Her Story: Ladies In Literature 2018 with Tiffany Brownlee

Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty-six authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!


About Tiffany Brownlee

Tiffany Brownlee is a graduate from Xavier University of Louisiana and works as a middle school English teacher in the New Orleans area. She has been writing stories since childhood and won her first creative writing award in second grade. Her debut novel, Wrong In All The Right Ways, is a YA retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and is coming from Henry Holt and Co. in July 2018.

Author Links: WebsiteTwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreads


YOLO! You only live once! Now, mock me all you want for using this cliched, millennial motto, but 1) I AM a millennial, so I’m fully licensed to use it, and 2) you know every word of it is true. I mean, we’re not cats, are we? We don’t have nine lives, we literally only have one. (Haha). But all jokes aside, this saying actually has some value to it. I’m definitely picturing you all rolling your eyes right now, but stay with me, okay?

We only live once, and for a long time, I used to think that that meant life was too precious a gift to risk by stepping out of my comfort zone, and that I should exercise caution with every decision I made when it came to my own; to stop and think before I leap, if you will. So, I only crossed the street after looking both ways (twice!), I only took chances on sure things, and I only loved from afar to protect myself from a broken heart. I pretty much lived inside of a comfortable bubble, where I could control every aspect of my life without running the risk of failure, pain, or discomfort of any kind. That was fine and all, but I knew it wasn’t really living. And then I was introduced to Madeline Whittier in Nicola Yoon’s debut novel, Everything, Everything, and everything changed. (Haha! See what I did there?)

Fresh out of college, I was twenty-two when I read Everything, Everything for the first time, and I immediately felt a strong connection to Madeline. You see, Maddie was just like me. She played it safe, never wanting to risk too much out of fear of losing it all. She lived in a glass house where the only daring adventures she went on were the ones in the stories she read. Now, I didn’t live in a literal glass house, but I was very much a homebody who read books to escape to magical worlds much different that my own. I was Maddie (without the whole SCID thing, of course), and she was me, and like Maddie, I wanted more for myself but was afraid to take that giant first step. I get that, though. Diving into the unknown deep is terrifying!

In the book, Maddie’s journey of self-discovery led her to the realization that anything (or anyone, in her case) worth loving is worth the risk, and watching her step out of her comfort zone for Olly gave me the courage to do the same with my own life. I began to ease out of the comforts of my bubble-life in every way imaginable, starting with the three most important areas of my life: food, romance, and writing.

Maddie’s risk opened her eyes to a world of new experiences (which I won’t name here, because they’re major book spoilers, and I would hate to ruin this novel for anyone who hasn’t read it yet), and mine did the same for me. So, instead of always ordering the safe and boring chicken breast with French fries at a restaurant, I began trying a new dish every time I went out to eat. Instead of always going for the same kind of guy, I began dating someone out of my comfort zone (by the way, it’s been almost three years, and we’re still going strong. Yay for love!). And instead of leaving my manuscript in a my desk drawer – the safest place for it to reside to avoid rejection of any kind — I started making moves to become a published author. All of these decisions came with a risk of some sort: What if I don’t like the food? What if he breaks my heart? What if no one wants to publish my book? But once I took a step back and realized, like Maddie, that living in a safe and comfortable bubble wasn’t really living at all, the decision to jump became second nature to me. And so, I jumped. Again, and again, and again, with every opportunity that came my way. And in doing so, I exposed myself to more life-changing experiences than l could ever imagine.

At twenty-six, I can now say that I’m a published author (or, I will be once July 17th comes), that I’ve fallen in love with an amazing guy, and that I’m no longer the pickiest eater in my close-knit circle of friends. Had I not followed Maddie’s lead, taken the risk, and jumped, I would still be sitting inside my figurative glass house while I watch everyone else live their life to the fullest. And I haven’t abandoned all of my uptight safety precautions — don’t worry, I still look both ways before crossing the street (haha) — but now, I’m taking more chances and really living life how it’s supposed to be lived. To its full extent. In Everything, Everything, meeting Olly changed Maddie’s life, and for me, meeting Maddie changed mine.

