-person present-tense chapters, I wrote one entirely using a police transcript format. At the time, I wasn’t sure why his story needed to be told this way, but looking back, I can see the reason. I didn’t necessarily want the reader in his head as much as directly outside of it. I wanted to showcase his personality through dialogue and intentionally keep certain thoughts off-limits. Which brings me to the next point…

Hide and Seek

Just because you have multiple characters doesn’t mean you need to give readers their every thought. In fact, it’s more effective when you don’t (especially if you’re writing a thriller where everybody may be a suspect…). Think as much about what you choose not to share as what you do. Give your readers tantalizing little gaps to fill in. Consider why a character may not be saying something, and what that tells readers about him or her. The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is solid advice for writing in general, but I find it especially helpful for navigating a multi-POV book. If readers are simply told every thought in a character’s mind, they’ll get bored easily, and you run the risk of one character blending into the next. Show how the character interacts with others. How she walks and talks. What her hobbies are. How she acts at parties. How she behaves around friends versus parents. What her secrets are, and how she conceals them…

Streamline Information

Something to avoid with a large cast of POV characters is each section feeling like an info-dump, or a repetition of information another character already shared. Ideally, you want each character’s next chapter to piggyback off the one before it, ramping up to the climax of the novel. The order needs to be determined by underlying tension, and what comes next to ratchet up that tension. Every author has a different strategy, and there’s no wrong way. Some write all of one character’s chapters before moving into the head of another, and some write mostly in chronological order. For this book, I head-hopped and wrote mostly in order, which I think helped with the pacing, and ensured that every new event built on the one before it to create momentum.

Motivation is Key

Since character arcs are so important, this is a challenge when you have several characters whose stories need to feel compelling on their own, as well as part of a whole. Make sure you always know what each character wants, and what’s standing in the way of them getting it. I also like to keep in mind what each character is hiding, or what they don’t want people to find out. Having character arcs overlap and inform each other is like putting together a (sometimes frustrating, sometimes extremely satisfying) puzzle.

Differentiate Speech and Mannerisms

A trick I employed as I edited All Eyes On Her: If I picked up the manuscript and flipped to a random chapter, would I know whose head I was in within a couple sentences? If the answer was no, I looked at why. Had I fallen into similar phrasing? Made everyone constantly push their hair back behind their ears? Did the dialogue feel familiar? Voice is everything in a book with several of them, so having consistent go-to mannerisms or expressions that feel familiar to a character helps them stand out.

I hope these tips are helpful to anyone writing multiple POV! All in all, try to think of it for what it is… a very fun experience, and a challenge that will improve your writing. If you’re someone who gets bored easily (hi, me) or something doesn’t feel right in your book from just one POV, it might be worth figuring out whose voice to potentially add to the story. Listen to what that character has to say—because it may be quite telling.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

New (to me) Resource

Before I get into content, I do want to throw up a new Enby Book List that I discovered on Twitter this week! Compiled by Jeanne G’Fellers, this is a new resource that I’ve now added to the BBB Links and Resources page! This is a great list, especially if you’re looking for indie or harder to discover titles featuring non-binary authors and characters.

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

Thanks to some inspiration from one of my clients, Marissa Ellor, I’ve decided to finally write a comprehensive list of chapter book recommendations. This is a post that I’ve been meaning to make for a while, and it’s a total bookseller post, but I hope that it will be useful to parents and kidtlit writers as well.

The bookshop where I work is in a neighbourhood with a lot of young families in it, and we also do the majority of our business with the local school boards. Our store specializes in social justice and diversity, so as curators and booksellers, we are very mindful and selective about the books that we choose. For a while now, there has been fantastic YA to choose from, and picture books are getting better and better every day. Board books are catching up, and there’s starting to be some good MG out there. When you’re looking at kids who are still learning to read independently, though, finding really good chapter books, early readers, and graphic novels for the developing (or “reluctant”) reader can be super challenging. I hope that my recommendations can make finding the gems a little bit easier for those who are overwhelmed!

There was a period of my life when I was spending a lot of time in suburban Colorado, and probably once a week I found myself at the 2nd and Charles in Aurora. This store is an oasis of used kids’ books. They have a massive selection in a clean and well-organized space, and they often do ridiculous sales. At the time, I was co-parenting, and one of my favourite things to do was to bring the kids to these sales and give them free rein to pick whatever books looked good, and then spend time sitting at one of the kids’ tables with them, discussing what we were going to bring home and why it was awesome.

A bearded person stands in front of shelves of picture books with their arms full of books. They are laughing.
Photo from the 2nd and Charles Facebook page, May 22 2019.

Part of the fun of this for me was rediscovering the books that in large part made me who I am today. I was that kid who used to bring their maximum number of library loans home every week, and had to carry a stack after the Scholastic order came into my classroom in elementary school. I was lucky enough to be allowed to read whatever I wanted, and I read a lot. Some of my favourites were chapter book series – from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Saddle Club to Goosebumps and Bunnicula… I loved these stories. The bad news is? A lot of them haven’t aged so well. The good news is? There are a LOT of new things on the market for this reading group.

Unfortunately, sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming, and because chapter books are chronically under-screened and under-reviewed compared to books in other categories, it’s hard to know what’s good. Taking a peek at Barnes and Noble’s selection, for example: there are over 27 000 titles available through their website categorized as paperback, ages 6-9, and that cost between $5 and $10 USD. The Toronto Public Library lists 5 816 results for “easy-to-read” stories. Important to note: neither of these outlets for books for kids actually categorize books AS chapter books. Where does a reader even start to look? I hope that by providing some recommendations for my favourite chapter book series, it will make the selection process a little more manageable!

A close up of a child reading a book, one eye visible, and the book large and out of focus in the foreground.
Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

I’ve chosen the series listed below for a number of reasons, and diverse representation is at the top of that list. That said, probably the BIGGEST fault in chapter books right now is that you actually can’t judge books by their covers. Although so many of these titles look super inclusive, there is a serious dearth of #OwnVoices stories, and even most of the books that feature diverse casts are still written by white folks. It’s time for kidlit publishers to seek out better representation among their authors for books in this reading level.

I am also not a fan of “potty humour” in books, so there’s not a lot of that here. For each category, I’ve profiled my favourite selection briefly, and then included a list of other titles in that category underneath. You will see that the book listed is always the first book in the series (where the series are numbered), but as a rule, it is not necessary to read chapter books in the order in which they are published! They are typically stand alone stories. Where the series name isn’t obvious, I’ve included that in parentheses following the title.

