More Morris!

You lucky folks, here are all the rest of our finalists at once!

Isabel Quintero interviews S. F. Henson about Devils Within.

Jeff Zentner talks to Nic Stone about Dear Martin.

And finally, Becky Albertalli’s conversation with Angie Thomas about The Hate U Give.

So many great contenders this year. I don’t envy the committee at all, I have to say. The winner will be announced as part of the ALA Youth Media Awards on Monday, Feb. 12th at 8am MT.

Congrats again to all the finalists!

Morris Award Finalist: Akemi Dawn Bowman

Time for our second Morris interview! Hop on over to Steph Keuhn’s blog, where she talks to Akemi Dawn Bowman about her debut novel, Starfish.

Morris Award Finalist: S. K. Ali

Hello darlings! It’s that time of year again, when we old Morris winners interview the new crop of up-and-comers. This year it is my distinct privilege to talk to S. K. Ali, my fellow Canadian and author of Saints and Misfits. Not only is her book up for the Morris, it also made the Canada Reads Longlist (click the link, non-Canadians, and learn).


The fabulous cover!

I enjoyed the book very much — and it’s sometimes hard for non-fantasy to hold my attention, as most of you know. Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

“Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tight-knit Muslim community think of her then?”

Full of memorable characters and thoughtful explorations of community and faith, I can see why this one caught the Morris committee’s attention. I particularly liked her depictions of the diversity of the Muslim community, which is no more monolithic than any other. Even among the hijabi girls in the story, who might on the surface appear interchangeable to a non-Muslim outsider, each one wears her hijab (or in one case, niqab) for her own reasons. It’s great (and unfortunately rare) to see that kind of depth and breadth of representation in YA.

Without further ado, then, let’s get to S. K. Ali herself, who very kindly answered my long, complicated, over-eager questions.

1) I have exactly one complaint about your book, so I had probably better get that out of the way first: I was disappointed that you didn’t set it in Canada. I had been all excited by the prospect of hijabi girls AND hockey in the same book. What was behind your decision to set it in the US? Was there editorial pressure to de-Canadize? Were they worried you might confuse readers with all the Canadian cultural references?

Growing up, the Muslim community for me was North American. My family spent a lot of time attending events and gatherings in the U.S. Midwest and then I continued it on my own through my teens and young adulthood so there’s a peculiar continental flavor to my understanding of the Muslim community. When it came time to set my story somewhere, I chose the Midwest without hesitation. I also think the story scope is beyond Canada as it deals with an unfortunately universal issue: sexual assault. The hashtag #MeToo is not limited to a geographic location, not limited to borders, cultures or communities and I wanted Saints and Misfits to reflect that. I wanted a broader audience for it.

2) Of course any main character who’s a reader is going to gain my sympathy straight away. Janna loves Flannery O’Connor — is she also a long-time favourite of yours, or did you find yourself discovering her work through Janna’s interest?  Who were you reading when you were Janna’s age? Were there authors you thought of as kindred spirits, whose themes and preoccupations you found echoed in your own life?

I was really into the British “classics” (Austen, Brontes, Dickens, Hardy, etc, etc) as a teen. When I came upon Flannery O’Connor’s works – being assigned one of her short stories in a high school Creative Writing class – I just knew she was going to be a fave. As a young reader, while I read a variety of genres, I was especially drawn to the macabre and here, in O’Connor’s stories, was the real deal; the horror of true life (whereas before I’d read fantastical horror). Some of her stories were truly chilling and I realized that that’s what a good writer does: observes the pathos, the fear, the anger, the bubbles of joy, the extreme feelings, inherent in all of life from the minutiae to the large-scale. Reading O’Connor at that time definitely made me a better writer; it made me see that writing about the everyday was extraordinary too (before this, all my stories had been otherworldly or out of my depth/experiences). Rediscovering O’Connor later on in life, reading about her life as I was writing Saints and Misfits, got me to understand the extent to which she was a person of faith. That really appealed to me as a person of faith myself. I loved the way she examined human frailties and the condition of believing yourself to be untouchably pious. I wanted to examine the same in my novel because these are things all religious communities grapple with.