Title Wrong In All The Right Ways
Author Tiffany Brownlee
Pages 352 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Contemporary, Romance, Retelling
Publication Date July 17th 2018 by Henry Holt and Company
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChaptersThe Book Depository

An attraction between foster siblings sets fire to forbidden love in this contemporary reimagining of Wuthering Heights.

Emma’s life has always gone according to her very careful plans. But things take a turn toward the unexpected when she falls in love for the first time with the one person in the world who’s off-limits: her new foster brother, the gorgeous and tormented Dylan McAndrews.

Meanwhile, Emma’s AP English class is reading Wuthering Heights, and she’s been assigned to echo Emily Bronte’s style in an epistolary format. With irrepressible feelings and no one to confide in, she’s got a lot to write about. Distraught by the escalating intensity of their mutual attraction, Emma and Dylan try to constrain their romance to the page ― for fear of threatening Dylan’s chances at being adopted into a loving home. But the strength of first love is all-consuming, and they soon get enveloped in a passionate, secretive relationship with a very uncertain outcome.

Tiffany Brownlee’s Wrong In All The Right Ways marks the exciting debut of a fresh voice in contemporary teen fiction.

Her Story: Ladies In Literature 2018 with Hafsah Faizal

Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty-six authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!


About Hafsah Faizal

There are some who are born knowing they are writers. Hafsah Faizal was not one of them. Her journey to becoming an author was a long and winding one, and in reality, is barely just beginning. Hafsah is the author of We Hunt The Flame, a YA fantasy forthcoming from FSG/Macmillan in 2019. She’s the owner of IceyDesigns, where she creates websites for authors and beauteous goodies for everyone else. Born in Florida and raised in California, she now resides in Texas with her family, some koi, and a library of books waiting to be devoured. Her work is represented by John M. Cusick of Folio Lit.

Author Links: WebsiteTwitterInstagramTumblrGoodreads

I was never a big reader. I was one of the brightest kids in my school, but I cheated on my reading log.

It was only many years later that I realized why: because those adventures, those journeys, those fun times that occurred in books? They could never be me. I was different, as was clear when I browned in the playground. When my dark hair needed to be coiled in a braid or it would swallow me whole. When my teacher couldn’t pronounce my name for the first few weeks of class and when my burqa-donning mother needed to say my daughter can’t eat this and this and this. So when I blatantly stood out in my surroundings, what solace could I find in a book where I was reminded of just how different I was? I hated reading.

Many years later, my life shifted. I donned the veil, just like my mother. We moved to a new state and I lost all my friends. I started homeschooling. Loneliness became my constant, the worst friend one could ask for. My brother, my complete opposite when it came to reading, brought home books high above his reading level. He’d talk about them and press them into my hands. One book became another, and another, and another.

I read to lose myself. Rarely could I find myself, but sometimes, between the magical covers of a tome, I could find snippets. Like horcruxes I began to collect.

I have no single literary heroine. I would be lying if I said I did. But rather, there are little pieces of different characters that I would carve off and hold close. Like Katsa from Graceling, who was looked upon differently by her people. Like Maddy from Everything, Everything, one of the first characters I connected so strongly with. She was smart, homeschooled, lonely. She started a blog to connect with the outside world, yet her closest friend was her mom. I saw so much of myself in her. Then there was Skylar from I’ll Meet You There who lived a more extroverted life, but had tremendous responsibilities heaped upon her at such a young age. When she said I’m tired, I bawled and bawled and bawled. But she emerged with a sense of bittersweet happiness. Most of my favorite heroines do.