A child looks at a bunch of books on a shelf.
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Books with Animals as Characters

When you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing book for a group of young kids, or a great read aloud, it’s hard to go wrong with anthropomorphic animals just living their lives. The Heartwood Hotel series, written by Canadian author Kallie George and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin is a wholesome series about a super-cozy hotel for forest animals. Themes of friendship and community come through in these books accompanied by black and white illustrations.

The cover of Heartwood Hotel: A True Home, showing a tree with a small mouse sitting on a branch.
  • Eva’s Treetop Festival (Owl Diaries)
  • A True Home (Heartwood Hotel)
  • Rabbit’s Bad Habits (Rabbit and Bear)
  • A New Friend (The Adventures of Sophie Mouse)

Stories for Animal Lovers

The Jasmine Green books by Helen Peters and illustrated by Ellie Snowdon are about a young girl who lives on a family farm with her parents and siblings. Her mom is a veterinarian, and each book in this series sees Jasmine helping an animal in need. This is the perfect series for compassionate education in a classroom, or for any kid who loves animals.

The cover of A Piglet Called Truffle, featuring a pink piglet running through the grass.
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue
  • Megabat
  • Amy and the Missing Puppy (The Critter Club)
  • A Piglet Called Trouble (Jasmine Green)

Books about Friendship

I love Megan Atwood’s books. At a more accessible level for readers, the Dear Molly, Dear Olive series features two young girls who are cross-country Email penpals. One lives in a city, and one lives in a rural area. The books follow the girls as they tell each other about their adventures, and the reader explores the ups and downs of long-distance friendship. At a more advanced level are the Orchard Novels, of which there are four, one for each season. These follow four kids who live and work together on a New England apple orchard. Like Dear Molly, Dear Olive, these lighthearted books feature a diverse cast.

  • Ivy and Bean
  • Best Friends Forever? (Ashley Tall and Ashlee Small)
  • A Fall for Friendship (An Orchard Novel)
  • Dear Molly, Dear Olive
  • The Baby-Sitters Club

Books about Making Stuff

The Magnificent Makers series is an #OwnVoices series of books about kids making stuff, written by Theanne Griffith, PhD. She is not only a children’s author, but also a neuroscientist. The illustrator for this series is Reggie Brown, who specializes in diverse representation. These books are charming, well-written, and they are a brilliant fresh perspective for a space where we are only just starting to see #OwnVoices stories come to light.

The cover of Magnificent Makers: How to Test a Friendship, showing three children of colour looking at a biodome on a table.
  • Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters (Questioneers)
  • Ellie, Engineer
  • The Un-Friendship Bracelet (Craftily Ever After)
  • How to Test a Friendship (The Magnificent Makers)

Mysteries

My favourite series in this whole post is the Museum Mysteries series. While I wish that the creators behind this series (Steve Brezenoff and Lisa K. Weber) were a little more diverse, the books themselves offer a fresh new take on classic whodunnits with an inclusive Scooby Squad cast of characters and beautiful covers. They’re quick reads with awesome classroom tie-ins, and if your household is playing a LOT of Animal Crossing right now (like mine is), fans of Blathers will be super into the varied museum settings of these stories.

The cover of The Case of the Haunted Mystery Museum, featuring a child looking up at a large museum with lightning in the background.
  • Ada Lace on the Case
  • The Case of the Haunted History Museum (Museum Mysteries)
  • King and Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats

Spooky Stories

Obviously, my favourites. I wish that my childhood chapter books had aged a little better, but I’m glad that there are new spooky series taking up the mantle – like Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, by Andrés Miedoso and illustrated by Víctor Rivas. This is a classic monster-of-the-week series (appropriate for the faint of heart!) featuring the fearless Desmond Cole, and his sidekick who is afraid of everything: Andrés.

The cover of Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, which shows two children in the foreground and some spooky houses and ghosts in the background.
  • Ghoulia
  • The Haunted House Nextdoor (Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol)
  • Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts
  • Isadora Moon Goes to School
  • Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball

Fantasy

There are so many good fantasy chapter books, and they range from epic to urban to friendship stories about yetis. There’s something for every reader. Left wanting for an #OwnVoices series in this category, I still love Zoey and Sassafras, by Asia Citro and illustrated by Marion Lindsay. This whimsical series is a blend of science and magic with lots of illustrations, featuring a young girl, and her cat.

The cover of Zoey and Sassafras, which shows a young girl and a cat looking at a small dragon.
  • Upside-Down Magic
  • Dragons and Marshmallows (Zoey and Sassafras)
  • Polly Diamond and the Magic Book
  • Rise of the Earth Dragon (Dragon Masters)
  • Bo’s Magical New Friend (Unicorn Diaries)
  • Sparkly New Friends (Unicorn and Yeti)
  • Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Starfell)

STEAM (Science, Math, and More)

At a slightly more advanced reading level, the Elements of Genius series is ideal for a reader transitioning to MG novels. This series is written by Jess Keating who is herself a zoologist, and illustrated by Lissy Marlin, an artist from the Dominican Republic now living in the US. Lissy has done all kinds of cool projects, including the Magic Misfits series by Neil Patrick Harris. the Elements of Genius are witty and trendy and feature a badass feminine protagonist as she navigates a new school for gifted kids.

The cover of Elements of Genius, which shows an adolescent girl in the foreground and a ferret reaching toward a laser gun in the background.
  • Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray (Elements of Genius)
  • The Friendship Code (Girls Who Code)
  • Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet
  • Super Amoeba (Squish)

Graphic Crossover (Illustrated)

I challenge anyone not to love the CatStronauts, a graphic series by Drew Brockington featuring astronaut cats in weirdly scientifically accurate NASA-type situation. They’re wonderful. I have nothing else to say about these books.

The cover of CatStronauts, which shows four astronaut cats on the moon.
  • CatStronauts: Mission Moon
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: New School Nightmare
  • Sparks!
  • The Way Home (Owly)
  • Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea (Narwhal and Jelly)
  • Hildafolk (Hilda)

Heroes and Adventure

There are a lot of really good hero books out there, but none as weird and charming as Gum Girl by Rhode Montijo. These books have bubblegum-scented covers (yeah, for real), and feature a feminine protagonist who literally changes into gum and goes on adventures. With a little bit of Spanish sprinkled throughout, I love the writing in these books, and I love the bizarre concept. They’re heavily illustrated, and they’re funny.