3) I don’t want to be spoilery, but in this #metoo moment, your book is quite timely. I’ve just written a book about sexual assault myself, and found it quite gruelling to write. Getting inside your character’s experience and trauma can really take a toll. How did you approach this part of your book while still taking care of yourself as a writer? I’m imagining you calling upon the righteous anger of your inner Sausun, or the playful compassion of St. Sarah, but maybe you took walks or read poetry or hugged the people you love. How would you advise a young writer who wants to delve into such painful subjects?

I would say get angry, get sad, get moved. Because that’s where good writing comes from – that space of stirred-up emotions. When you channel those feelings into words, that’s when the magic of readers connecting with your story happens. That said, it’s important not to get trapped in the depth your feelings; a good antidote is to indulge in activities that take you away from the pain you’re writing about. For me, it varies from lengthy meal-chats with friends, to watching sci-fi films with my husband, to making art – which is my number one, fail-proof de-stressing activity. I also love looking at trees. That’s an activity that always aligns my soul.

4) At one point Janna says she didn’t want to tell anyone about her assault because she feared it would reflect badly on her community. Community, in fact, feels like a major theme of this book — even the title, Saints and Misfits, is about the people who seem to fit in effortlessly versus the people who don’t. Janna navigates several kinds of community in this book — school, mosque, neighborhood, family, internet — and they intersect in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. What understandings about community do you hope readers come away with, especially as regards the importance of community to Muslims, and the depth and diversity of the Muslim community?

The Muslim community, the Muslim ummah of two billion people, is unbelievably diverse yet North American depictions of Muslims don’t represent that diversity. We see the violent terrorist, the oppressive, the oppressed and the completely non-practicing, palatable “fun” Muslims. I’ve been a Muslim for over four decades and I don’t recognize any of these TV/Media characters in the Muslim communities I’ve moved in. My intent in Saints and Misfits was to write raw, write real. It wasn’t to expressly to right or “correct” all the misrepresentations because I’m not a message-driven writer. But I guess in trying to write authentically, a lot of the nuances of Muslim lives came through. I’m happy with that and I hope readers take that to mean that there are SO many more stories by Muslim writers to read, in order to further explore this diversity.

5) OK, I lied, I had one more disappointment: the Niqabi Ninjas aren’t real. *weep!* I was seriously ready to go find them on YouTube. That said, I bet there’s lots of awesome and interesting Muslim-created art and media out there. Are there books, videos, comics, music, or other media you’d recommend for non-Muslim readers who want more?

I’m weeping with you because I want the Niqabi Ninjas to be real too! Okay, for recommendations: G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel comics are great – a Muslim-girl superhero! Also, her books, fiction: Alif the Unseen and memoir: The Butterfly Mosque are essential reading. (I hear she’s got a new work on the horizon. EXCITED!) For excellent mysteries featuring a Muslim detective, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Inspector Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty series is fabulous. She also has a fantasy series with the first one out currently, The Bloodprint. Similarly, in the fantasy genre, S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass is a not-to-miss, read-now book. If romance is more your thing, Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last, to be published in June of this year, is a must. Salaam Reads, my publisher, has MG and PB titles that I would definitely highly recommend: The Gauntlet and Amina’s Voice for MG and Mommy’s KhimarYo Soy Muslim and Salam Alaikum for PB.  There are so many more Muslim authored books and may I suggest checking out the hashtag #MuslimShelfSpace on twitter and instagram to find more titles? Oh, before I move on from writers, I urge everyone to read Wajahat Ali’s columns in the New York Times to get slices of Muslim life! For music, I can give you a sample of Muslim artists I’ve listened to over the years: Yuna, Yusuf Islam (i.e. Cat Stevens) Maher Zain, Native Deen, Dawud Wharnsby and Harris J (sometimes called the Muslim Justin Bieber lol). There are tons of Muslim Youtubers and Podcasters and they range from practical jokers, to humorists, to artists, to new parents, to hijabi fashionistas, to thinkers, to all of these combined, and on and on. It’s just a matter of finding the one(s) who speak(s) to you!

6) You’re not just a Morris nominee, but your book is on CBC’s Canada Reads 2018 longlist as well! Wow! How has this experience been for you? Exciting? Overwhelming? Are you going to ALA Midwinter? In all this whirlwind, are you finding time to write? What’s next for you?