My literary heroine is rarely the one who fights back. Rarely the one who talks loud and mouths off. The ones I find myself rooting for, fighting for, crying for are the ones who persevere. Who are burdened with responsibilities they never should have borne. Robbed of the freedom to dream, to wish, to paint an unblemished future with whatever they’d like. Who are frowned upon by so many for the mere act of existing. Who carry the weight of so many, yet continue with a weary smile, knowing they’ll likely never receive the same in return. The quiet heroines. The resilient ones. The ones who grit their teeth and steel their feet and carry on.

Because they remind me I can, too.

Title We Hunt The Flame
Author Hafsah Faizal
Pages N/A
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Fantasy
Publication Date May 14th 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Find It On Goodreads

In the caliphates of Arawiya, the forest extends its palms and the sands bleed black.

In Demenhur, the Huntress dons a man’s clothes, deceiving all, including herself.

In Sarasin, the Prince of Death steeps his hands in blood. He no longer knows to dream.

In Alderamin, the clock chimes for the ones immortal as the darkness stretches and yawns.

And from the shadows comes a woman. Cloaked in silver and jeweled in crimson.

Set in a richly reimagined ancient Arabia, We Hunt The Flame follows Zafira — a young woman who masquerades as a man to seek a lost artifact that could return magic to her cursed world — and the Prince of Death tasked with killing her.

Cover Reveal: The Pioneer by Bridget Tyler

Hi everyone! Today we’re interrupting our regularly scheduled series of Her Story posts this month as Pop! Goes The Reader hosts the exclusive cover reveal of The Pioneer by 2019 debut author, Bridget Tyler! Coming to a bookstore and library near you March 5th 2019 from HarperTeen, The Pioneer tells the story of Joanna ‘Jo’ Watson, a cadet pilot in the International Space Agency who has left Earth with her family in order to establish a new world on the planet of Tau Ceti E with devastating, surprising and rewarding results. The cover of The Pioneer was designed by Jenna Stempel-Lobell and the accompanying jacket photograph was taken by Jalese Ayana. In addition to today’s cover reveal, Bridget has been kind enough to allow me to share a few other exciting exclusives with you, including an author’s note, except from the novel, and an opportunity for one lucky reader to win an advance reader copy of The Pioneer! Please read on to learn more!


About Bridget Tyler

Bridget Tyler grew up in Berkeley, California and went to school in New York and London before coming home to California to begin a career as a storyteller in the film and television business. She lived and worked in Los Angeles for over a decade. After starting her writing career on Burn Notice she produced her first original pilot, Horizon, for Universal Television and USA Network with Gale Anne Hurd, Producer of The Terminator and The Walking Dead. She has since developed pilots for USA, FOX, AMC, WBTV, and BBC-AMERICA. She lives in Oregon with her husband, a Robotics Professor at Oregon State University, and her daughter, a toddler who loves to sing.

Author Links: WebsiteTwitterInstagramGoodreads

When I went to visit the Space Shuttle Endeavor at the California Science Center I walked into the hanger, looked up…and burst into awestruck tears. Like Joanna Watson, the damaged hero at the center of this book, I’ve dreamed of the stars for as long as I can remember. But it was the shadows of distant planets captured by the Kepler Space Telescope that inspired this book. We don’t know much about them, but even the tiniest spark can build a fire…or a new world.

The Pioneer takes place on Tau Ceti e, a real planet in orbit of a real star called Tau Ceti that’s a little less than twelve lightyears away. We know very little about it, except that it has the potential to support life. Building my version of Tau is the product of several trips to National Parks, hours of research, and a lot of weird questions asked of people who do really cool stuff for a living. I enjoyed every second of it, but this book isn’t about Tau. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with her family, and with herself. Jo Watson’s daily life is more exciting than mine, or yours. (Unless you’re reading this from a distant, uncharted planet in which case…AWESOME, please tell me everything and I want pictures) But Jo’s adventurous lifestyle doesn’t change the fact that she’s an ordinary girl with ordinary issues. She’s struggling to understand her overwhelming mother and live with her prickly, judgmental sister. She’s trying to figure out what she’s going to do when she grows up. She’s falling in love at a totally inconvenient time. She’s facing an uncertain future that she doesn’t feel prepared for…and learning that the truth about her world and her society is far more complicated than she knew.