The cover of Gum Girl, which shows a character made of gum flying through the sky.
  • Mia Mayhem Is a Superhero
  • Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue
  • Chews Your Destiny (Gumazing Gum Girl)
  • The Jolly Regina (The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters)
  • The Princess in Black
  • The Bad Guys
  • An Extra-Ordinary Girl (Ellie Ultra)

Contemporary

They’re a bit on the ridiculous side, but if the #OwnVoices Alvin Ho books aren’t relatable, I don’t know what are. They’re about a kid who’s afraid of everything, and basically just has to figure it out. Alvin Ho is written by Lenore Look, who has been creating kids’ books since she was a kid herself, and illustrated by the incredible LeUyen Pham, who also illustrates the Princess in Black series, and is co-creator of Real Friends with Shannon Hale.

The cover of Alvin Ho, which shows a scared child on the front.
  • Good Dog McTavish
  • Katie Woo Has the Flu
  • Alvin Ho Allergic to Girls, School, and other Scary Things
  • Sadiq and the Desert Star
  • Yasmin the Builder
  • Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business
  • Stella Díaz Has Something to Say

…last but not least: Sports, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Personal Faves

There are SO MANY CHAPTER BOOKS that I couldn’t not mention just a few more. On the top of this list is a standalone chapter book level novel called Coyote Tales. It’s written by acclaimed Indigenous author Thomas King, and tells two stories about Coyote that demonstrate his skillfulness as an author, as well as his humour. This is a rad book that we sell a lot at the shop, and although it’s a bit difficult to categorize, I would be remiss not to mention it here. It’s the perfect note to close out on.

The cover of Coyote Tales, where a coyote looks up at the moon, who frowns back.
  • Coyote Tales
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School
  • Flying Ace: Errol’s Gander Adventure
  • Little Shaq
  • The Ice Chips and the Magical Rink
  • Choose Your Own Adventure
  • Yael and the Party of the Year (Yes No Maybe So)
A small child reading on a couch.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Veronica Mars, But Make It Queer

After taking the longest hiatus from posting that I have taken since I started this blog, coming back feels a little bit like coming home. I love my life as a literary agent, and in these quarantimes I am missing my life as a bookseller, but first and foremost, I’m always a bookworm at heart. I decided to take a step back from posting to make space for Black and BIPOC voices making essential statements during a very difficult political time both for publishing and for all of us who are touched and affected by COVID-19. I don’t want anyone to stop listening to those voices, but I also don’t want to stop making space for LGBTQ2S+ voices in this little space of mine. With that in mind, I would like to extend an ongoing invitation to Black and BIPOC writers who would find it advantageous – reach out to me. This space is yours to use if it’s useful to you. I would always be more than willing to use this platform to host and boost your words and voices if I can.

With that in mind, I have two books that I have personal connections to that I want to mention this week, and I am also all kinds of honoured to be hosting Kylie Schachte, author of You’re Next this week. But first, I want to plug a few of my favourite books by Black authors, for those of you who may not know them yet.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you will know that two of my favourite books of all time are Freshwater, by Akewaeke Emezi, and Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender – both non-binary authors. Freshwater is an adult literary novel that is like no other book I’ve read before. It’s powerful and otherworldly, at times baffling and at others too relatable. It delves into themes like identity, sexuality, and trauma, and it is a difficult but breathtaking book. Hurricane Child, on the other hand, is an accessible middle grade ghost story about a young, Black, queer girl navigating her first crush. It’s poetic and spooky in all the best ways, and I would recommend it to readers of any age. While I’m at it, I’m going to put in a quick plug for books by a dear friend – Emmy Jackson is a Black author of post-apoc fiction, and their book is literally next on my TBR. We’re working on a top secret project together right now, and they’re one of my favourite people. Check out their books here.

If you’re seeking something more contemporary, I would recommend Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, which deserves to be the next TV series à la Little Fires Everywhere. I feel like every millennial has known the characters in this book in their own lives, for better or worse, and the ending is deeply satisfying. Helen Oyeyemi is an author who never ceases to amaze me. Gingerbread is my favourite novel of hers, and it’s a twisting, winding, family epic turned fairytale that is all about a sticky, spicy, maybe deadly (??) snack. In non-fiction, I’d check out Haben Girma’s memoir – a book that I don’t think got enough buzz early on, and comes out in paperback later this summer. Haben tells her story of being a deafblind Black woman, and I think it’s essential reading – especially for anyone who can only name one deafblind person in history (Helen Keller).

As for books by Black authors that I have on my TBR that are coming out later this year, there are so many… Raybearer, by Jordan Ifueko, is a YA fantasy about having the strength to find your own path. I love innovative true crime memoir, and Natasha Trethewey’s book Memorial Drive that examines the murder of her mother looks fantastic. I’m SO HYPED for Alyssa Cole’s new thriller, When No One is Watching – look out for a review somewhere in the near future, because I snagged an ARC! And in my FAVOURITE genre, YA thriller, Tiffany Jackson will drop Grown later in 2020.

…I’ll stop there for now, but thanks to inspiration from Kylie, I’ve asked everyone who I’m featuring in the blog today to recommend a book by a Black author, so this post is packed with suggestions from some incredible authors in their own right.

New Books to Check Out

While the blog was on hiatus, my agenting partner in crime celebrated her book birthday, for her debut novel The Sunset Sisters! Congratulations, CeCe! I couldn’t be prouder of you. This book is the perfect summer read, and is a great commercial fiction recommendation written by a badass feminist author. Cecilia is a Brazilian woman living in Canada, and I am absolutely honoured to call her my friend.

I asked Cecilia what book by a Black author she’d like to recommend alongside The Sunset Sisters, and she chose her favourite of this year so far – The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.

Next, I want to give a quick shoutout to A. J. Vrana, one of my #SpineSquad authors, who is celebrating HER book birthday for her debut novel on July 28th. This dark fantasy is based on her South Slavic heritage, and it gave me nightmares. I’ll cop to it! The book that she wants to recommend alongside The Hollow Gods is How Long ’til Black Future Month, by N. K. Jemisin.

We also celebrated the sale of her audio rights to Tantor this past week, so there will be an awesome audiobook forthcoming! Congrats!!

You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte

When I picked up You’re Next earlier this year, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I read it because I had an ARC, and it was an easy go-to… as you all know, murder is my comfort read. What I actually got was a super queer, relatable, emotional story that blew me away. It reminded me of Veronica Mars, but super queer. Book of my HEART. I immediately reached out to Kylie, who is an absolute fucking gem, to tell her what a punchy rollercoaster her book had been for me. I’m thrilled that Kylie was up for writing a post for this space, and even more excited because what she wrote feels like it was pulled straight out of my heart. Thank you so much, Kylie, it’s an honour.

The cover of You’re Next, out July 7th.

