age range: 8-12 years
themes / topics: poverty, abuse, magical realism
Jessica Vitalis’s website
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The challenges that Fud and her mother endure—some of which are based on Vitalis’s childhood experiences, per an author’s note—are sympathetically wrought, and Fud’s resilience and compassion drive the narrative to a complex yet optimistic resolution.
— Publisher’s Weekly
This is a powerful novel of tremendous empathy and optimism, where the true magic lies in the belief that acceptance and engagement and togetherness aren’t just the purview of coyotes.
— Gary D. Schmidt, Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist
An unflinching depiction of domestic violence and poverty interwoven with budding friendships and coyote magic. There are no easy answers, but there is hope. This book lights the way.
— Jenn Reese, author of A Game of Fox & Squirrels
A memorable story of ferocity, love, desperation–and the bittersweet empowerment of a girl finding her way out of difficulty. Vitalis captures painful truth with a deft touch of fantasy.
— Kaela Rivera, author of Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls
Please tell us about your book.
Coyote Queen is the story of twelve-year-old Fud, who is desperate to escape the isolated trailer where she and her mother live with an abusive ex-boxer. The situation becomes even more desperate when he brings home a rusted-out boat he plans to fix up as their new home. Fud doesn’t see a way to escape the floating prison until she learns about a local beauty pageant; she applies, desperate to win the cash prize. But Fud can’t seem to escape an eerie connection to a local pack of coyotes that’s causing strange changes to her body. Her sense of smell sharpens and she goes colorblind, but Fud won’t let anything stop her from winning the crown––not even her new tail.
What inspired you to write this story?
I started writing a memoir nearly twenty years ago because I wanted to write a book where children struggling with issues like domestic violence, poverty, and parental alcoholism could see themselves and find a glimmer of hope; I soon learned that writing a memoir was a lot more difficult than it sounded––both because I have a terrible memory and because life doesn’t present itself in a neat narrative arc. Although that story never came to fruition, my writing skills continued to improve, and I never gave up on the idea of exploring my childhood. It wasn’t until I let go of the idea of an accurate reporting that Fud finally came to life––and once the idea of adding a twist of magic gripped me, I knew I’d finally found the story I’d been trying to tell all along.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research and / or share a few interesting tidbits about your writing process with this book?
When I set out to write a memoir, I interviewed my mother and grandmother in an attempt to make sense of the fragmented memories I had of my childhood. This was extremely useful and healing emotionally, but it didn’t result in a great book. After deciding to fictionalize the story, I wrote another draft that was far too dark for a middle grade audience. That’s when the idea to add a twist of magic came in—at first, a magical coyote befriended Fud. It wasn’t until a critique partner pointed out that this external fantasy element took the emphasis off of Fud’s emotional journey that I realized the magical elements in the story were really metaphors for Fud’s desire to escape her circumstances, and that’s when the story really came together.
What were some special challenges associated with writing a story for young readers that shines a light on tough topics?
One of the big challenges in writing this book was trying to find a balance between an authentic and honest portrayal of the darker sides of childhood while still making the story fun and entertaining to read. I included what might be considered a short prologue in chapter one to let the readers know that even though things were starting off tough, there was a promise of magic to come.
The rural Wyoming setting was another challenge; it was important to the emotional tenor of the book, but Fud’s isolation (and her anger) didn’t lend itself to a fun middle grade read. The arrival of a chaotic next-door-neighbor brought some much needed levity to what otherwise might have been too harsh of a story.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
One of the things I love most about Fud (besides her tenacity) is that she wants to be a biologist when she grows up. She already knows a lot about wildlife, and with the help of the internet and her beloved field guide to Wyoming wildlife, she learns a whole lot more about coyotes (and a little bit about whether the changes to her body are scientifically possible).
Although the STEM elements will undoubtedly appeal to teachers, the most powerful aspects of the story relate to the social and emotional learning opportunities; while we’d all like to believe that childhood is a time of ease and innocence, the reality is that all too many children are trapped in dark, difficult circumstances. Coyote Queen reminds readers that we never know what other people are going through behind closed doors and presents an opportunity to engage in discussions surrounding the importance of friendship and asking for help when it’s needed. (An author’s note in the back provides a list of resources for children in abusive situations.)