I’m a screenwriter, so getting to tell a story from inside a character’s head has been such an exciting and deeply emotional experience. I can’t wait to share Jo, and her world, with all of you. And I’m thrilled that I FINALLY have the all-clear to show off our amazing cover art, designed by Jenna Stempel-Lobell and photographed by Jalese Ayana.

I’d love to hear what you all think! You can find me at my website or on Twitter or Instagram.

I grab Beth’s hand and tug her along as I follow Mom to the airlock. Dad comes to stand beside us as Mom pulls up the lock screen, then turns to face the crowd.

“My friends! We have come to the edge of humanity’s newest frontier.” She unseals the airlock doors behind her. “I can think of only one thing to say.”

Brilliant sunshine floods in as the airlock swings open and the landing ramp unfolds, smacking down into chunky, silver-brown soil. I expect Mom to start walking down the ramp. Instead, she looks to me and makes a go ahead gesture.

She wants me to go first.

Adrenaline surges over me. This is the moment. The moment we’ve been working toward my whole life. The moment Teddy died for. The moment we truly become pioneers.

Miguel nudges me. “Dude. You’re killing the mood.”

I walk through the airlock and step out into the sunlight. My heart is pounding so hard it’s overwhelming my pacers. I can hear the blood thudding against my eardrums, and hot white sparks are dancing in the corners of my vision.

I reach the bottom of the ramp.

Mom calls out, “This is one small step for a young woman…”

My sneaker presses into the soft soil of Tau Ceti e.

“And one giant leap for humankind!”

I can hear the roar of cheers behind me. But I don’t look back.

I turn my face up to the cloud-speckled sunlight and breathe in air that smells like salt and pine sap and something I don’t have a name for yet. I am standing on a new world. Our world. And just for this moment, nothing else matters.

We’re finally here.



Title The Pioneer
Author Bridget Tyler
Pages N/A
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Science Fiction
To Be Published March 5th 2019 by HarperTeen
Find It On Goodreads

When Jo steps onto Tau Ceti E, it should be the happiest moment of her life. After all, she’s been training for as long as she can remember to be a cadet pilot in the International Space Agency. She’s dreamed of the day she and her family would leave Earth forever and begin life as pioneers on a new planet.

But now she can’t stop thinking of everything that has gone wrong on their mission: the terrible accident that nearly destroyed their craft, that set their voyage back years, that killed her brother, that left her unable to fly…

As Jo struggles to live with her grief and figure out who she’s going to be now, she falls in love with her new world. It isn’t hard. Jo’s team is camped out by a pristine, tumbling river at the base of a mountain range that looks like huge prisms buried in the prairie. The soring crystal peaks transform every sunset into rainbows full of colors human eyes have never seen before. And that’s just the beginning. Tau offers Jo and her family a lifetime of beauty and adventure.

Jo throws herself into helping her team, lead by her commander mother, establish their community on this amazing new world. But just when she starts to feel like her old self again, she uncovers a devastating secret her mother has been keeping from her people. A secret that could destroy her family’s pioneering dreams…if they survive that long.

With the fate of the pioneers in her hands, Jo must decide how far she’s willing to go to expose the truth — before the truth destroys them all.

As an extra, exciting bonus, Bridget has been kind enough to offer one lucky reader the opportunity to win an advance reader copy of The Pioneer! One winner will be chosen at random at the conclusion of the giveaway and the prize will be distributed by Bridget when ARCs become available. This contest is open to residents of the US and Canada. Please fill out the Rafflecopter form below to enter!

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Her Story: Ladies In Literature 2018 with Nafiza Azad

Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty-six authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!


