A Word from the Author or Illustrator

2020 Author Essays

Throughout the year, many Random House Children’s Books authors have shared some thoughts on their books, inspirations, and tips for educators with us. Discover all of their essays below!

Fresh Voices Series

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience.

Karah Sutton author essay

A Wolf for a Spell

A Wolf for a Spell By Karah Sutton

I’ve always been captivated by fairy tales, and my debut novel, A Wolf for a Spell, is a tribute to the Russian fairy tales I’ve loved all my life. But it’s also a love letter to the natural world. It surprises me how much I enjoyed creating a wild world, when for so long I avoided the wilderness. My favorite passages to write were the descriptions of leaves, clinging brambles, and squelching mud.

Ages eight and nine were my Robin Hood phase. Not only was I determined to learn archery, but I fell deeply in love with the notion of living carefree in the forest. There was a problem, though: I really wasn’t an outdoorsperson. The woods made me uneasy. At summer camp, I stayed near the water and worked on my swimming technique.

The forest was a place I accessed mainly through stories, starting with fairy tales, then the Robin Hood books I devoured, and later the books of Patricia Wrede and Gail Carson Levine. I obsessively rewatched Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and usually turned up at sleepovers with my worn-out VHS of the Broadway production. (Much of the adult humor went over my head.) What was it about the forest that fascinated me? What was it that frightened me out of exploring it myself?

Probably many of the same things that fascinate and frighten us all. Journeys into the forest are as old as storytelling itself. The forest holds a mystical sense of danger and opportunity. It has the ability to conceal unknown creatures within its depths to capture and transform us.

These fears are not entirely unfounded. The news is full of cautionary tales of people getting lost in the woods. They might lose the path and freeze when the sun goes down. Or maybe they encounter a venomous spider or snake. Not to mention bigger animals such as grizzly bears and mountain lions. And then there’s poison ivy!

When we enter the forest, we are entering nature’s domain. We are at the mercy of critters and plants that live there. The woods are their home, not ours.

When I moved to New Zealand as an adult, I married into a family of conservationists. Suddenly my holidays were filled with treks up mountains and daylong hikes. The thing that inspired me was how dutifully and respectfully they approached even a short walk. You bring clothes that will keep you warm if you get lost. You never go on long walks alone, and always let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. You stay on the path to avoid trampling plants or the homes of animals. You leave nothing behind, and take nothing with you. People who ignore these practices are regarded as reckless amateurs, not brave adventurers.

One morning while out camping, I woke to see a wētā clinging to the fabric of my tent. My first instinct was to scream. I don’t do well with insects, and wētā are enormous, bird-sized crickets, named after the Māori god of ugly things. But a fellow camper excitedly led the wētā onto a stick and began to explain their incredible anatomy, their importance to New Zealand culture, and that some species are very endangered. I crept as near as I dared for a closer look. I still half wanted to scream, but a sense of wonder also started to bubble up inside me.

Once you respect the forest as a wild place, you can fully appreciate its beauty (even when it seems ugly at first glance). And once you understand its dangers, you can also see its fragility. How an act as simple as not washing your shoes can have disastrous effects if you track soil or algae to places they don’t belong. In New Zealand, the introduction of rats and weasels when humans arrived led to native birds competing for food and entire species being driven to near extinction. We humans have an extraordinary power over nature that should not be taken lightly, just as it has extraordinary power over us.

This relationship, the power that nature can wield and the respect we should show it, is a theme I have always explored in my writing and is central to A Wolf for a Spell. The villagers fear the forest because of its mystery and danger (and perhaps a witch or two), but the animals also fear humans because of their traps and weapons. Instead of caring for the forest and enjoying the benefits it offers, the humans let their fear lead to destruction.

Our own forests are every bit as magical as the forest inhabited by Baba Yaga, and as in need of protection. In writing A Wolf for a Spell, I wanted to dare readers to enter a world of danger and adventure and to leave with a greater awe and respect for the natural world around them, inspired to fight for its preservation.

Karah Sutton

Karah Sutton has loved Baba Yaga, ballet, and blini ever since she had to do a research project on her Russian heritage in the third grade. Her hunger for adventure inspired her to move from Kentucky to New Zealand, where it was rumored she would find talking trees and the occasional wood elf. Karah spent four years as a bookseller before she turned to writing her own fiction. A Wolf For a A Spell is her first novel.

Visit her online at KarahSutton.com or follow her on Twitter @Karahdactyl

Pauliina Hannuniemi is a Finnish illustrator with her Bachelor of Arts from Metropolia UoAS. This is her first book.

Gavriel Savit Author Essay

The Way Back

The Power of Storytelling

I’m ashamed to say that in my early adulthood, I sort of forgot how to read. Not literally, of course— I am, after all, a writer. I’m usually drowning in research and nonfiction. What I mean is that I forgot how to read like a kid— how to get lost in a tale.

