I met award-winning author Elana K. Arnold at one of the final author events I went to pre-quarantine. She writes some of the most visceral prose I’ve read, and Red Hood is her newest YA novel:
Since her grandmother became her caretaker when she was four years old, Bisou Martel has lived a quiet life in a little house in Seattle. She’s kept mostly to herself. She’s been good. But then comes the night of homecoming, when she finds herself running for her life over roots and between trees, a fury of claws and teeth behind her. A wolf attacks. Bisou fights back. A new moon rises. And with it, questions. About the blood in Bisou’s past and on her hands as she stumbles home. About broken boys and vicious wolves. About girls lost in the woods—frightened, but not alone.
You’ve published books in a variety of book markets (YA, picture books, middle grade). What do you like most about writing for different audiences?
I think of myself as a storyteller, first and foremost. This means that I start with story and go from there. If an idea comes to me that centers a teenage menstruating werewolf hunter, that story grows into a YA novel. If I start with a nine-year-old autistic boy who loves animals, that’s going to become a middle grade novel. If I have an image of a young child, or a quiet, at-home moment-in-life, that may become a picture book.
What I like best about writing stories across all age categories is that the process is always the same: beginning with story; valuing and loving humans; and doing the best I can to tell the story in front of me. Story is story is story.
What a wonderful way to think about story. And I love how RED HOOD confronts the overwhelming effects of shame. What do you hope readers might glean from Bisou’s journey, and in what ways, if any, do you feel guilt is different from shame?
Thank you so much; I’m so glad that RED HOOD is meaningful for you. Lots of my YA work centers around shame, especially shame about cisgender female bodies and their functions. I think that an interesting thing to do is to look at an author’s books as a progression in a conversation. Mine certainly are; WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF focuses very closely on a girl’s sense of shame about the workings of her body; DAMSEL examines a sense of awakening to the expectations of ownership of a female body by others, the sense of shame that can cause, and the shaking off of that shame; and RED HOOD, though beginning with shame, transforms those experiences into power and protection of others. I could not have written RED HOOD without these earlier books, or the books I wrote before those. Each is a link in a chain of my own shifting relationship with my own history of shame.
Guilt is different from shame in that guilt is a feeling we have about what we have done to others, and shame is a feeling we have about ourselves: for example, if I say something awful to a friend, I might feel guilty about my choice to hurt her, and at the same time I might feel shame that I’m the kind of person who could say such a thing in the first place.
Both guilt and shame can be helpful feelings; the problem is when we feel guilt and shame where these feelings aren’t warranted, the way I used to feel deep shame over the fact that my body had natural functions that I felt were shameful (for me, but not for others). Examining shame and guilt when we experience them and then asking why we feel those emotions, where they come from, and what we choose to do with them is central to much of my work. I’ve chosen to transform feelings of cisgender female embodied shame into art.
And in that art, people can see themselves. You’ve received the Printz Honor, and you were a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, among other accolades. What, if anything, have these honors taught you about your writing process?
One would like to think that these recognitions don’t “matter,” but the truth for me is that they have validated the work I am doing. When I was a younger writer, I was told that my decision to focus on embodied female experiences that mirrored my own made my stories trifling, unimportant, not “literary.” This was something else I felt shame about.
Having my work honored by the National Book Award and Printz committees, among others, feels affirming and encouraging. I am deeply grateful for these acknowledgements of my work. In the same vein, the letters I have received from readers who say that they see their lived experiences and emotional landscapes in my book has been deeply gratifying. Readers tell me that these books give them language to understand abuse and gaslighting in their past and present, and a vision for what they can do moving forward. In either case—a recognition from an esteemed committee or an email from a reader—what I hear is that my work matters. What a gift.
Indeed! What are some of your current projects?
I just finished the first draft of my next young adult novel, which hasn’t yet been officially announced. It’s a book I first conceived of about seven years ago, and an idea that I’ve been researching for several years. It’s a whole new landscape for me, which is thrilling and electrically difficult.
And, I just turned in copy edits for my next middle grade novel, which I think will appeal to anyone who loves my character Bat. This book is called THE HOUSE THAT WASN’T THERE; I think of it as a gently magical exploration of the spaces between people and the mysterious interconnections that bind them. The book features feline teleportation, school research projects, and a taxidermied opossum named Mort. It is set to be published winter 2021, and I adore it.
Also out early next year is STARLA JEAN, an uproarious, energetic early reader series debut about a girl, her pet chicken, and a lasting friendship. These will be fully illustrated by the incredible A.N. Kang. I can’t wait for the world to meet Starla Jean and her feathery friend Opal Egg.
All of my work, I think, is united by my deep love for and curiosity about people—the great and the terrible things we do, the great and the terrible things we feel, and the enormous, boundless landscape of the human experience.
And be sure to check out Elana K. Arnold’s other books.