Kelly Coon Author Essay

Becoming the Light

Before I wrote Gravemaidens, my YA fantasy debut, I was a high school English teacher. I taught everything from freshman English to creative writing, and despite my love for my students, I was just as anxious as the kids were to see the end of the school year.

I reserved the last day, when the classroom temperature had risen and everyone was staring at the clock, urging that minute hand to move faster, for a kindness activity. Kindness is one of the thematic subjects in Gravemaidens, and I owe a lot of the reasoning behind it to a freshman girl with pink hair.

On this particular last day, my seventh period freshman class dragged the desks out of their neat rows into lopsided circles. Each student took out a sheet of paper and wrote their name across the top.

Then they passed the sheets to their left.

While soft music played, each student wrote a kind sentence about the person whose name was scrawled across the top of the paper, and passed it on. This writing and passing continued until everyone had written something kind about everyone else in the room. (One of the students even surreptitiously wrote my name across a sheet and passed that along, too.)

When I explained the activity, I told them that what they wrote about the other students didn’t have to be wise. It didn’t have to encapsulate everything that person was. It didn’t even have to be neat. The only parameters I set were to write the kindest thing they could think to say.

And no, they couldn’t skip.

For some, this was a difficult challenge, though they did manage.

Some managed profoundly.

The pink-haired girl who breathed some kindness into my fingers while I was writing Gravemaidens was one of them.

She usually shuffled into my class in ragged jeans and old shoes, rarely with a kind word for anyone. Life hadn’t dealt her a very good hand. She lived, I’d learned, with an abusive stepdad. Had been in and out of foster care. Had been shoved around and underneath and behind other brighter, shinier kids.

She typically reacted to the other kids’ conversations with a thinly veiled insult. But this girl was a treasure. Her poetry was stark and gutted me each time I read it. It reeked of pain. And sometimes, in infinitesimal amounts, light.

When she received the papers given to her, I held my breath, wondering if she’d lash out. If the other students would receive refractions of the hurt she’d been living with for years.

She took her time. After each student got their paper back and began to read through the kind words their fellow students had written, I walked slowly around the room, reading along with them.

And nearly broke apart.

Every single sentence she’d written was not only kind, it was insightful. She was an incredible observer of humanity, and knew just what to hone in on to boost that person’s day.

Maybe their summer.

Maybe the rest of their lives.

With tears practically choking me, I thought to myself, this is why I’m here. To help each kid realize that they matter, and to give those kids who believe otherwise the opportunity to spread kindness, even if life has been anything but kind.

It’s why I wrote Kammani, my main character, the way I did. She’s a teenage healer who shows kindness even when her sister isn’t giving it back to her. Even when the ruler she is trying to heal is under suspicion for the murder of her father.

Even then.

When the bell rang and the kids exploded from their seats, I asked her to stay behind. I told her how much her kindness had touched me, and encouraged her to pursue writing because the world needed her voice. She shrugged and yanked her backpack up her shoulder and walked out the door. I never saw her again.

But her lesson remains with me.

Kindness shouldn’t come with a caveat. Not in the classroom. Not in our lives. Not even in a book. That forlorn student with the pink hair had doled out kindness in measures she hadn’t been given, dipping into an empty well to fill someone else’s.

And when I think about the books I want to write after Gravemaidens, I hope I always write a protagonist who chooses kindness, even if they’re struggling, as Kammani is—as this girl was—with hurt and anger and sorrow.

I know that if she could be kind in a world that had forgotten her, I can certainly drum it up when I write.

Kelly Coon

Kelly Coon is the author of the enthralling fantasy duology Gravemaidens and Warmaidens. She is an editor for Blue Ocean Brain, a member of the Washington Post Talent Network, a former high school English teacher, ACT test prep book author, and a wicked karaoke singer in training. She adores giving female characters the chance to flex their muscles and use their brains, and wishes every story got the happy ending she's living near Tampa with her three sons, dashingly handsome husband, and a rescue pup who will steal your sandwich. Find Kelly Coon on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.


Gravemaidens By Kelly Coon

“A dark, delectable, and utterly unique series that readers will want to drown in.” —Laura Sebastian, New York Times bestselling author of the Ash Princess series

The start of a fierce fantasy duology about three maidens who are chosen for their land's greatest honor...and one girl determined to save her sister from the grave. 

In the walled city-state of Alu, Kammani wants nothing more than to become the accomplished healer her father used to be before her family was cast out of their privileged life in shame. 

When Alu's ruler falls deathly ill, Kammani’s beautiful little sister, Nanaea, is chosen as one of three sacred maidens to join him in the afterlife. It’s an honor. A tradition. And Nanaea believes it is her chance to live an even grander life than the one that was stolen from her.

But Kammani sees the selection for what it really is—a death sentence.

Desperate to save her sister, Kammani schemes her way into the palace to heal the ruler. There she discovers more danger lurking in the sand-stone corridors than she could have ever imagined and that her own life—and heart—are at stake. But Kammani will stop at nothing to dig up the palace’s buried secrets even if it means sacrificing everything…including herself.

"A dark and utterly enthralling journey to an ancient land, Gravemaidens grabs you by your beating heart and refuses to let go until the bitter, breathtaking end."—Sarah Glenn Marsh, author of the Reign of the Fallen series 

Random House Teachers and Librarians