Acclaimed author, Elana K. Arnold, is well known for writing for both kids and teens. Her latest YA novel, Damsel, was released to the general public on October 2nd. We were lucky enough to snag a copy of her latest book for ourselves! Check out what we thought of it below:
Review of Damsel by Elana K. Arnold
A YA novel about rebelling against all those damsel-in-distress desires, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold shows the negative side of this outdated fairytale storyline. The novel follows protagonist Ama as she is rescued by a prince after she was captured by a dragon. Sound familiar? Only this time, Ama questions everything. The world of accepting things as they are is shut down and instead, Ama takes issue with what’s going on around her. Readers will struggle with the things that happen to her through the course of the book.
This novel is heavy in detail and daunting in emotion. There’s a darkness to the world that this book isn’t afraid to show. And although this novel is set in a traditional “fairytale time,” it feels all too relevant to the current state of the world. Be warned that it’s uncomfortable to read due to the horrid topics that it covers. The purpose of this book is to show how women have been brainwashed, mistreated, and abused for forever in time and how it’s just no longer acceptable.
There is purpose in this writing. There is a reason that this novel was created and there’s a reason why it’s hard to read. Please note that hard to read does not mean “do not read” or anything of the sort. Actually, it means quite the opposite. Elana K. Arnold’s Damsel is here to show you truths. And it’s also here to show you that just because you mistreat girls and women regularly, doesn’t mean they don’t have the capability to rise up.
Q&A with Elana K. Arnold
After reading Damsel, we were able to interview the author herself: Elana K. Arnold! We learned about her passion for storytelling, her love for animals, and how teaching writing has helped her as a writer. Check it all out here:
To start, who are you and what is it that you do?
I write books for and about children and teens, with titles published and forthcoming for children of all ages and adults who want to read books that center around children and teens. I live in Huntington Beach, California, where I am the caretaker of many animals, mostly mammals, but not exclusively. I teach in Hamline’s low residency MFA program in Writing for Children; I am a feminist; and I eat chocolate peanut butter cups, but also not exclusively. Last year, my YA novel What Girls are Made Of was a National Book Award finalist, a California Book Award finalist, and a Golden Kite award winner.
Your YA novel, Damsel, explores the fairytale narrative in a unique way. What’s the novel about and how did you first come up with the idea of it?
The book began as an answer to a question that my friend Martha Brockenbrough asked me. I can’t tell you what that question was, as that would spoil things about the book, but I can tell you that the book is an answer to that question, and many others I’ve asked myself all my life.
Here’s the official synopsis of Damsel:
The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: When the king dies, his son the prince must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.
When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon or what horrors she faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome young man, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny of sitting on a throne beside him. It’s all like a dream, like something from a fairy tale.
As Ama follows Emory to the kingdom of Harding, however, she discovers that not all is as it seems. There is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows, and the greatest threats may not be behind her, but around her, now, and closing in.
You are an author who has written a wide variety of novels. What do you enjoy writing about?
Many of my books that center teenage girls explore questions about embodied shame, sexuality, self-exploration, and mother/daughter relationships. My books for younger readers so far have focused quite a bit on family relationships and questions about mortality. A connective tissue between most of my titles is the presence of animals: dogs, cats, horse, skunks, and, in the case of Damsel, an orphaned lynx kitten.
When did you realize you had a talent and a passion for writing?
I began writing when I was a kid, and I wrote seriously throughout college and graduate school. After graduate school, though, I stepped away from writing and called myself a reader rather than a writer. I read voraciously and broadly, for several years, before returning to writing fiction again.
What inspired you to be a writer in the first place?
I love stories, books in particular. The only thing that seemed even more exciting than reading them seemed to be writing them, and so I did.
You have taught creative writing and adolescent literature at the collegiate level. How has teaching helped you in your own personal writing? Does teaching and writing go hand in hand?
This is a great question. I definitely think that having the opportunity to think critically about why a book is emotionally resonant or what conversation a particular text is entering into – for example, how Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels is in conversation with questions of misogyny and earlier incarnations of the Snow White and Rose Red fairytale–grows me in many ways, particularly as a writer. I really love being amongst emerging writers and critical thinkers who are interested in challenging themselves, which leads me to challenge myself, as well.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process and how you create your stories?
Each story, like each child, has a unique birth story. Usually, I begin with one element of the book, either a character, or a setting, or a particular plot point. Often, I begin with a question. I never begin with an answer I want to teach, or a lesson I want to impart. This, I think, is death for storytelling. My job is to follow the breadcrumbs the back of my brain leaves for me, and to be open to being surprised, and to being wrong. I think of writing a book as a great luxury–what a gift, that I can make time to do this thing that I love, as hard as it might feel. I remind myself that writing is a pleasure and a privilege. This helps me to feel grateful for my time with my work rather than angry at it.
Which writer/book has inspired you the most and why?
I couldn’t pick one specific book or writer, I don’t think. Different books and different authors have been essential to me at different points. Early, reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck gave me the gift of seeing how lived experience could be woven into a fictional or poetic text. Stephen King’s ability to write so boldly across genres – fantasy and horror and metafiction and historical and literary – models for me that I can do whatever I want. Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s heartbreakingly beautiful Uses for Boys taught me the power that can be harnessed in a slim book. I hope I will always be surprised and enriched by my interaction with books.
What has been the biggest struggle for you as a writer?
Believing that my stories matter and that they deserve to be heard.
Is there a fun fact about yourself that might surprise our readers if you were to share it with them?
I don’t think it will surprise anyone that my home is riddled with pets. Would you be surprised to know that I am an uninventive and boring cook? Because I am.
What advice would you give to struggling writers out there who are trying to accomplish their dreams?
One thing books have in common is that they all have an ending. Practice finishing things. It’s no good to revise unfinished stories. Get to the end.
What do you want kids and teens to learn most from your books?
I don’t think I have anything in mind as far as what I want readers to learn. I don’t have the answers all figured out! When I write, I tell myself, “It’s none of my business who reads my book.” When it’s written, of course, I hope everyone will read it. If nothing else, I hope readers leave my books hungry for more stories and hungry to tell their own.
Your career seems incredible! Where do you see yourself going from here?
This is a very generous thing of you to say. Each day when I sit down to work, I wonder if it’s gone – my ability to write; my relevance; my voice. Going forward, I want to learn more, be more vulnerable and open-hearted, and I want to grow in every way, as a writer, an advocate for others, a friend, and a human being.
Do you have any final words of wisdom that you would like to share with our readers?
Your stories matter. They really do. Tell them, and find a community. Chins up, hearts open.