About Nafiza Azad

Nafiza Azad is a self-identified island girl. She has hurricanes in her blood and dreams of a time she can exist solely on mangoes and pineapple. Born in Lautoka, Fiji, she currently resides in BC, Canada where she reads too many books, watches too many Kdramas and writes stories about girls taking over the world. Her debut young adult fantasy novel, The Candle and The Flame, will be released by Scholastic in 2019.

Author Links: WebsiteTwitterInstagramGoodreads

I grew up on a sugarcane farm in Lautoka, Fiji, surrounded by green fields, blue mountains, and the ever present sea shimmering in the distance. During harvest season, the air in the village is heavy with the scent of sugar. Any other time of the year, the breeze brings a reminder of the sea and the fragrance of growing things. I grew up wild among two brothers, six first cousins, and countless second cousins.

We didn’t have much in the way of material treasures — not that we considered ourselves poor. We had sweet sugarcane sticks to munch on. Sugarcane from other peoples’ fields taste much better than the ones that grow in yours. We were surrounded by mango trees which yielded fruit that we ate both raw, ripe, pickled, and dried. There were Tamarind trees, orange trees, soursop, custard apples, guavas, and jujubes — we were rich in all the ways that mattered to us. Television came late and when it did, there was only one channel which lingered upon documentaries featuring kangaroos.

For entertainment, we turned to nature and to books. Nature we had in plenty but books? Books were infrequent when I was growing up. Books in Fiji are expensive and considered a luxury that we didn’t have money for. There was one ill-stocked library in town that had a limit of two books.

I remember the day I decided that I must learn to read. My mother tongue is Fiji Hindi and I learned to speak proper English when I was in grade one or class one as we call it. Upon coming first in the class, at the end of the year I was given a copy of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I don’t know which teacher thought it would be a good idea to give a grade one student an unabridged copy of Gulliver’s Travels but imagine my consternation when I opened my first prize gift and found a book I could barely read.

My mom, seeing how distraught I was, bought me a children’s edition of Great Expectations. It had pictures, I remember, and a blue cover that went ratty after my multiple readings. I never did read Gulliver’s Travels. By the time I was old enough to appreciate the wit in it, I was no longer interested in the story. My next love was Enid Blyton and all the books written by her. Enid Blyton is not well known in North America but goodness, she was all the rage when I was growing up. I remember The Naughtiest Girl series by her. The protagonist is the titular naughtiest girl and the series details her adventures. George from The Famous Five series also by Enid Blyton lingers in my memory because she defied societal expectations of femininity — well, as much as a girl could in a book by Blyton who is, as I know now but didn’t then, problematic. The next literary heroine I remember clearly is Pollyanna from Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter.

If I am going to be completely honest, Pollyanna annoyed me with her excessive optimism. Look, sometimes you just need to sulk and hate the world. I read all these books with the knowledge that the girls in these books were not me. They couldn’t be me just as I couldn’t be them. Our lives were too different. I could empathize with their turmoil but I couldn’t relate to them. See, I grew up with hurricanes punctuating my childhood. High tea for me was a pyali of chai and a snack of gulgula. Still, I read on.

Then I met Matilda and for the first time in my life, I found someone in fiction I could relate to. Someone who echoed my desire for books and reading. Her life was different from the one I led but oh, her passion for books was something I had too. I envied her the books she lugged around in her cart.

My school’s librarian saved the shiny new Goosebumps for her favourites and all other books in the school library I either didn’t want to read or I already had. I saved the 50c I received every day to spend in the school canteen and at the end of each week, I would go to a thrift store that sold second-hand books. There, I found a battered copy of Anne of Green Gables. I remember that half the cover was torn off but there was something about the little girl sitting on a bench that made me buy it.

