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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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The young adult author discusses her shift to middle-grade, her inspirations, and how she builds such detailed, fantastical worlds.
Acclaimed young adult dystopian novelist Tahereh Mafi—Shatter Me (2011) and its sequels—recently turned her attentions to a younger audience with the publication of two middle-grade fantasies: Furthermore (2016) and its companion, Whichwood (2017). These two novels are set in an alternative magical universe that contains at least three distinct communities: Ferenwood, Furthermore, and Whichwood.
Furthermore’s 12-year-old Alice is an albino child living in Ferenwood, a land that celebrates color. She is devastated when she fails her coming-of-age Surrender demonstration, until frenemy and classmate Oliver requests her assistance with his own Surrender task—the rescue of Alice’s father from the land of Furthermore. The pair’s subsequent adventures in this land of reckless magic, governed by irrational rules, is fraught with danger, and Alice and Oliver must learn to trust each other in order to succeed.
In the companion novel, Alice and Oliver travel to the titular Whichwood to complete Alice’s Surrender task—helping Laylee, a young mordeshoor whose job it is to wash and bury the dead. Laylee is not particularly receptive to these efforts, and Alice is still struggling to understand and control her own magical abilities, but again, trust and cooperation lead to a satisfactory conclusion.
Recently we spoke with Mafi about her middle-grade titles.
After several very successful young adult titles, your last two books,
, are aimed at middle-grade readers. What prompted the shift in audience?
MAFI: It was entirely unintentional; I’d meant to write a YA novel. It was my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, who suggested that Furthermore might, in fact, be a middle-grade novel. Once I made that change in my mind, the rest of the book fell into place comfortably. Whichwood was the natural extension of all this.
Ferenwood, Furthermore, and Whichwood are all richly imagined magical communities with very different outlooks on the uses of enchantment, and indeed, on life itself. Are these societies based on other fantasy realms or are they all your own creations? And to follow-up: Might we someday get to read about other magical districts within this universe?
MAFI: The worlds grew into being as I wrote them; they’re of my own making, imagined specifically for these stories. I’m not sure if I’ll be revisiting this universe anytime soon, but maybe one day!
Alice is a very intriguing, multifaceted character. Physically she lacks color, yet her magical talent is the ability to bring color (and life) to others. Can you talk about the genesis of this character?
MAFI: Alice’s story is one I keep coming back to, over and over again: it’s the story of the outsider looking in. The importance of color in this story is one big metaphor; ultimately, I wanted Alice to learn to love herself exactly as she is.
Laylee is also fascinating and full of contradictions. She is an empathetic listener and advocate for the dead that she cares for, but she can be impatient and often rude with the living. And her work is literally killing her! What drew you to Laylee as a character and her situation?
MAFI: Laylee’s anger and frustration is reminiscent of the anger and frustration I felt as a young person. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which people react to hardship, and I thought Laylee would be a perfect foil to Alice, whose buoyancy seems bottomless.
Some readers may not realize that Yalda Night is a real winter solstice festival celebrated by people of Iranian and Persian descent. And
is the Farsi term for those who wash and prepare the dead. Are there other real traditions or customs mentioned in these books that readers may not be aware of?
MAFI: A healthy majority of the food described in Whichwood is real, as well as the poetry Laylee reads. But most everything else is made up.
Another striking feature of these books is your writing style. Both books (but especially
) fairly brim with vivid descriptions, especially involving color. And your use of the omniscient (and at times irreverent) narrator is particularly effective in
, since it gives readers a bit of distance from all the death and gore. Can you talk a bit about your stylistic choices for these stories?
MAFI: How I choose to tell a story has everything to do with the story itself; Furthermore and Whichwood are so dense with magic that it felt right for the prose to be heavy with that same spirit.
WEISMAN: I have read that Alice (Alice Alexis Queensmeadow) was named to honor fashion designer Alexander McQueen. And many of the descriptions (particularly in Whichwood) involve detailed accounts of fabrics, patterns, and attire. Please reassure us that you’re not contemplating a career change?MAFI: I have a great love of fashion and design! I think about that sort of career change often, actually. If only there were a way to do both!
On a more serious note, middle-grade protagonists often face hardships, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across two characters (here Alice and Laylee) who realize that their parents’ love for each other is much stronger than the affection they feel for their daughters. Can you talk about this a bit?
MAFI: It’s such a powerful, painful situation for a child—to know that your parents loved each other more than they loved you. The consequences of such a situation could be emotionally catastrophic, and I’m fond of exploring emotional catastrophes.
I understand that your childhood reading choices have influenced your own writing. What were some important titles for you, and how do they impact your own work?