I can cite any number of excuses, and most of them are true: it’s hard to concentrate on your own nascent story when you’re swimming in one that’s already finished; there’s always more work to be done; smartphones are dark sorcery that feast on your time and attention.

But there’s always a valid reason not to. The trick is in finding the reason to do it anyway.

And— fortunately or unfortunately— I’m finding plenty of reasons here in October 2020. When I’m not working or looking after my kids, I tend to default to the newsfeed. Whatever your perspective on the world, I think we can all agree that things aren’t looking their best: rising case counts, skyrocketing unemployment, election anxiety. My back starts to spasm, my shoulders ratchet up toward my ears. My mind rolls along faster and faster, matching the speed of my doomscrolling. It just makes things worse, and I keep going and going.

The only reliable remedy I’ve found for this is fiction, and scientific research seems to back me up: studies have shown that reading novels increases brain function and relieves anxiety.

This has certainly been my experience. It’s almost meditative: you relax your body, slow the pace of your racing mind to match the lollop of a long sentence. You seem to move away from your own body, and when the process is well underway, you slip into a kind of double consciousness: you may hear the music on the radio, smell the cooking in the kitchen, but you’re just as much walking the halls of the Pentagon, or Pemberley, or Cair Paravel.

The first book I returned to when I determined to recover my childlike reading practice was Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and it worked perfectly. It’s slim and enchanting, a quick and inviting read peppered with impossible metaphors like “her voice left a flavor of honey and gunpowder on the air” that leave just enough of a bump in the road of double consciousness to make you aware of what’s going on.

Quickly, I moved on to a long ambition of mine: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, 20 impeccably written and scrupulously researched novels of seafaring and derring-do in the 19th century Royal Navy. Over the course of this monotonous pandemic, I have ridden these books through blistering calms and frigid antarctic, ice-studded seas. They’ve carried me through the prisons of Paris, the streets of Bombay, and even a shipwreck on the shores of Desolation Island.

I cannot say how good this has been for me. Books have kept me in sanity and good spirits for months now in what— dear God, I hope— may prove to be one of the more challenging periods in our history.

In his fantastic book On Writing, Stephen King describes this bizarre transportive, transformative process— reading, writing, storytelling— as telepathy. He gives a vivid description of a white rabbit in a cage and, of course, we see it in our minds. Neil Gaiman’s phrase for this phenomenon is more poetic, and perhaps nearer the mark: he calls a book “a dream that you hold in your hands.”

I’ll go one further: I’ll say that the act of writing— and crucially, reading— is nothing less than full-on, literal magic.

This may seem a bit ridiculous, but let me explain:

Every morning, I wake up early, often while its still dark. I brew myself a bitter black potion, and as I begin to sip at it, my mind kicks into overdrive. I shrug into a warm, ashy black garment of alpaca wool and enter my sanctum. Here, I play curated music to move the cultivated hallucinations in my mind, and carefully, using very specific words in a very specific order, I proceed to alter your individual consciousness, often hundreds of miles away, often years and years in the future.

What on earth is this if not a ritual of magic?

What on earth am I doing if not casting a spell?

For the last couple of years, my rituals have been devoted to conjuring a new vision. The Way Back is a book that follows the spooky adventures of two 19th century Jewish kids— Bluma and Yehuda Leib— as they make their way from their little shtetl of Tupik into the land of demons and Death. Much happens along the way— there are laughs and losses, encounters with the sacred and the sinister. But my ritual is incomplete without your participation. Reading, as I’ve recently rediscovered, is at least half of the magic.

So join me, won’t you? Find a cup of your favorite potion and a warm magic garment. Settle into your sanctum— couch, or bed, or armchair— and let’s begin.

Let’s make some magic.

Praise for THE WAY BACK

A 2020 National Book Award Finalist

Lyrical and fantastic…. Steeped in the rich traditions of ghost stories and Jewish folklore, this remarkable feat of storytelling is sure to delight.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

A bewitching allegorical adventure comprised of small, beautifully composed moments.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Savit builds the action with a storyteller’s assured cadences, creating a story rich in elements of Jewish folk tradition and flashes of both humor and the grotesque.” —The Bulletin, starred review

This work of prodigious imagination is especially notable in its author’s uncanny ability to create a visceral suspense that captures readers’ attention and won’t let go as the pages fly by.”—Booklist, starred review

Savit crafts an absorbing fantasy and gives teens plenty to contemplate about life, love, storytelling, and family.” —The Horn Book

Gavriel Savit

Gavriel Savit holds a BFA in musical theater from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he grew up. As an actor and singer, Gavriel has performed on three continents, from New York to Brussels to Tokyo. He is also the author of Anna and the Swallow Man, which the New York Times called "a splendid debut." Learn more about Gavriel on the Web at GavrielSavit.com.