You can pre-order You’re Next now, and while you’re at it, Kyle recommended two books by Black authors who share her book birthday: Cinderella is Dead, by Kalynn Bayron, and The Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert. Here’s your summer challenge from me: order all three. You won’t regret a thing.

Re-Imagining Escapism for a World on Fire: Kyle Schachte

Emmy and I first planned the topic for this post back in March, but I am writing it in June. A month defined by uprisings in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, and more–more lives, more Black people brutally killed, so many that even as I say those names there are many more I’m leaving out. More may be murdered between the moment I write this sentence and the day it is posted. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the pandemic disproportionally kills Black and brown people, for deliberate, systemic reasons. 

This post is not about how I, as a white woman, feel about those murders, or the general state of racial injustice–the world emphatically does not need that. But to not mention this context would be to entirely miss the point of what I’m about to say. 

My book, YOU’RE NEXT, is the story of Flora Calhoun–a sixteen-year-old girl obsessed with solving the murder of her ex-girlfriend, Ava McQueen. I first started writing the book because I wanted to write something “fun.” I had this idea about a girl detective–a girl who would toss off one-liners like a hardboiled PI from the 40s…right before she went to math class. It would be campy, and sarcastic, and full of things like fight scenes and explosions. People might bring it to the beach, or stay up all night finishing it. 

But from the moment I began writing, I ran into some difficult questions. At the core of any murder mystery is, well, murder. So how do I write a “fun” book, when at the heart of it is a queer Black girl, brutally killed? And any murder mystery must grapple, in some kind of way, with justice–what it means and how it should be served. So how do I write a “fun” book about that, when our own justice system is so broken?

There are phenomenal YA books that tackle topics like these head-on, such as The Hate U Give, or the forthcoming This is My America. These are gorgeous, wrenching books that are desperately needed in YA. But this conversation should not be limited to “issue” books, and it shouldn’t solely be the responsibility of Black and POC creators. Too often, the media we think of as being “commercial” or “fun” (specifically the stuff made by white people) side steps these questions altogether. Those stories take place in some kind of parallel universe, where race, class, gender and the like simply do not exist. 

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that same question I was asking myself: how do you write something that’s both fun and acknowledges the sad, infuriating realities of the world? Doesn’t that, kind of by definition, make things less fun? 

Well…yeah, in some ways. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that teenagers getting killed is fun. But we should also ask: fun for whom? That fictional parallel reality, absent any acknowledgement of inequality…it was constructed for the comfort of white people. An excuse for us to continue to ignore what we are already ignoring in the real world. Escapism from the issues that barely touch us, and yet make us uncomfortable. A world in which our privilege goes unacknowledged and unchecked. 

When creators respond to these critiques, the answer is often, “It’s not supposed to be that serious,” or, “I don’t want people to have to think that hard.” Mind you, these are often the same people who have developed wholeass magic systems they expect readers to follow, but acknowledging that race…exists…is asking people to think too hard. And that response actually makes a lot of assumptions about readers, and what they will find enjoyable. It assumes a definition of “pleasure” that is, like so many things, oriented around a straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, male gaze. 

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

But that kind of pleasure can ruin a story for others. I often give up on shows or books because the oversights are so glaring. Is this a world in which no people of color exist? No queer people? Women do not make up 50% of the population? When I consume those kinds of stories, there is no escape. My brain works double time to pick out every issue, every whitewashing, every dogwhistle. 

And anyway, it’s a false choice! We already know for a fact that it is possible to write books that can be both fun and acknowledge systemic injustice…because marginalized writers have been creating those stories for ages. Check out A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, or the upcoming Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas–all joyful and escapist, and yet imbued with the lived experience of marginalization. And we should absolutely be handing the mic to #OwnVoices authors at every opportunity, but that does not absolve us from needing to do better in our own work as well. 

I’ve been thinking about these questions since I started writing YOU’RE NEXT in 2014, but my thoughts started to coalesce a few months ago, when I watched the movie Knives Out. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is an extremely campy, whimsical romp in the vein of Clue, or The Westing Game. An eccentric millionaire is murdered in a locked room, and a brilliant, ostentatious private investigator is brought in to figure out whodunit. But underneath those fun trappings, the movie is also a pointed rebuke of white privilege. The millionaire in question left his entire fortune to his nurse, Marta–a young Latinx woman whose mother is undocumented–cutting his family out of the will altogether. At first, the white family members treat Marta with saccharine affection (while loudly debating in her presence whether “illegals” should be deported), but when the money gets involved, they turn on her. They threaten her and weaponize her mother’s immigration status–even the “nice,” “liberal” side of the family. 

Now, is Knives Out a nuanced, in-depth portrayal of our broken immigration system, or the ways white people benefit from systemic racism? No. It is zany and bonkers, and exactly what you would want from a movie like that. But it provides just enough context to feel like it lives in our real world, or at least was created by people who are aware not only that these problems exist, but that they shape every story we tell–whether we acknowledge them or not. 

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

“Escapism” shouldn’t mean ignoring hard or painful things completely. Instead, when we acknowledge those issues, we find new narrative possibilities–we can create “escapist” fiction that is in dialogue with the things we are trying to escape. Knives Out is pleasurable–and commercially successful!–not because it pretends that racism and xenophobia don’t exist, but because Marta triumphs over it through her own cleverness and good heart. 

The joy I tried to create in YOU’RE NEXT is a little different. Yes, there’s the fun, high octane stuff–car chases, fight clubs, Noir tropes with a high school twist. But unlike Knives Out, the triumph over injustice at the end isn’t so clean & tidy. In many ways, I think the true pleasure of the book comes not from joy, but from pure, unadulterated rage. 

It is fury that propels Flora, the main character, to act. Anger that fuels her obsession with solving Ava’s murder. She lives in the same world we do, where kids are killed all the time, and the entire system is built to protect the wealthy & privileged. And she’s pissed as hell about it. She would love nothing more than to scream “fuck you” in the face of everyone who doesn’t care, or who looks away…and she kind of does exactly that. 

And the satisfaction of that rage can be its own kind of pleasure, or escape. As I have better educated myself about the injustice of the world around me, I have often been sad…but more often I have been livid. Furious with the world for being such a dark and violent place, furious with other people for not doing anything about it, and furious with myself for not knowing better sooner. And while there is plenty we can do in real life to work towards a better world, my hope is that there is something deeply, primally satisfying about watching a teenage girl–someone whom society has deemed weak, vulnerable, without agency–burn the whole fucking thing to the ground. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I strove to write a book that is “fun,” but still inhabits a world in which race, class, and injustice actually exist. As an obscenely privileged white woman, I have certainly gotten things wrong, and have much work still to do. But I could not write a book in which a queer, Black teenage girl dies and pretend that her race and sexuality have nothing to do with her death, or the failures of the investigation. I could not write a book in which teenagers participate in an illegal fight club for money, and not acknowledge the class divisions that drove them to such violence. Acknowledging these problems is not a chore, or an obligation. It creates opportunities for newer, more original stories to be told–and, most importantly, to connect with more readers. Because we already have plenty of books that look the other way, and people are hungry for something else.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Be Our Guest!

