There’s something so exciting about seeing a friend realize a lifelong dream. I’ve known my friend Elissa for five years, and she has always been passionate about smart entertainment for young people (she worked on Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, you guys!), so when I heard that her first YA novel, Stray, was going to be published by HarperCollins (it hits stores October 7), I lost my freaking mind. As one does.
I’ve been able to see the fascinating process of what a first-time novelist goes through unfold in front of me at our weekly coffee dates, and one of the things Elissa was most excited about was the cover, because that’s the part that’s completely out of the writer’s hands. Every week I’d ask her if she’d seen the design, and every week the answer was no. Until last week. And you guys, it was worth the wait. This cover is freaking amazing.
Elissa sat down with me to give us an exclusive look at the cover design, as well as to chat about fairy tale adaptations and the importance of diversity in YA. But first things first: let’s take a look at that cover!
WHAT! Look at it! The dress! The mist! The forest! The flowers! The dress! It so perfectly captures the wistfulness and longing of Princess Aislynn as she tries not to stray from The Path. (The DRESS!)
And now, our interview with Elissa:
I really, really love this cover. What can you tell us about it?
It’s so pretty and spooky, isn’t it? I was really lucky in that my editor asked if I had any ideas for the cover. Since I’m a Pinterest fiend, I had a collection of images that I thought could work. The marketing team ended up really liking one of them and contacted the artist who had created it to see if she’d be interested in making some adjustments. She ended up reading the book and incorporated a lot of elements of the story into the image. I could not be more thrilled with the final result and feel that it really captures the feel of the book.
It definitely captures that dark fairy tale feel. I love that, because Stray is based on fairy tales, but not in a way that hits specific benchmarks from a specific story–unlike, say, Ash or The Lunar Chronicles.
Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of retellings and love both Ash and The Lunar Chronicles, but I wanted Stray to feel like it existed in a fairy tale-inspired world, without feeling too tied to a particular story. I was especially influenced by the musical Into the Woods, as well as the mini-series The 10th Kingdom. While Into the Woods embraces the dark, often-forgotten parts of fairy tales (like how Cinderella’s step-sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit in the glass slipper), The 10th Kingdom takes a more playful approach, creating a world where the fairy tales we know are historical events. Both weave together familiar stories to build a new one, which was my intention for Stray.
One of my favorite things about Stray is that there is just so much diversity. We hear a lot from fantasy authors about how hard it is to incorporate non-white characters into high fantasy and fairy tales because of the European basis of so many of these stories. Did you have trouble with this?
I have to admit, Stray wasn’t as diverse in its early drafts. In fact, most, if not all of my characters were white. My reasoning was, well, I’m drawing a lot of inspiration from the European version of these fairy tales, so “historically” it wouldn’t make sense for there to be people of color.
But during this time, the BBC came out with their series Merlin in which Angel Coulby, a bi-racial woman, was cast as Guinevere. It resulted in a really interesting debate online, but I specifically remember reading a post by Sarah Rees Brennan reminding us that Camelot, although inspired by Medieval Europe, is a fantasy world. There is magic and dragons, but include a person of color and suddenly people start crying for “realism”.*
Reading that I realized it was pretty silly to hold onto an argument of “historical accuracy” in a story where women get their loving hearts removed when they become Fairy Godmothers.
I ended up treating the manuscript like a film and essentially went back and “re-cast” most of my characters. Unless there was a specific reason for a character to be white, I rewrote their description. Like in Merlin, our concept of race or racism doesn’t really exist in Stray. Since the people in Aislynn’s world are divided solely by class, having a person of color would be more important or meaningful to the reader than it would to the character.
Because of that, I struggled with finding the balance between indicating the color of a character’s skin and belaboring the point. And since it’s a fantasy world, I had to be careful about the language I used and did my best to avoid the often reviled comparisons of dark skin to chocolate or wood. I worried that unless I implicitly stated otherwise, most readers would assume that the character, like yours truly, was white.
I can’t say if I succeeded, but hopefully I didn’t screw it up too terribly.
*Also for anyone who wants to argue that there were no people of color in the Medieval Europe that inspired Camelot, I will send you to this amazing tumblr. Additionally most of the fairy tales we recognize as European have roots in many other cultures – variations on the story of Cinderella, for example, have been found all over the world.
Epic and provocative, STRAY is an original fairy tale in which magic is a curse that only women bear and society is dictated by a strict religious doctrine called The Path.
Princess Aislynn knows all about the curse. Its magic is a part of her, like her awkward nose and thin fingers. It’s also something she can’t control. And girls who can’t control their abilities have a tendency to disappear. So for her own protection, Aislynn is sworn into the order of Fairy Godmothers where she must spend the rest of her life chaste and devoted to serving another royal family.
Tasked with tending to the sweet, but sheltered Princess Linnea, Aislynn also finds a reluctant friend in the palace gardener, Thackery, who makes no secret of his disdain for her former life. The more time they spend together, though, the more she begins to doubt the rules she has observed so obediently. As Aislynn’s feelings threaten to undo the sacred vows she has taken, she risks not only her own life but Linnea’s as well. With the princess engaged to a devoted follower of The Path, there are some who would do anything to keep Aislynn from straying.
Stray will be published by Greenwillow Books on October 7, 2014.
About the Author
Elissa Sussman is a writer, a reader and a pumpkin pie eater. Her debut novel, STRAY (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins), is a YA fantasy about fairy godmothers, magic and food. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and in a previous life managed animators and organized spreadsheets at some of the best animation studios in the world, including Nickelodeon, Disney, Dreamworks and Sony Imageworks. You can see her name in the credits of THE CROODS, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG and TANGLED. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and their rescue mutt, Basil.
Win a copy of STRAY and a $50.00 giftcard to the independent bookstore of your choice!
Thanks to our friends at Greenwillow Books, we are offering one lucky reader an ARC of the book, plus a $50.00 gift card to the independent bookstore of her choice.
To enter, all you have to do is fill out the Rafflecopter form and leave a thoughtful comment below, telling us what you love about fairy tale retellings or why you think diversity in YA lit is important.
Open to US residents aged 18 and older, or 13 and older with parental permission.
Isn’t Elissa wonderful? And how beautiful is that cover? I’m completely obsessed with the dress. I want to sew those sleeve streamers onto everything I own.