It’s been mouth-droppingly exciting! I’m very grateful for all the attention Saints and Misfits is getting and hope it will encourage more Muslim writers toward writing unapologetic content. I am indeed going to ALA Midwinter insha’Allah (God willing). And yes, I’m trying to keep up with the writing and have recently become more protective of my time to ensure I get my writing goals in (Twitter be banished!). Currently, I’m working on editing my second novel, while the plot points of my 3rd novel gently gather in the back of my head. Additionally, I’m participating in an anthology called Hungry Heart, which is made up of interconnected stories set in one culturally diverse, super foodie neighborhood. And, exciting news: I have an unannounced picture book coming out! 

7) Lightning round!

  1. Writing snack? Coffee, tea, sliced apples when I’m good and chocolate when I’m not
  2. Board games or video games? Board games though I was kinda addicted to video games as a teen
  3. Montreal or Vancouver? Vancouver, now that I’ve been there!!! [Rachel’s note: YAY VANCOUVER!]
  4. Morning or evening? Evening, though all my life, I’ve wanted to scream MORNING
  5. Music you sing along with when no one’s around? The carol Good King Wenceslas – my family doesn’t appreciate the utter passion I inject into it
  6. You’ve got a time machine! Where and when? Spain, well, Al-Andalus, early 10 century 

Promo, then music

TESS got a nice write up in Bustle yesterday: The 17 Best Books Coming in February that Make the Perfect Valentines Day Dates. The mention is down at the bottom of the page, since it’s coming out at the end of February — not quite in time for Valentines. The book is also a little more heartbreaking than I personally would want for Valentines, but that’s just me. Maybe it would be well-suited for when you’re crawling out of the rubble a couple weeks later, though.

All right, whew! It’s hard making myself do promotional stuff, and I always feel sorry making you sit through it, so here’s a song we’re thinking of singing this year at madrigals:

Based on how stuck it keeps getting in my head, I think it’s one of my most serious contenders (we choose our pieces based on which songs we’d be heartbroken if we didn’t sing, you see). This video, though, is also utterly charming. I’d love to know the story behind it. I played in a few youth orchestras in my day, but we never stood up and sang. I kind of wish we had.


Finally: February!

*blows dust off blog*


Hello friends! I know it’s been a ridiculously long time. Allow me to make it up to you with flowers:



I know they’re not the showiest, but they’re always one of the earliest, and they remind me that winter always ends. I’ve lived in this neighbourhood long enough that I know exactly which snowdrops bloom first; if you didn’t know to look behind a little low hedge, you might easily miss them.

I feel very lucky that they were there today when I went looking, because now I can share them with you.

I have a book coming out soon, you may recall. I’m at that stage of stomach-knotting anticipation. You’d think it would get easier, now that I’ve gone through it twice, but it doesn’t.

To keep myself from gnawing my nails to nubs, I’m going to be posting here. Our annual Morris Award Interviews go up next week, so that’s something to look forward to. I’m doing interviews and writing guest posts, and I’ll let you know when those go up. And of course, there will be a tour! Dates to go up very soon, so you can mark your calendars and plan your road trip, if necessary.

For now, though, let’s look at these snowdrops, take a deep breath, and dream of spring.

TESS OF THE ROAD: the gorgeous cover!

No long preamble, except to say I keep looking at this in close-up views because I’m madly in love with the pencil textures.

TESS OF THE ROAD_FINAL 08.17.17[1] (1)

This is not a specific scene from the book, and yet it encapsulates the book so very well. Look at her down there, my Tess, small, strong, and stubborn, staring back at the abyss.

The abyss is going to blink first.

Edited to add: Of course, like a doofus, I forgot to mention it’s available for pre-order from your local indy bookstore. Likewise, there are lots of different on-line pre-order options at Underlined and, for Canadians, there’s Indigo.

Tune in tomorrow

… for the TESS OF THE ROAD cover reveal!

I was originally going to show you the new SERAPHINA and SHADOW SCALE covers at the same time, but apparently those require a bit more awesomeness before they’re ready for general consumption. Which is kind of bizarre, to me, because I really liked them already. However, I trust that the publishers know their business on this, and hey, who am I to complain about having two cover reveal dates? It’s like spreading your birthday out over a whole month.