MAFI: Oh, so many! So many. Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Prince and the Pauper, the Harry Potter novels, all of Roald Dahl’s work, Dr. Seuss’ work, Shel Silverstein’s poetry . . . there was so much I loved. I honestly can’t say exactly how these titles and authors influenced my own work, because I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. Perhaps they influenced me most in that they simply existed. Without them—and others like them—I’m not sure I’d be here now, still writing and reading.
I have read that when you are writing, you zone in on your task and can complete a novel in two weeks, if needed. I’ve also heard that you recently became a mother. Congratulations! Do you find that your writing process has changed since motherhood?
MAFI: Thank you! It’s been a wonderful whirlwind. And my writing process has changed only a little, actually. When I’m drafting intensely, I can’t quite shake my focus. I write every moment I have a chance: when the baby’s napping, when she’s playing in her crib, when she’s asleep for the night, and in the early hours of the morning. The laundry might not get done, but the manuscript usually does.
Furthermore. 2016. Dutton, $17.99 (9781101994764). Gr. 4–7.
Ignite Me. 2014. Harper, $17.99 (9780062085573). Gr. 8–12.
Restore Me. 2018. Harper, $18.99 (9780062676368). Gr. 8–12.
Shatter Me. 2011. Harper, $17.99 (9780062085481). Gr. 8–12.
Unravel Me. 2013. Harper, $17.99 (9780062085535). Gr. 8–12.
Whichwood. 2017. Dutton, $17.99 (9781101994795). Gr. 5–8.
Further Reading: Fantastic Alternate Realities
Furthermore and Whichwood both focus on protagonists trying to find their places in the adult world and to uncover their own unique talents. The following recent middle-grade fantasies feature similarly concerned characters living in magical worlds, and make excellent reading and teaching companions to Mafi’s books.
Constable and Toop. By Gareth P. Jones. 2013. Abrams/Amulet, $16.95 (9781419707827). Gr. 5–8.
Undertaker’s son Sam Toop, who can speak to ghosts, and Lapsewood, a bureaucratic spectre, investigate the Rot, a destructive force that is hungry for apparitions. Set in Victorian England, this is a story filled with macabre scenes, quirky capers, and satisfying friendships.
Edgeland. By Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski. 2017. Putnam, $17.99 (9780399175817). Gr. 5–8.
In an effort to find her missing father, 12-year-old Wren and her friend Alec are swept over the edge of the Drain into Purgatory, along with the dead. Their efforts to escape are complicated by challenges to their beliefs about class, religion, and morality, and make for compelling otherworldly adventure.
The Empty Grave. By Jonathan Stroud. Illus. by Kate Adams. 2017. Disney/Hyperion, $16.99 (9781484778722). Gr. 5–8.
In this conclusion to the Lockwood & Co. series, the psychic detectives break into a booby-trapped crypt, releasing a vengeful spirit. Lucy Lockwood’s engaging and witty narration brims with insight and imagery, and readers will finally understand what caused a plague of dead souls to terrorize London. First-rate adventure, beautifully told.
Foxheart. By Claire Legrand. Illus. by Jaime Zollars. 2016. Greenwillow, $16.99 (9780062427731). Gr. 4–7.
Star Lands thieves Quicksilver and Sly Boots are transported back in time to prevent the Wolf King from ridding their land of magic. Danger, suspense, and a bit of humor highlight this adventure led by two fiery female protagonists.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. By Catherynne M. Valente. Illus. by Ana Juan. 2011. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 (9780312649616). Gr. 5–8.
Twelve-year-old September leaves her ordinary Omaha, Nebraska, life behind when a Green Wind takes her to Fairyland, where she retrieves a witch’s spoon from an evil marquess. Readers will appreciate the omniscient narrator’s asides, Fairyland’s numerous absurd rules, and several sequels to this title.
Wildwood. By Colin Meloy. Illus. by Carson Ellis. 2011. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray, $16.99 (9780062024688). Gr. 4–8.
When 12-year-old Prue loses her baby brother to a murder of crows, she sets out to rescue him from the Impassible Wilderness, an alternate reality located in Portland, Oregon. She becomes involved in a war involving stuffy bureaucrats, militant birds, and an evil dowager governess. This literary and timeless fantasy continues with Under Wildwood (2012) and Wildwood Imperium (2014).
The Witch’s Glass. By Holly Grant. Illus. by Josie Portillo. 2017. Random, $16.99 (9781101933664). Gr. 4–6.
Anastasia McCrumpet and her three friends continue their hunt for her missing father and grandfather begun in The League of Beastly Dreadfuls (2015) and The Dastardly Deed (2016). Rich language and the playful use of humor distinguish this exciting adventure.
Kay Weisman reviews for Booklist.
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