I took it home and read it and when I did, I fell in love. Was it the colourful cast of characters that drew me in? The gossipy matrons in whom I saw people in my own village? Or was it Anne herself, full of fancy and energy? Maybe it was the way in which nature — and Anne’s relationship to nature — was detailed. Maybe it was all of these things. I sat in my mother’s gardens which were full of hibiscus, frangipani, and orchids, and wondered about the vista that Anne saw. I was curious about the woods in which she walked and the flowers she spoke about. Through Anne’s appreciation of her surroundings, I learned to value mine.

It is difficult to find literary heroines when you are never presented with anyone who reflects you. I read Fear Street and Dolly Fiction and countless romance novels because they were the books most easily available but I read them at a remove. The experiences were more voyeuristic than immersive, if that makes sense.

Luckily, as an adult, I have a bounty of literary heroines who inspire me and keep me writing. They are Dina, from Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson whose quiet grace gives her unexpected strength, Nahri from The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty and Arian from The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan. They are protagonists from books written by Muslim authors and they tell me that a Muslim woman is capable of having fantastic adventures. Their existence reassures me that tragic narratives aren’t the only narratives available for Muslim women. Their stories tell me that I can have a story and that I, too, am a heroine in my own universe.

As for the next little girl who is growing up on a farm in a country not many people are even aware of? I hope that she finds a heroine who not only looks like her but whose experiences echo, closely, her own.

Title The Candle and The Flame
Author Nafiza Azad
Pages N/A
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Fantasy
Publication Date 2019 by Scholastic
Find It On Goodreads

Set in a city along the Silk Road that has become a refuge for those of all faiths, this young adult fantasy is about a young woman with mysterious origins and two clans of powerful djinn who threaten to destroy her peace, and the unlikely alliances she’ll make to survive.

Her Story: Ladies In Literature 2018 with Cindy Baldwin

Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty-six authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!


About Cindy Baldwin

Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, was named an Indies Introduce/Indie Next pick for 2018, and has received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist.

Author Links: WebsiteTwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreads

It started with a sore throat.

I was in the dressing room at my physical therapy center, in the autumn after I turned sixteen. I’d been swimming — strengthening a kneecap I’d dislocated that summer — and I was putting my contacts back in. As soon as the first lens touched my eye I shivered, prickles of cold running down my damp skin and settling in my throat, an itchy sort of pain that heralded a virus. I sighed — I’d been sick a lot already that fall, and had hoped to stay healthy for awhile.

What I got instead was something I’d never expected. Ever since starting high school, my immune system — weakened by cystic fibrosis, a serious genetic illness — had taken a hit each winter, but I’d never experienced anything like what started that autumn day in the physical therapy changing room. The incipient cold quickly became a high fever and raging sore throat; I crawled out of bed at Thanksgiving to swallow a few bites of mashed potatoes and pie before crawling back in again. I stopped sleeping well, experiencing hours of insomnia before I finally fell into a fitful, nightmare-filled sleep. I took so much NyQuil my body began fighting it, leaving me awake most nights at one a.m., my brain swirling dizzily with the sedation, but still unable to sink into the relief of sleep.

And I was tired. So, so tired, and not only on the days after insomniac nights. I was so tired my thoughts ran at half- or quarter-speed. Homework was almost impossible. Even as a homeschooler, I had to stop attending the few out-of-home classes I was signed up for — cutting back further and further on my attendance until I finally officially dropped out after one semester. Early in the new year, my legs and feet started to hurt, a burning ache that made standing or walking agony. I tried never to use the stairs in my house except to go to bed at night. After months of the mystery sickness, my youth group came to visit me for a service project, because it had been so long since I’d been to church or activities.

My world narrowed, and narrowed again.