Melissa Wiley Author Post

The Nerviest Girl in the World

Rabbit-Trailing with The Nerviest Girl in the World

As a writing coach and a homeschooling mom, my favorite thing to do is find a compelling read-aloud to use as a springboard for all kinds of learning adventures. I love to assemble a collection of resources—books, poems, music, videos, art, recipes, games, maps, you name it!—that let elements of the book spill off the page into the wide world. These rabbit trails (as homeschoolers call them) help readers form rich connections with history, geography, science, and culture. And they’re fun!

The process is quite similar to the way I research my historical fiction novels. I like to collect as wide a variety of resources as possible, immersing myself in the world of the story I want to tell. I had a marvelous time gathering resources for The Nerviest Girl in the World, which is set on a ranch in San Diego County in 1911 in the very early days of silent film. Even more fun? Sharing them with kids!

My main character, Pearl, is an eleven-year-old girl who lives on a cattle-and-ostrich ranch. Her older brothers are cowboys who get roped into the moving picture business when a silent film director and his crew set up shop in town. Before she knows it, Pearl winds up making these newfangled movies right alongside her brothers.

As her name hints, my Pearl was inspired by the intrepid silent film actress Pearl White. My Pearl finds her way into the pictures by a different path, but it was definitely Pearl White’s incredible balloon stunt in The Perils of Pauline that got me thinking about all the dangerous situations my character might have found herself in back in the days when all actors did their own stunts, and there were no such thing as safety regulations!

Film Clips

Naturally, my first pick for a Nerviest Girl rabbit trail is The Perils of Pauline, which is available on YouTube. Pearl White really did climb down a rope from a hot-air balloon high above the ground—in a skirt, no less!

The next stop on the rabbit trail is another serial film, The Hazards of Helen starring Helen Holmes. My favorite installment is episode 13, “The Escape on the Fast Freight”.

The Hazards of Helen had 119 weekly installments—one of the longest film series of all time.

From there it’s a short hop to more silent-film fun. I’m especially fond of Buster Keaton, who has my family screaming with laughter in every scene. Here’s a compilation of some of his most hair-raising stunts.

Picture Books

My feeling is, you’re never too old for a good picture book! My family often uses picture books as introductions to a new time or place—even at the high school level. Here are delightful selections related to silent film:

  • Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) by Gary Golio
  • Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark; illustrated by Katie Wu
  • Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo

Newspapers and Photos

My research process for historical fiction draws heavily on local newspapers from the period in question. Old papers are crammed with story starters! I have a collection of intriguing articles I love to share with kids in school workshops; together we ponder the possible backstories of articles, like the one about the two well-dressed women who were arrested in an apple orchard in the middle of the night. I’m dying to know why they were wearing their best clothes to steal apples!

From the advertisements, we learn about food, clothes, furniture, entertainment, and all sorts of fascinating tidbits. The Library of Congress maintains a database where you can look up papers from your area and find out whether libraries near you might have copies.

Old photos are great story prompts, too!

Promotional photo from Pearl of the Army (1916)

This is my favorite photo of Pearl White. I’ve always wondered about the story behind it. Why is the pig sitting on her lap in a car?

Local Geography

Julie DenOuden, a fourth-grade teacher in California and blogger at Girl on the Move, wrote a Southern California travel adventure post to go along with The Nerviest Girl in the World!

I also find it important to introduce my kids to the First Nations on whose traditional lands a story is set. La Mesa, California (the real town on which Nerviest Girl’s fictional Lemon Springs is based) is located on Kumeyaay land. I recommend An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as a resource for learning about the First Nations.

Ostriches, Horses, and Hot-Air Balloons—Oh My!

Just about any element of a book can be a springboard for discovery! One of my favorite parts of writing Nerviest Girl was learning about ostrich-ranching. One article from early twentieth-century Los Angeles described eager families taking Sunday drives to a local ostrich farm to watch the big birds gulp down oranges whole!

My family’s learning adventures related to the book included research about hot-air balloons and stunt horseback riding. We weren’t able to make it to a rodeo, but YouTube let us gallop through a passel of them.

Sometimes I think it would be easy to spend a whole year following rabbit trails inspired by a single book! But with so many captivating novels to choose from, we always find ourselves eager to dive into a new world, with new art, history, customs, and costumes to explore.

More Nerviest Girl resources:

  • Interview with Chris Barton and Anne Nesbet about favorite silent film influences and experiences
  • Homeschooling families are sharing photos of their Nerviest Girl book clubs and activities. Lots of ideas here, including balloon bookmarks and a megaphone cake!
  • This Charlie Chaplin paper doll with movable limbs is especially fun.
  • Brave Writer ARROW language arts guide for The Nerviest Girl in the World

Melissa Wiley

Melissa Wiley is the author of more than twenty books for kids and teens, including The Prairie Thief, Inch and Roly Make a Wish, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, and the Martha and Charlotte Little House books. She has never climbed out of a hot-air balloon, but she did fall off a horse and break her arm on the seventh-grade class trip. Melissa has been blogging about her family’s reading life and homeschooling adventures at Here in the Bonny Glen since 2005. Follow her at @melissawiley on Twitter and at @melissawileybooks on Instagram.