age range: 8-12 years
genre: fractured fairy tale
Temre Beltz’s website
Charming and darkly funny, this debut has definite shades of Roald Dahl—it’s a natural successor to Matilda and The Witches. Middle-grade readers who like their fairy tales playing against the rules and their adventure stories with a dash of humor will gobble this up.
I absolutely ADORED Birdie’s story from beginning to end. The most charming book, footnotes and all!
— Liesl Shurtliff, New York Times bestselling author of Rump
Dragons, witches, and resourceful orphans? Magic, adventure, and friendship? There is so much to love about Birdie’s tragical tale!
— Jessica Day George, New York Times bestselling author of the Tuesdays at the Castle series
Please tell us about your book.
In the fairy tale kingdom of Wanderly, everyone has a role. Birdie Bloom is a Tragical—an orphan doomed to an unhappy ending. She spends her days locked away at Foulweather’s Home for the Tragical where her school lessons consist of nothing more than learning how to accept her tragic fate.
Agnes Prunella Crunch, on the other hand, is a witch. The wicked kind.
In Wanderly, a meeting between a wicked witch and a Tragical is only supposed to end one way: tragically. But lately, Birdie and Agnes have both been searching for something more. And with the help of some magical Winds, a series of wayward letters, and the discovery of a very unusual Book, they might just find the kingdom’s unlikeliest friendship, and together, rewrite their story for good.
What inspired you to write this story?
My childhood was shaped by reading. As long as I had a book with me, I was completely content. I loved (and still do!) the weight of the book in my hands, the sound of the pages turning, and that feeling of gently shutting the cover on yet another grand adventure that has now settled into my heart. Some of my favorite stories to read have always been fairytales. I love being able to dive into a shorter story, to feel quickly at home in the world because many of the roles and themes are reoccurring, and then to be able to see how some of the illustrated principles play out in the world around us and how those threads—some obviously, some subtly—are deftly woven in to other beloved classic and contemporary stories. Fairytales, it seems, are everywhere. In trying to make sense of our world through fairytales, I began to consider what might happen if the reverse were true. And it is this flip in perspective that inspired the kingdom of Wanderly.
In an effort to maintain a “storybook” kingdom, the Chancellor of Wanderly has forced each citizen into a role. These roles range from Triumphants (those guaranteed a happy ending) to Tragicals (those doomed to an unhappy ending) and everything in between, including: fairy godmothers, wizards, magicians, witches and commoners. Chancellor-authorized storybooks are exclusively circulated as examples of what each role looks like, and, “for the good of the kingdom,” citizens are not allowed to stray from their roles. What the Chancellor has failed to understand, however, is that stories were never meant to bind us, but to help us make sense of the larger, grander story—life—that is unfolding dynamically all around. And that story, as demonstrated by the Winds of Wanderly, cannot be silenced; it will continue to work in, through, and around the citizens of Wanderly, despite the Chancellor’s best efforts to the contrary, which makes for some very unexpected, and delightful, twists.
On a funnier note, while trying out for a part in my fourth grade school play, my very shy, quiet self was somewhat horrified to be cast as the wicked witch! I was reassured that she was a main part and that it really was an honor, but, try as I might, I just couldn’t get over the wicked part. I did find the courage to play her, and I tried to bring my best self to the role, but ever since I have had a soft spot for storybook witches. Primarily, are they all glad to be cast in such a role? What if some of them would prefer to be written about differently? Or, what if some of them haven’t even considered the possibility that they could be different? It was this tension between who others think we are—and sometimes even who we think we are—as compared to what we want to or could be that I very much wanted to explore.
In writing a fantasy novel for children, how do you tend to approach world-building, and are there any specific techniques that you find helpful?
The work that I have done on BIRDIE has been more fun and more challenging than I ever imagined—primarily because, when I first began writing Birdie’s story, it was not intended to be a fantasy. The book truly is what it has become today because my agent (who I adore!) Molly O’Neill very gently pointed out to me that some of the things which occurred in Birdie’s story don’t happen in real life. I suppose the line between fiction and reality does tend to get blurry for us writers, but I had taken it to a whole new level! When Molly suggested grounding the story in the storybook world I referenced for the wicked witch—Agnes Prunella Crunch—it made my heart thump. It sounded perfect, but also terrifying, though I am now beginning to learn that every story, regardless of the genre, always feels at least a little bit terrifying at the start.
One book that my agent recommended early on, The Imaginary World Of… by Keri Smith, jumpstarted my thinking in just the right direction. It helped me begin to think of Wanderly as a three-dimensional, fully-realized world, and I began to understand that all of the thinking I do off of the page (such as side stories, histories, money systems, holidays, and traditions) will still inform the writing and help make the world feel more real to the reader. As a writer this continues to be an important step for me: to give myself permission to day dream, and to recognize that some of the most real and important work of writing does not always translate to words on the page. The best stories are really just the tip of the iceberg of all the hard and necessary work that no one will ever actually see.
Something else that both my agent and my editor at HarperCollins, the wonderful Stephanie Stein, taught me is that there really is nothing so far-reaching, so out of this world, so unbelievable that a reader isn’t willing to accept in a story, so long as it finds its place in a logical magical system. In short, as long as we as writers create for our fantasy worlds a set of “rules” that can be counted upon, that can be used to make predictions, and that do not fluctuate at the whim of the writer or merely to serve the story, then the possibilities are boundless. I like to think of it as organized freedom.
The last, and probably the most important, thing I have learned is that I still have much to learn! But that is part of the journey of being a writer, giving our very best while still leaving room for what the books we have yet to read, and the stories we have yet to write, will teach us. It seems the books make the writer as much as the writer makes the books.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
I hope that students would enjoy considering Birdie’s story among other classic fairytales. It might be fun to try rewriting some of the classic stories from one specific character’s angle in order to examine what aspects that character likes or dislikes about their given role. This would not only get students thinking about other points of view, how roles inform the way we understand stories, and to what degree storybook roles may or may not be helpful, but it can also let students stretch their creative writing muscles. Some of my favorite classroom activities as a student were trying on the “voice” of another writer with a distinctive style or by allowing myself to write “in character.”
One of the other aspects that I most enjoyed in writing BIRDIE was creating the letters that went back and forth between Birdie and Agnes. There is something very special about getting to know another person through the words that we choose to write and the things that we choose to write about. In a world where we are constantly being pressured to make decisions at lightning speed, it can be tempting, and disheartening, to think we might “know” someone without even exchanging a word. A fun classroom challenge could involve pairing students together so that they can write a letter to one another or to have students write a letter to a neighbor, relative, or someone else of their choosing. As Agnes learned, all it takes is one simple “Hello” to build a bridge and to spark a “magic” powerful enough to change even an entire kingdom.