I am so excited that this week, I get to hand this space over to a whole bunch of rad guests! I am so grateful to author (and #SpineSquad member) Jules Devito, who is gracing this space with some of her wisdom for querying authors. You may remember that I hosted a self-pubbed author not too long ago who wrote about how to know if querying is not for you. Well, what if you know querying IS for you? The internet is a sea of advice on how to go about doing it, and it can be a lot to sift through.

Jules has queried and successfully been signed by two different agents in her writing career, and had great relationships with both of us. I have deep respect for her prior representation, with whom she parted ways amicably, and I am super grateful that she decided to sign with me on her second time around. Today, Jules has written a little bit about what she’s learned through her querying process.

The cover of Exciting Times - a green background with a cup holding two toothbrushes, and one toothbrush set down beside it.

I am also truly honoured to welcome author, friend, and fellow literary agent, Cecilia Lyra, to this space! I have so much respect for CeCe as a reader and as a fierce, brilliant feminist, and for everything that she does in my life and in the literary community. She’s penned a review of the forthcoming novel Exciting Times, by Irish novelist Naoise Dolan, and I’m so glad to share it with my readers in PART because CeCe loved the book, but also because Naoise is queer and autistic, and we need more of these voices ringing out across the literary world.

BUT FIRST:

Shoutout to Santana Reads: Trans, Non-binary, and GNC Reviews and Recs

But first: I want to drop a few links to Santana Reads, a blog by a rad bi, genderfluid, Puerto Rican teen who Books Beyond Binary supports! Carolina has dropped some awesome content lately, including an interview with non-binary author Kacen Callender about their newest title, Felix Ever After. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you may recall that Callender is the author of one of my FAVOURITE all-time middle grade novels: Hurricane Child.

A campfire, with lots of sparks around it.
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Carolina has also posted a review of Somebody Told Me, the first traditionally published book with a bigender protagonist (AND IT’S A THRILLER!); a review of fresh new LGBTQ2S+ book Verona Comics; a review of Girls Save the World in This One; and a fantastic list of 23 new and upcoming books by trans, non-binary, and GNC authors! Phew. Dear Carolina, you are on fire, how do you do it? Love, emmy.

Some titles I want to highlight from Carolina’s list that I am personally super looking forward to are Cattywampus, by Ash Van Otterloo, which is a magical MG that had me at the charming as all get out title; Even if We Break, by Marieke Nejkamp, who is not only an author whose YA thrillers are among my faves, but who is also queer, disabled, and autistic (like me!), and whose work reflects that. Also – can we TALK ABOUT THIS COVER PLEASE? Last, but not least, we have Ana on the Edge, by A. J. Sass, which is about a trans figure skater! Nostalgia calling…!

Cover of Even If We Break, by Marieke Nijkamp. White theatre masks on a black background, and text that reads, EVEN IF WE BREAK. One of the masks is cracked.

How to do the Query Thing, by Jules Devito

Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe, or: Things I Learned During (And After) Loads Of Querying

Hey book community! As some of you might know, I signed with Emmy last month, and I couldn’t be more excited. What you might not know is that I had another agent before signing with Emmy. Which means what? Yes: I’ve done a lot of querying. I sent out 88 queries before getting my first agent, and 3 before signing with Emmy. That’s a lot of rejections. But along the way, I picked up a few tidbits here and there that I’d like to share with you. This is just my personal experience talking, so, as we say in critique partner-land, YMMV.

A bat flying in a sunset.
Photo by Igam Ogam on Unsplash

The manuscript that I queried Emmy with is a dark, quirky, queer (queerky?) vampire romp – a bit of a departure from my usual SciFi manuscripts. One thing to keep in mind when querying is that you’re not just writing one book and calling it quits. You’ll write more, your style will change, your tastes might change too. So you’re looking for an agent who represents everything you think you might write in the future. More on this later. For now, let’s start with:

Oldschool Querying

WOW, I started querying for my first novel ten years ago, way before I had any business releasing it into the wild. Do you know what querying was like back then? Not all agents even had an email address. So you’d print your query and send it via snail mail, and then you’d wait weeks—or months—to get a reply in your actual mailbox. Gross!

So I began querying for my first manuscript in 2010, and I didn’t sign with my previous agent until 2015. Seven whole drafts later.

Therefore step one—and every literary blog, every agent, every editor, everyone and their dog will tell you this, because it is so true–is to make sure your manuscript is ready. I know, I know, it is always ready, right? You’ve already cast the Netflix series in your mind, time to get started! But leaping empty-handed into the void and hoping for a net isn’t quite the thing in publishing, and that’s because you might find yourself burning through your list of agents in a big-time rush, and some of them might not give you a second chance after that first rejection. So if it takes six or seven drafts before your critique partners / mentors / writing communities agree that it’s ready, then take the time to redraft. Don’t blow your chances before you’re ready to go. Publishing is slooooooow anyway. Think of it like orchids: you tend them for a whole year just to get a few blooms. (But the blooms last for a really long time and are so worth the wait.)

A blur of a person walking with stylized posters in the background reading "wait"
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I made loads of mistakes. Starting queries with “What if” questions, yikes! Scattershot querying. Not researching agents enough. (Although, again: in the early 10s it was hard to come by resources with which to research them. There was a physical book, inches thick, which listed every agent, editor, and publisher, and gave you the tiniest, most pointless little blurb about their likes and dislikes. So personalizing your query back then was a challenge.)

What Finally Worked

Publishing, and naturally, agenting as well, changed a lot in those years. Like, did you know: Back in the 10s and earlier, having written fanfic was almost sure to get you rejected? So when you started to send out those queries, you had to scrub your fandom presence if you wanted to be taken seriously. Thank goodness that changed. Now, many agents grew up in fandoms themselves and consider this a plus. Not all, so do your research. But being a fic writer doesn’t disqualify you anymore; in fact, if you have a positive social media presence, you might even want to include links. That was one of the things that worked for me the first time.

Another thing I did was to change the name of my novel. I can’t stress this bit enough: Make sure your title is accessible, clear, catchy, and easy to understand and to pronounce. The week I changed my title was the week I got three full requests.

