How often do you question who has the power in your world? Four Tor Teen authors—Bethany C. Morrow (A Song Below Water), TJ Klune (The Extraordinaries), Mark Oshiro (Each of Us a Desert), and Sarah Henning (The Princess Will Save You) came together along with moderator Charlie Jane Anders to discuss just that. Each of their young adult novels tackle the question of magic, power, and privilege from different angles. So when Charlie Jane asked the question about why telling stories about owning your own power is important, these authors had a lot to say. Check out their answers below, and watch the entire panel for more!
It seems like all four of your books are about claiming your power, and about people who have been told not to kind of control their power, or who have been marginalized or who’ve been told to just sit still and do what you’re told, stepping up and becoming powerful and owning their own power. I’d love to hear more about how that theme resonates for you and why it’s so important to have a book right now about people stepping up and owning their own power.
Bethany C. Morrow: Something that’s really upsetting me about my book coming out and I guess—there’s a line in the book that’s like, “I don’t know if I should be happy if people are listening or if I should be annoyed that it’s taken them so long.” and I feel like from the depth of my soul. I wrote this book in 2017 and people are calling it prophetic in a way that I’m just like, you just don’t listen to Black women. How could it be prophetic when I wrote it three years ago, and if you’re seeing the same things happening, then now you have to confess that these things have been going on the whole time, you just didn’t care. When I say your voice is power, I’m talking specifically to Black girls. This isn’t a feel good thing—it isn’t everybody needs this message, some of you don’t need that message. Some of you need to completely rewind and think, why do I think my voice needs to be heard?….This book is for everyone in the way that literally all books have been, this book is for everyone because the message is for everyone, everyone needs to get this. The message about your voice being power is specific to Black girls. It’s literally, if you haven’t figured this out, the reason you’re treated the way you’re treated is because you have power. It’s because it matters.
TJ Klune: When we’re talking about [magic system] rules…that bothers the crap outta me. Because who are they for? If you’re writing a story and you’re writing these characters, break the damn rules. Don’t do what someone else has done before, write your own damn story. That is what I wish someone had told me. I wish someone had given me that advice, because I always thought especially in a space that is primarily dominated by cishet white men of science fiction and fantasy, that you have to adhere to what came before. These are what the giants before us have created, and this is what we must follow. I wish I had been told, carve your own path, go your own direction, and if some people get upset—good. That’s how it should be. Because if they’re getting upset, they’re getting uncomfortable, and if they’re uncomfortable they deserve to get uncomfortable because they were too settled.
Mark Oshiro: It’s not just that they’re magic rules, it’s that they’re rules, but no one sits and thinks—who has the power? And here’s no acknowledgement of okay, if we’re gonna have this system, who pays the price and who doesn’t? And a lot of times you have these magical systems and then no one’s thought about that. And what I mean by no one is that people who historically have had so much power, they’ve never had to question a system where they don’t have it. I really wanted to write a character, not just in a world where there’s no definable logic to the magic or set of rules, but part of Each of us a Desert is people’s reaction to anger is a gift—and what I love is people describing Moss in Anger is a Gift as a cinnamon roll, because he is, and I wanted to write this really soft black boy and I wanted to have characters who were nice and kind—it’s a whole thing. I got a lot of stuff where I felt like people were infantilizing the characters. White readers, white people interacting with it, were treating them like they weren’t even people and that bothered me, because if you’re doing that you must have missed the whole point of the book anyway. You often see people put people of color on a pedestal and this pedestal is respectability politics, which is if they act or behave a certain way we like them, and the second they don’t then they’re bad people. In Each of Us a Desert you’re going to see a character… I just wanted to write someone who is selfish. And writing their magic and seeing their magic is a completely selfish thing… on the first page, she says something to the effect of, this is what I did and I’m not sorry for it. And I wanted to set that tone right at the beginning, which is—I made choices, some of those are real bad… but I wanted to write about how this young girl realizes that she’s been mistreated, sometimes by the most benevolent well-intentioned people including her parents who love her and support her and they’re very nice people. but no one thought, hey, what is it like for a sixteen year old girl to have to listen to all these traumatic things that people are saying, and everyone tells her she can’t leave because she’s going to save them. And what pressure do we put on people to say you’re going to save our entire world? And her journey is… what do I want, what’s my life, what choice do I get to make?
Sarah Henning: The world I set up is extreme patriarchy, extreme patriarchy. I have this princess, since her father dies, she can’t actually access her own power, because she has to marry for it. Princesses in my world, if you’re the sole heir, you have to marry to become queen. And she’s like, I’m sixteen, my dad just died, I’m probably in love with my best friend… I don’t want to get married, why cant we just change this law? And because of the way this power structure is, the other kingdoms have this union, and they have the choice to change the law or not. So then that makes her think, well, my dad knew he wasn’t gonna have another heir–her mother ran away, she’s literally called the Runaway Queen—he had fifteen years, why didn’t he change it? And so then she has all of these questions. and if the person at the very top of your kingdom can’t actually control their own life and the royal council is trying to marry her off and she cant make her own decisions, where are we? And so it’s sort of my take on feminism, on women in power not getting power. This is extreme patriarchy, all the men have power, they’re trying to kill their wives so they can marry her and gain the kingdom, and that’s terrible. I just wanted to explore that. I like to put female characters in male dominated space and let them do well, have them be powerful in some way, and they do have to deal with a lot, but I think that’s important. I didn’t see those stories as a kid, I didn’t see that in Buttercup—I didn’t see that in all of the damsel stories that I read. Girls were things to be captured, to be gained, they were just fodder, and I didn’t like that in my stories.
For more from the panel, check out the video above!