Still excited about tomorrow, though. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about the TESS cover and literally gave myself chills. They gave me art, friends. ART. I’ve always been so lucky in my covers.

See you then!

Anxiety dream

I was supposed to give a talk about Tess of the Road at a library (which was also a piano bar, as is so often the case). The place was full of friends from high school (who were also construction workers, because of course they were). I entered the witness box, next to the piano, and the piano asked me, “Why, exactly, did you write this book?”

And I couldn’t remember.

I woke up in a panic, utterly convinced that this was a sign of impending Alzheimer’s disease. I managed to settle down again by enumerating to myself all the reasons why I wrote Tess of the Road.

There’s never just one reason. There’s usually more like a dozen. I’m not even sure I listed all of them before I fell asleep again.

It’s kind of rare for an anxiety dream to be about the exact thing you’re anxious about, and it’s possible this one wasn’t; I have a nice long list of things to worry about as well. Still, the cover reveal on Thursday is the starting line of a long race toward my release date (Feb. 27th!), building anticipation, sparking interest, getting noticed, and – yes – answering questions.

Tess is the kind of book that sparks questions, even from dream-pianos.

I can tell you right now: Alzheimer’s isn’t irrelevant. My paternal grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and my maternal grandmother had some kind of vascular dementia. As someone who spends a lot of time in her own brain, dementia is one of my biggest fears, and something that could very well happen to me eventually. One of my goals in this book was to look dementia in the eye, and to write about it lovingly and compassionately — not romanticizing it, but not succumbing to fear either.

Where does the brain end and the body begin? How much control do we have over what we remember and when we remember it? Where do memories really reside, and what are they for, ultimately?

Anyway — cover reveal on Thursday! Don’t let me forget, haha.


Eclipse viewing for the cautious astronomer

Super excited about the eclipse tomorrow, but worried about your eyeballs? You’re not alone. My physicist husband wouldn’t trust anything short of a welder’s glasses with a suitably high rating, and even then he’d merely feel reassured that he could quantify the damage, nothing else.

In 1994, we witnessed a partial eclipse in St. Louis, outside the physics department at Washington University. My husband said, “You can tell the theorists from the astronomers. The theorists are looking at the sun through various viewers and dark glass; the astronomers aren’t looking at the sun at all.”

Well, kids, here’s what I learned from those cautious astronomers, and I’m passing this along to you because it’s cool: you can make a pinhole camera right on your own stomach. I don’t mean those big clunky boxes you see kids wearing in old photos — that’s overkill. This is much simpler, and it really works. I did it in 1994.

Wear a single-color shirt — white is good, but anything will do. You just don’t want words or a pattern interfering with your projection. Your stomach is the movie screen.

Form a little square “pinhole” by pressing the tips of your thumbs and index fingers together. It doesn’t have to be super tiny, just whatever gap is naturally there. Hold that pinhole a foot or so in front of your stomach and aim it toward the sun. It takes a little work, moving it in and out to find the best focal length, but you will find that you can project an image of the diminishing sun onto your belly.

Another unexpected detail: the gaps in overhead foliage also act as pinhole cameras. The ground beneath the trees will be covered in hundreds of dancing crescents!

I know there will be folks who won’t feel like they’ve seen it unless they SEE it through a viewer of some kind. I just wanted to reassure the eyesight-risk-averse among us that there are fun options. We can’t all throw caution to the wind like those devil-may-care theoretical physicists.

Coming soon: cover reveal!

Thursday, August 24th, I will finally have the privilege of sharing the TESS OF THE ROAD cover with you, along with new covers for the re-release of SERAPHINA and SHADOW SCALE.

I’m so excited, y’all, and I’m glad it’s coming soon because it’s hard to keep my mouth shut. I’m really happy with these, especially TESS, and I hope you’ll enjoy them, too.

In other news: a few nice reviews are already trickling in at Goodreads. I read ALL the reviews for my first book, and none of them for my second, and now — older and wiser — I’m wondering whether I can read some of the reviews, some of the time, for my third. Nothing in excess, as the Delphic temple of Apollo used to say.

I accidentally typed “odder and wiser” at first, which was inadvertently accurate.