Books You Should Be Reading: Thorn by Intisar Khanani
Hello all! I have a few blog posts in process, but this week I want to talk about something I'm really excited about: One of my favorite self-published authors was picked up just last month for a traditional-publishing contract with HarperTeen! Because blogging is not all about me, but also about supporting artists I admire and recommending books that I think you would all enjoy, I'd like to talk about this incredible and inspiring YA-fantasy author: Intisar Khanani!
In 2015, I was gobbling up books to inform my MFA research paper, which I thought would encompass all fairy tales and their retellings into a neat 25 pages. (For anyone planning to write an academic research paper, this is probably impossible--I ended up focusing the research down to YA retellings of Cinderella and it was still 37 pages long!) I read The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Spindle's End by Robin McKinley, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George, and Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, to name a few. I was fascinated by the retelling-genre, but nothing I read came close to the beautiful ebook I picked up in December '15: Thorn by Intisar Khanani.
Thorn is a goose-girl fairy tale retelling, originally self-published as a Kindle ebook in 2012. For those who do not know the goose-girl fairy tale, it is about a princess who has her body switched with that of her maid on the way to an arranged marriage. Instead of having to marry the prince, she becomes the goose girl at the castle, living a lowly life until she is finally able to reveal to the king that she is the real princess. The maid is severely punished and the princess lives happily ever after with the prince. Thorn is a retelling of this tale, but is different than any retelling or fairy tale I have ever read. It is vibrant, visceral, and has a voice that is calm, strong, and unrelentingly beautiful. It is a story about a girl struggling with her feelings about self, body, and beauty. It has an admirable heroine fighting to do what's right while constantly questioning what "right" is. It is a vignette of a life freed from expectations, as well as an adventure story about taking responsibility for your life, inaction, and decisions. Thorn, it can rightly be said, left me breathless on every digital page. Now, it will be able to do that on paper pages as well, hopefully for many more readers!
On her website, Khanani reports that she wrote Thorn during her senior year of college, "while also holding down a 20 hour a week job, taking part in various student groups, and taking extra credit hours in order to complete my major." This is incredible, and truly inspiring for anyone who feels their life is to busy to create their art. You just have to do it, as Khanani did! It might not be perfect on the first go, but you have to keep working at it. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly following her signing with HarperTeen, Khanani relates the story of writing Thorn in the middle of her busy schedule:
"Somehow, I decided that if I really wanted to be a writer, I had to go ahead and just do it...I began the novel as an experiment, to see if I really could do it, and the first draft was truly awful. I did about a dozen drafts of Thorn, and also wrote a number of other manuscripts during that time frame, but I kept coming back to Alyrra.”
Yet Khanani's persisted, and the beautiful book she created is every bit the professional piece of art. When I heard that Khanani's novel was being picked up by HaperTeen, all I could think was "About time!" This is a book that everyone who loves fantasy, fairy tales, and justice should read, and possibly re-read to get all the little bits of beauty and meaning that are swirling through it like veins of gold. *swoon*
Later in the interview with Publisher's Weekly, Khanani talks about how she was working on Thorn when 9/11 rocked the country. Khanani, a female Muslim writer, reports how 9/11 helped shaped the themes of Thorn:
“Alyrra is a survivor of abuse, and is learning to come into herself, and her story is also one of compassion. After the terrorist attack, I was really struggling with concepts of justice and forgiveness and mercy and compassion. I felt as a world we needed more compassion—and a lot of what I struggled with at the time came into the story.”
Thorn's themes of justice and compassion ring true for our world. Though the setting is an alternate world, Khanani's perspective as a Muslim woman in our world brings an extra layer to the story that would not have otherwise been there. As in all novels, the author can be seen behind it, steering the story away from some Western macho ideas of story and towards a softer, more moral idea of fighting for what's right without violence or hatred. It is a beautiful message which speaks somewhat of the tolerance and love expressed in the Islamic faith, as well as a call for merciful justice following 9/11. This is a fairy tale retelling as it should be--updated to reflect current world struggles and advise on moral values. Khanani's novel is moral without preaching, emotional without melodrama, and feminist without any hint of a Mary Sue. Her story is true in the way that all the very best fantasy novels are--in your heart.
Khanani has only just announced her signing with HaperTeen to publish Thorn and an upcoming companion novel (SQUEE!!), but she has been an active voice in the literary sphere for many years now. Her monthly newsletter (which you can sign up for here), consistently supports other self-published authors and speaks out on the importance of diversity in books and publishing. HarperTeen is fortunate to have such an influential author added to their house, and I hope that Khanani's increased visibility in the traditional publishing world will give her message an even stronger platform to influence the publishing world.
I look forward to seeing how Khanani's star shines in her new partnership with HarperTeen, and I urge you to keep an eye out for her upcoming traditonal-publication of Thorn. Or, if you can't wait that long, check out the ebook version here and get ready to fall in love!
Do you have any favorite self-published authors that you would recommend? Share in the comments below!
As a special exercise, take a look at your bookshelves: How many books by diverse authors are up there? Now, challenge yourself to double that number. You can find some great YA and MG books by diverse authors here, or do a Google search for "[your preferred genre] by diverse authors". What books did you find? Which are your favorites? Share with your friends and let me know how your bookshelf has expanded in the comments below!