I entered every contest I could find to win critiques, chances to talk to agents, opportunities to pitch to them. I entered two pitch contests, two auctions, and in one case played a game of “guess what I’m thinking” with a high-profile agent on Twitter to win a ten-page critique. These were game-changers. Those query critiques and five/ten-page critiques that I won on Twitter improved the entire manuscript.

If an agent, editor, or writer is offering their help on any media platform, take them up on it. Take every opportunity to get eyes on your words. This might take a while. Feed those orchids.

Orchids.
Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

It Doesn’t Always Work Out

BE HONEST. Be honest about what you want out of the business relationship, and more importantly, about your own passions. Approach the entire situation with openness, not only with your future agent, but with yourself. Both novels that I wrote previous to this last one were SF, and I’m comfy there. My brain likes it. But my heart wanted to write that queerky gothic vampire novel, and I should have admitted that to myself from the start.

So obviously, when you do get an offer from an agent and they ask about your future works, you already know to tell them your plans. But you can’t do that unless you’re being honest with yourself. If you suspect that someday your Id is going to push you to write sassy vampires escaping bad guys while running hand in hand through a Halloween corn maze, then square with that and be upfront about it.  And if you and that agent aren’t on the same wavelength about the future of your career, it’s okay to start looking elsewhere, even if that seems like it’s going to set you back. Trust your manuscript. It got you one request, it will probably get you another.

You also don’t have to sign with the biggest or most famous agent or agency. Often, a smaller agency will be a better fit, if you like a personal touch.

Be patient. Remember: ORCHIDS.

Querying In ~*~Modern Times~*~

It’s so much easier now to know what an agent is looking for, and if they would be compatible with you and your work. Know your audience/agent. Google people, but don’t be stalkery. Manuscript Wishlist is the best resource there is. Did you know you can keyword search? “Gothic” “Vampire” “LGBTQA” “Adventure”! Keyword searching specifics can make a world of difference, and the MSWL is so detailed now, it’s really easy to personalize your query. Use that resource.

My new favorite thing? Form queries! They are so convenient. They practically tell you what to say, so you don’t have to struggle with what goes where (“do I lead with the hook? Do I start with the title and word count?”) It’s all laid out for you. But even so: keep a base query at hand, one that you can build on when you add personalizations specific to different agents.

These days, an agent might ask for some links. Do you have a Pinterest mood board for your manuscript? A Spotify playlist? It might be worth it to have a few links to include, if requested. (This was the most exciting bit to me. Wait, so you want to see my self-indulgent mood board? And my MIX TAPE? HECK YES.)

The Call… or Not!

The Call can be completely stressful if you have phone anxiety or social anxiety. The good news is, not all agents need to hear your voice these days. That’s a huge plus also for someone who needs time to think about what they want to say, and make bullet-pointed lists. It’s a good idea to have that anyway, this way if you do have to talk on the phone, you’ll have some guidelines. Also, I think it’s all right to be upfront about your anxiety. The old wisdom was “don’t lead with a weakness,” but I don’t like to think of that as a weakness. I can’t say it enough: Be honest! Agents get nervous too.

So when I signed with Emmy, we mutually decided to do “the call” via email, which for me was much more organized and easier to follow. But you—and your potential agent—may feel differently and that is also great.

What else did all those old advice pages say? Almost everyone still advises that you should ask which publishing houses or specific editors the agent has in mind for your manuscript. It’s supposed to make you sound knowledgable and professional, but again: Is that honest? Your query will divulge how much or how little experience you have in publishing, and you should never pad your query with exaggerations. You will be googled. So why are you bothering to sound like an in-the-know pro if you’re not? The agent is excited about your manuscript, not your connections.

And anyway, how familiar are you with the names they might give you? “Oh yes, the famous editor Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe, I just had lunch with that old chap last week!” (Me, though? I actually do know Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe. You can ask Emmy.) I get it: You want to google the houses/editors they’re thinking of. Yeah, I do, too! And if they do throw you some names, that’s cool. Don’t get weird about it though. Leave people alone.

So, what should you ask? Personally, I love an editorial agent – in my opinion, that is the best kind of agent. MORE EYES ON YOUR WORDS. So it’s good to ask if they do editorial work and a round or two revisions before submitting. Yes, again, that takes a bit longer. ORCHIDS.

Orchids.
Photo by Kyla Flanagan on Unsplash

I’m a chatty, nervous person, and I like to check in a lot during revisions (I always feel like the woman who tried to restore the Jesus fresco.) Is your potential agent all right with checking in? What is their level of communication? You never want to feel like you’re annoying them.

I think it’s all right to ask if you can talk to some of their authors, but only after you get an offer. Chatting at signed authors before you’ve even queried the agent seems a little presumptuous. “Hey, what do you think, should I query your agent?”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I guess?? Do what you want!

Many agents will offer you some contacts with their authors after they make an offer, and if that’s their preference, that’s fine. But keep this in mind: Will any of those authors bad-mouth their agent? Hahahahaha not likely. If they’re still with their agent, then you can be sure they’re pretty happy. So you can contact all the authors you like, but I doubt you’re going to hear anything that will change your mind. “How was your experience with the agent Foreign Rights McNetflix-Series?” “OMG the absolute worst, can’t recommend.” Seriously?

What sorts of revisions do they have in mind? This is important! True story: I have a critique partner who was told by an agent that he would definitely sign her if she was willing to make her lead character “more marketable.” Well, what does that mean? When pressed, the agent clarified, “Straight.”

Run. Oh my god, run.

Be seriously open to change, because agents do have more experience than you, and they know what’s publishable. So to a point, you can’t be in too much of a committed relationship with your manuscript. But if they suggest any changes that make you feel uncomfortable, or that you really can’t get on board with, then chances are you and this agent will keep running into this particular wall, and you’re not going to have a good business relationship with them. Editorial suggestions should not feel personal – this is a business decision. If their suggestions make you feel bad, make your skin crawl, or make you feel like you suck, then it’s better to hold out for someone else.

You should never be made to feel like you suck. There is a gatekeeping aspect to agenting, but as a querying writer who knows that your manuscript is The Goods, try to think of it as searching for a compatible business partner. Agents are not the enemy or some door you need to batter down; you’re looking for someone who is as excited about your manuscript as you are. As with any relationship, you want them to feel a passion that matches yours. They shouldn’t be settling for you, nor you for them.

