Having won critical acclaim and success for historical novels, I wondered what on earth had made Disney select her to write a series of fantasy novels about mermaids and she wondered what had made her agent think that she could do it! Even stranger was the story she told about a visit to an Alexander McQueen retrospective and feeling that creative spark of connection in an ocean inspired display, only to return home that very day to the urgent phone call about the Disney offer. Deep Blue was the first of the Waterfire Saga (followed at a rate of one a year or less by Rogue Wave, Dark Tide and Sea Spell) She relished the challenge of world building and creating naturalistic, diverse mermaids from all around the world, very far from ‘the clam shell- bikini clad

stereotypes!’ She also loved the opportunity to write

for a younger audience, like her then 10-year-old daughter and friends. Disney was also to commission Lost in a Book with the slightly different challenge of imagining what happened to Belle, an already well-established character, after the end of Beauty and The Beast.

But while all this was going on, her historical ghosts were still trying to break through, she was literally haunted by a vision ‘of a man in a coffin’. She began to explore his world, which turned out to be New York of the 1890’s and the setting for These Shallow Graves with its contrasting stories of women from different strata of society; united by their powerlessness in a patriarchal society. A common thread in all her books is that of her characters ‘pushing back’ against expectations and forging their own path. She wants young people to ‘listen to that small voice inside’. This is particularly true of her female characters and no surprise from someone voted Class Feminist in her High School Yearbook. She acknowledges her debt to the strong women who brought her up, but emphasises that you are not always born strong and for her it is the ‘journey’ that her characters follow that is key – learning from mistakes and ‘getting up after being knocked down’.

Stepsister and now Poisoned have, of course, been labelled feminist fairy tales, but to me they are about more than just liberating the heroines, they are about liberating the villains – the Ugly Sisters and the Wicked Stepmother. Nobody is born a villain and what makes them that way is what fascinates her.

Once again these are fully character-driven novels of psychological depth. Ella reveals her failings and Sophie learns that her loving, emotional heart is her strength. For the author they are also a way of addressing ‘the poisoned apple’ of the toxicity of social media. ‘The tyranny of likes and follows’ and asking, ‘who is that voice in the mirror’? Who gets to dictate what is beauty and what a girl should be? They beautifully blend her love of history, being set authentically in an alternative 18th century France and 17th century Germany, and allow her to create the monsters and creatures she so enjoyed in her fantasy novels, while making even more explicit her underlying themes of social justice and kindness. Themes which have a poignant resonance in these COVID times

When a librarian introduced her 8-year-old self to the original Grimm’s fairy tales, she loved their darkness, they ‘pulled no punches’. She believes that children ‘hunger for the truth’, you cannot shield them from the dark side of life, when they can see it all around them. But these tales were also empowering to her because ‘fairy tales do show you the monsters, but then how to defeat them’. She is currently in the very early stages of both another fairy tale and another historical story; one that she had not previously felt strong enough to tell. But COVID has taught us all that when you cannot count on tomorrow, you must not waste today and so she is doing it! One will take precedence for completion eventually, but I know that I will relish whatever comes next from this consummate storyteller.

Books mentioned Humble Pie, Athenaeum, 978-0689844355 (O/P) A Gathering Light, Bloomsbury, 978-0747570639, £7.99 Revolution, Bloomsbury, 978-1408801512 Deep Blue, Hodder, 978-1444921205, £6.99 Rogue Wave, Hodder, 978-1444925661, £6.99 Dark Tide, Hodder, 978-1444928334, £6.99 Sea Spell, Disney Hyperion, 978-1484713037, £7.99 These Shallow Graves, Hot Key, 978-1471405174,£7.99 Lost in a Book, Disney Press, 978-1368057684, £6.99 Stepsister, Hot Key, 978-1471407970 £7.99 Poisoned, Hot Key, 978-1471408144, £7.99

Joy Court is Reviews Editor for The School Librarian and Past Chair of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals

Books for Keeps No.245 November 2020 13

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