My mom took me to doctor after doctor, ran test after test, over the course of ten months where I only ever seemed to make small progresses and then backslide. Finally, after almost a year, I got a diagnosis: I had had Epstein-Barr virus — mono — that had, as a result of my cystic fibrosis, hit my immune system especially hard and morphed into permanent chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

I wasn’t just a high-functioning chronically ill person anymore, with a yearly hospitalization and tough winters but decent health the rest of the year. Suddenly, I was a person who could barely walk, who didn’t have the stamina to talk on the phone to her friends, who was barely muddling through enough high school coursework to graduate on time.

I was disabled.

It would probably be permanent.

My life might never look the same.

● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ●

I’d grown up reading Madeleine L’Engle, and by the time I was sixteen, my favorite book in the known universe had become A Ring Of Endless Light, the middle book in L’Engle’s series about Vicky Austin. It combines some of the things that speak most deeply to my soul: dolphins (always my favorite animal), islands (my soul was born an islander), poetry, big questions about life and death and how you can possibly balance the two.

In my junior and senior year of high school, while I was gripped with the worst of the mono and still learning how to adapt to life as somebody who needed a wheelchair at the mall, I read A Ring Of Endless Light so many times that the binding of my beloved paperback started to fray. In a moment in which my mind was so fogged that I couldn’t make sense of most new books and often spent hours just laying out on the screened-in-porch watching ants climb up my mom’s potted sweet peas and writing disjointed poetry to try to process the changes I’d undergone, re-reading that book was a touchstone, one of the few things I could hold on to in a life that no longer seemed remotely familiar.

As Vicky struggled with the idea of death, and God, and how any of us can choose to live and feel joy with the specter of the first over us while the second chooses not to intervene, so did I. As Vicky wrestled with the sickness and impending death of her beloved grandfather, so I wrestled with the way my cystic fibrosis — which had always felt mostly manageable, even if it was frustrating — had suddenly thrust itself into the dominant place in my life, confronting me with the idea of illness, and mortality, and the fact that the life expectancy for my disease was only in the mid-30s, in a way it never had before. As Vicky learned that sorrow and happiness go hand-in-hand through life, so did I.

The summer I turned seventeen, nearly a year after the post-swim throat-tickle that had been the beginning of my mono infection, I got on a plane for a long-anticipated trip through the Make-a-Wish foundation. The crowning highlight of the vacation was a beautiful day in Discovery Cove, Sea World’s dolphin encounter park in Florida, where I got to get up close and personal with Capricorn, one of Discovery Cove’s oldest dolphins. As I felt the dolphin’s forehead — the “melon” — I thought of Vicky, describing the feel of dolphin skin as resilient pewter.

And even though my attempts to imitate Vicky and communicate mind-to-mind with Discovery Cove’s dolphins didn’t work out so well (don’t judge!), and even though I needed a wheelchair all through that trip for any walk longer than a few feet, I left that dolphin lagoon feeling healed and whole in a way I had not for almost a year. I felt in that moment like I’d caught a glimpse of what Henry Vaughan described in his poem “The World”:

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light…

And even if I, like Vicky, didn’t have all the answers to the big questions my heart was asking — life, and death, and God, and grief, and love — in that moment, I felt as though I could move forward with joy into the unknown landscape of my future, buoyed by the knowledge that I was not alone in the questioning.

Title Where The Watermelons Grow
Author Cindy Baldwin
Pages 256 Pages
Intended Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
Publication Date July 3rd 2018 by HarperCollins
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Fans of The Thing About Jellyfish and A Snicker Of Magic will be swept away by Cindy Baldwin’s debut middle grade about a girl coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness.

When twelve-year-old Della Kelly finds her mother furiously digging black seeds from a watermelon in the middle of the night and talking to people who aren’t there, Della worries that it’s happening again — that the sickness that put her mama in the hospital four years ago is back. That her mama is going to be hospitalized for months like she was last time.

With her daddy struggling to save the farm and her mama in denial about what’s happening, it’s up to Della to heal her mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville, North Carolina, for generations.

But when the Bee Lady says that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain and more to do with healing her own heart, Della must learn that love means accepting her mama just as she is.