A group of people sitting at a wooden table with notebooks, a plastic coffee cup, and a book with highlighting inside. They look like friends collaborating on a project.
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

All of this advice goes for pretty much any relationship, business or personal, right? Be honest with yourself and with them from the start. This decision should make both of you happy and excited; neither of you should feel any trepidation about working together. Gut feelings are for real. Building this relationship will take time and work. Be patient but don’t spin your wheels for too long.

Remember, your manuscript is a Tall, Proud Orchid!

Review: Exciting Times, by Cecilia Lyra

A coffee and an open book on bedsheets.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

There are many reasons to fall in love with this novel. I will give you three.

Let’s begin with Ava—our protagonist. Reason number one.

Originally from Ireland, twenty-two-year-old Ava moves to Hong Kong to find happiness, except all she finds is an insultingly unstimulating job teaching English to wealthy children and a crowded flat filled with passive-aggressive roommates. Is it any wonder she agrees to move in with her Brit banker friend Julian, who, yes, is a first-rate douchebag, but who is also able to offer her a comfortable lifestyle? Their arrangement is casual (at his insistence), sexual, and involves Julian buying her clothes and dinners. Ava might be a feminist, but she is also human—and, by her own account, manipulative, unscrupulous, and prone to moral cowardice. I don’t disagree with her self-assessment, not exactly. I take her point—Ava isn’t likeable by any means. But she is interesting, not in the least because of the source of her moral cowardice—Ava possesses a dangerous trifecta of qualities: she’s abundantly intelligent, sensitive, and self-aware. And, let me tell you, when you feel and think with that much intensity—and, more importantly, you know it—you can talk yourself into anything, particularly when you’re young. (If you don’t get it, it’s likely because you are and have always been a stable, well-adjusted person. Good on you.)

Reason number two—plot.

This would be an interesting enough story if we only followed Ava’s time living with elitist, commitment-phobe Julian. But it gets even better when we meet Edith, a stunning and ambitious Hongkonger lawyer. Edith enters Ava’s life when Julian is away on an extended business trip to who-cares-because-this-man-is-seriously-so-boring, leaving Ava at his posh flat. Edith takes Ava to the theatre. Edith is a spry conversationalist, a sharp observer, and a feminist. Edith speaks with a permanent note of surprise in her voice. Ava wants Edith. Or Ava wants to be Edith. Does it have to be only one? The point is that during the six months while Julian is away, Ava grows very close to the mythologically beautiful Edith. When they kiss, it’s electric. When Edith asks Ava about Julian, Ava lies and says they’re just friends (there is very little Ava won’t lie about). And when Edith asks Ava to be her girlfriend, Ava happily says yes. And then Julian comes back.

Which brings me to reason number three—themes.

Woven into this heartbreakingly raw, character-driven novel are themes such as the messiness of human interactions. The perils of overthinking. Social pressure—and how it affects even the most well-educated, politically confident individuals. Exploration of one’s sexuality. The nexus between monogamy and the patriarchy. Financial anxiety, particularly as it affects a generation that’s been screwed over one too many times by capitalism. Fear of intimacy. The trauma that comes with being an outsider. Lying as a means of survival. Avoidance, not as a result of cowardice, but as a form of self-harm. Cultural clashes. Race. Class. The true cost of letting someone in. Above all, this novel explores what it’s like to love at an age where single people enjoy so much ostensible freedom and yet are plagued with even more inner doubts. And it does all that through prose that is precise, witty, and fluid. The quality of the writing alone makes this an unforgettable novel. (I suppose that’s reason number four. Don’t blame me — blame Dolan for writing a book that’s too good to be recommended with any sort of brevity.)

A warning: those who enjoy likeable, cookie-cutter characters should stay away from this novel. Why anyone would enjoy that is beyond me—Once upon a time, there was a good girl who did good things is a decidedly uninteresting story—but to each their own. (Again: I’m talking to you, well-adjusted human.)

But.

If you’ve ever felt damaged, read this novel. If you’ve ever been plagued by self-consciousness, read this novel. If you’ve ever suffered because you didn’t fit in, read this novel. You need to meet Ava, to spend time with her. You might not like her. But if you’ve ever had to pretend—and if you’re a minority you have—you’ll understand Ava. You might even forgive her.

I know I did.

5/5 stars

A quick plug: If you loved this review, or found it helpful, please consider pre-ordering CeCe’s upcoming novel THE SUNSET SISTERS (also available through Amazon and Apple Books) – the perfect, affordable book for your 2020 summer reading!

The German cover of THE SUNSET SISTERS, by Cecilia Lyra.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

…and we’re back!

My dearly departed laptop.

It was bound to happen some time! Two weeks ago, my beloved Frankenstein of a laptop finally died, and I simply did not have it in me to fight to assemble a blog post. It’s the first time that I’ve missed a planned post since I started this blog, so I’m super happy to be back in action this week with a post that’s super exciting. I’m so pleased to host a review of forthcoming LGBTQ2S+ novel You Exist too Much, by BIPOC author Zaina Arafat, by BBB’s new regular contributor, Jack.

I’m also thrilled to be able to share a guest post from an author for whom I have deep admiration, Isabel Stirling. She is the creator of some FABULOUS queer witches in her YA novel These Witches Don’t Burn, and its upcoming sequel, This Coven Won’t Break! I feel especially attached to celebrating Isabel’s latest book because I celebrated my own birthday on May 3rd, and her book releases on May 19th, so we are Taurus twins! More on that later…

First! I want to share a quick shoutout to AJ Vrana. Her debut novel, The Hollow Gods, comes out with Parliment House Press on July 28th. I participated in the cover reveal for this novel on Twitter, and since then, AJ’s joined the list of authors who I represent as an agent. I’m super proud that The Hollow Gods was reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly this week!

Jack’s Review: You Exist too Much, by Zaina Arafat

Zaina Arafat is an American and Palestinian writer and journalist and teacher. Her debut novel You Exist too Much is a diasporic piece of fiction. The story is told in flashbacks, beginning with the shaming of a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl, whose feelings of not belonging are externalized. It’s a story told in cyclical flashbacks, similarly to how we live life. Geographically, the novel mainly alternates between the US and the Middle East, between New York and Palestine.

This novel explores the meaning of living on the margins, of wanting to fit in a neat category. As an American and Palestinian woman, who has loved both men and women, she exists in the overlapping centre of a Venn diagram. The protagonist exists too much, yet, struggles to occupy space for herself. Arafat explores the pervasiveness of intergenerational trauma, and how it affects one’s identity.

Content warnings in You Exist Too Much include Emotional manipulation and Eating Disorders. While at a retreat, topics including sexual assault (from the perspective of the perpetrator) and substance abuse are mentioned.

When the novel begins, we know that the protagonist is in pain. It is the kind of emotional pain that manifests physically, the pain that makes You Exist too much an accusatory statement. The protagonist attempts to heal by falling in love with others, eventually realizing that one person can’t simultaneously occupy two bodies. We follow the protagonist as she confronts the different ways in which she exists.

This is a novel about existing and occupying space, it’s a novel about visibility and acceptance. The protagonist is presented as out of sync with the world, her live-in girlfriend and her own self. The novel embraces missed connections and opportunity, depicting the fleetingness and intensity of desire. You Exist Too Much is a story about identities and the complexities of attachments. Arafat invites us to question what obsessions, attraction and attachments all have in common.

YA Fantasy

Before I jump into Isabel Sterling’s awesome and creative guest post, I want to talk a little bit about why the publication and popularity of These Witches Don’t Burn and This Coven Won’t Break are such huge accomplishments.

YA fantasy is a hard market in traditional publishing. Looking at the deals made so far in 2020, there have only been 10 acquisitions in children’s (including MG and YA) fantasy, across all imprints, this year. One of them is a Lucasfilm IP property, and one is the next in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, so really, it’s more like 8 deals total for new books in that space, in the span of nearly 5 months. In 2019, there were 11 total deals in that space that were not series continuations. The competition is fire!! And yet, Isabel’s books are doing great.

Also, shoutout to writer KJ Aiello, who helped me out with this post, and asked: does crossover potential (ie, books that could appeal to YA or adult audiences) help fantasy books that are going on submission in traditional publishing? The unfortunate reality is, when a book is submitted to an imprint, you either sub to a YA imprint, or an adult imprint. The only real exceptions to that are SMG, which has St. Martin’s/Wednesday and acquires for both age groups, Tor, which encompasses Tor Teen, and Amazon, which publishes specifically with an eye to YA that is actually written for adult audiences.

BUT. When you see “crossover potential”, “millennial fiction”, “college-aged YA”, these kinds of terms, what they are actually code for, in the industry, is “New Adult”. Publishing’s unspoken secret is that we do publish NA, all the time. It’s just not branded as NA anymore, because the way that that experiment played out like, 5-10 years ago, is that the term has a negative connotation (ie, it just means YA books with erotic content now, basically), so we have to call it something different.

But adult appeal in YA-branded books is actually somewhat essential. A little over 50% of YA readership IS adults, and in addition, YA novels have to appeal to adults because they are often the ones with the purchasing power even if the books’ audiences are younger. Educational wholesale markets are a huge part of that – so not only are publishers aiming to appeal to adult readers of YA, but they’re also aiming to appeal to parents, teachers, and librarians. Fantasy novels aren’t seen to have as much of a place in a classroom setting as some other kinds of novels, partially because of the stigmas that surround all genre works as being seen as less-than compared to more “literary” work. Also, YA as we know it has only existed since the 1970s, so it’s by far the newest category in the traditional publishing industry, and it’s only been seen as legitimate since the late 1980’s, early 1990s.

If you want to learn more about YA books in general, YA fantasy, and on the attitudes toward genre versus literary works in broader publishing, here is some further reading:

  1. How Young Adult Fiction Blossomed With Teenage Culture in America
  2. A Brief History of YA Literature: An Infographic
  3. Home and Away, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  4. The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  5. How Horror Helps Us Overcome Our Fears, by Adam Pottle

This Coven Won’t Break Tarot Reading, by Isabel Sterling

Hello, Readers! Isabel Sterling here. To celebrate the upcoming release of This Coven Won’t Break, emmy suggested a tarot reading for my three main girls, and I thought that sounded like a wonderful idea. I don’t normally let myself think about what happens to my characters after their book is done, so getting to read for Hannah, Morgan, and Gemma was really fun! The cards had some interesting things to say. 

For this reading, I used the Modern Spellcaster’s Tarot Deck. I really enjoy this deck, especially because all of the major love cards are same-gender couples, and there’s racial diversity in there, too. Definitely a step up from many super white, heteronormative traditional decks.

Since This Coven Won’t Break is her story, I started with Hannah.

(Pictured: Seven of Pentacles, Ten of Wands, and The Sun)

In This Coven Won’t Break, Hannah works a lot with the Council, the organization responsible for protecting the three Witch Clans and keeping everyone in line. Hannah plants a lot of seeds with them, so the Seven of Pentacles tells me she’s going to be working to help those efforts grow and bloom. Unfortunately, it looks like Hannah will try to bite off more than she can chew and work harder than she should (Ten of Wands). If she’s not careful, some important things could end up dropped. Luckily, she has Morgan and Gemma to remind her to actually get out and have some fun in the sun, and overall, she has a really awesome summer.

Hannah definitely deserves some rest, relaxation, and brightness in her life. So The Sun card was nice to see. It also looks like she has some babysitting in her future, and perhaps some unexpected twins from Sarah and Rachel? (Who knows! Not me! Like I said, if it didn’t happen in the book, I honestly don’t know.)

Next, let’s take a peek into Morgan’s summer.

(Pictured: Queen of Swords, Two of Cups, and Two of Wands)

Well, without getting into spoilers, Morgan kinda Goes Through It during the course of This Coven Won’t Break. As a result, the Queen of Swords is telling me her mom gets a little over-protective about things. Which, honestly, is reasonable. With the Two of Cups, though, it looks like Morgan still has plenty of time to hang out with Hannah. I see lots of dates at their secret spot in the woods. (And see what I mean about the same-gender couple! I love this deck.) 

With everything that happens to Morgan, the Two of Wands tells me she’s a little nervous about leaving the nest to go to college. She’s just finally putting down roots in Salem and isn’t sure she’s ready to move on and start her “real” life.

Finally, let’s take a look at Gemma’s reading.

(Pictured The Tower, The Empress, and the Ace of Cups)

Well, The Tower is a total spoiler, so I can’t really say much except Gemma’s world turns upside down a bit near the end of the book. The Empress, though, tells me Gem spends much of her summer further honing her interest in all things witchy–tarot cards and crystals and everything. The Empress is often linked to motherly instincts, but in Gemma’s case, I see that as her connection with Hannah’s boss, Lauren, and Gemma getting into with her feminine intuition. 

Finally, it looks like there might be some romance waiting for Gemma with that Ace of Cups. Her crushes in These Witches Don’t Burn didn’t turn out so great, so she definitely deserves a little post-graduation fun. Maybe she can double-date with Hannah and Morgan! 

That’s all the cards had in store for us tonight. I hope you found this fun, and if you haven’t yet, you can order These Witches Don’t Burn here and This Coven Won’t Break over here! Happy reading! 

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.