Available on January 30 from Macmillan’s Flatiron Books, The Hazel Wood is a young adult fantasy novel that begins in modern-day New York City and soon slides into the realm of the supernatural when inhabitants of the mysterious and perilous Hinterland start to appear.
The book’s heroine is 17-year-old Alice, who travels to the remote Hazel Wood estate to find her missing mother, Ella, and explore the mystery that’s connected to her grandmother Althea’s creepy tales about the Hinterland.
“Bad luck bites at the heels of Alice and her mother wherever they go. It only manages to get worse once they find out that Alice’s grandmother, an author of dark fairy tales, has died,” said Jordan April of the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, New York. “After her mother is abducted by a character from her grandmother’s fairy tales, Alice has to enlist the help of Ellery Finch, one of her grandmother’s super-fans with his own motives to assist her. Dark, intriguing, and absolutely wonderful, The Hazel Wood is bound to pull in any reader and not let go.”
The Hazel Wood was also chosen by a panel of ABA member booksellers for the Winter/Spring 2018 Indies Introduce debut program.
Albert, the founding editor of the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog and managing editor of BN.com, lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Here, in an interview with Bookselling This Week, Albert discusses dark fantasy, young adult fiction, and her favorite novels from her own teen years.
Bookselling This Week: Like the children’s classics Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hazel Wood relates the adventures of young people who depart reality to explore the realm of fantasy. Why does this genre have such enduring power?
Melissa Albert: I was very influenced by my love of Peter Pan and Narnia — though less so by Alice’s glorious nonsense, despite my heroine’s name. Portal fantasy is pleasurable in both concrete terms and as a metaphor, and baking in those books from an early age left me susceptible to the belief that your life can transform at any time — all you have to do is find a door. The allure of stepping from the mundane to the magical is timelessly irresistible, as is the notion that you might be better understood, more appreciated, and more likely to find your people and your purpose in another world.
BTW: What were your favorite books when you were a teenager?
MA: When I was a teen, YA wasn’t the vast, inexhaustible powerhouse of a category that it is now, so when I discovered Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books at age 14, my mind was BLOWN. I’d never read anything like it, and it was exactly what I needed right then. I also devoured classic fantasy books like Wise Child and Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, reread Peter Pan a few times a year, and fantasized about burning like a Roman candle with the Beats, despite being a very nice, late-blooming suburban girl who never hit the road any farther than Chicago.
BTW: The Hazel Wood features a book of eerie stories called Tales From the Hinterland, and the novel itself has some spine-chilling passages. How important is this “dark side” to fairy tales in general, and to your own novel?
MA: I know it’s not a fairy tale, exactly, but going back to Peter Pan: the Pan many people are familiar with is the sanitized animated version, in which Tinkerbell is a sexy brat and Peter is a punchy brat and Wendy is a sap and the darkness is, for the most part, entirely sponged away. But what I adore is J.M. Barrie’s original, in which the introduction of Captain Hook involves his murder in cold blood of a fellow pirate just for kicks; the mythology of Peter includes his role as a psychopomp (“when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened”); and a grown-up Wendy, who, heartbreakingly, begs her adult form to fall away when Peter returns for her far too late (“woman, woman, let go of me” — a line that still gives me chills).
Classic children’s tales are among our most enduring literature, and as a reader it’s these veins of darkness I remember from my favorites, all these years after I first discovered them. Fairy tales arose from a time when, I imagine, the line between life and death must have felt a lot thinner than it does today, and reading them now in all their darkness is a shivery, delicious reminder of how very vulnerable we are — to bad luck, to the machinations of others, to all the unexpected things that can befall our soft human bodies. But, mainly, it’s just fun to read the dark stuff, and fun to write it.
BTW: Macmillan is releasing a set of 10 “tarot-inspired” character cards for customers who preorder The Hazel Wood by January 30, 2018. How did this idea come about? And how do the cards fit into the book’s universe?
MA: Alexis Castellanos, the wonderful artist behind the cards, read an advance copy some months back and created a piece of tarot-inspired art that she posted on Twitter, of a fairy-tale character called Twice-Killed Katherine rendered in the style of the classic Rider-Waite deck. My publisher and I loved it SO much, we reached out to her about creating a whole set for the preorder gift. I don’t want to reveal too much, but a version of the Katherine card does appear in The Hazel Wood, and it inspired Alex’s first piece of art. I’ve always been fascinated by tarot, but the deck I bought at a head shop and snuck into my room as a teen was contraband: my mom was NOT down with tarot or Ouija boards when I was young, and now I kind of want to ask her why...
BTW: Like in the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, the parents in Tales From the Hinterland aren’t likely to receive bouquets or cards on Mother’s or Father’s Day. Do you see the portrayal of bad parents in fairy tales as freeing for young readers who are awakening to the realization that their own parents aren’t perfect? How important is that theme to YA fiction?
MA: Funny thing, I LOVE reading great, fully rendered parent characters in YA. Often in YA books parents are tucked out of the way so the young protagonists can get on with their story — that’s certainly the case for much of The Hazel Wood, in which my heroine is following the trail of her missing mom — but I also love the books where parents matter and are present and are allowed to be loving and complicated and their own people, like Brie Spangler’s Beast and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. So, I actually think it’s even more important for YA fiction to include complex, real-seeming parents than bad ones. The Hazel Wood has its share of nefarious parents, particularly in the glimpses we see of Althea’s tales, but it also has Ella, Alice’s mom, who is imperfect but fiercely loving, and fiercely loved. I know I took genuine solace as a teen in seeing young characters in push-pull relationships with their embarrassing parents, at a time in my life when I both needed my parents tremendously and needed my space away from them just as much.
BTW: The heroine of The Hazel Wood has a complicated relationship with her mother, whose efforts to protect her daughter make life difficult for both of them. Yet when she is in peril, all Alice wants is her mom. How did you approach writing about that bond, and how did you make so true to life?
MA: Being a teen, as I recall it, meant needing your parents, yet resenting that need. It was asserting yourself as an independent person by testing and resisting your bonds with them, the people who — if you’re very lucky, as I was — love you most and want the best for you, while you’re simultaneously living under their roof, eating the food they provide, and relying on the infrastructure of the life they've provided for you. It’s a time of life when you're balancing two pressing realities: you are your own person, and figuring out what exactly that means, and you are your parents’ kid.
BTW: The hazel tree was revered in Celtic lore as dispensing wisdom and inspiration, among other properties. How did that association influence the name of your book and the name of Alice’s grandmother’s estate?
MA: Althea is a character who, we learn in the book’s opening pages, has just died, but her legacy looms over the book in a very palpable way. She’s the one who named her estate the Hazel Wood, and I imagined for her two motivations. The first is in my epigraph, from W.B. Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus”: “I went out to the hazel wood, because a fire was in my head.” Althea’s reasons for retreating to her estate are not necessarily happy ones, and I think she’d find a dark humor in pulling its name from that haunting line. Secondly, the hazel moon on the Celtic calendar — which, fortuitously, falls around my birthday — is a good time for artists to create and to access their muse, and I think that suits Althea’s taste for (slightly pretentious) self-invention and her dangerous blend of reverence and irreverence for the wellsprings of creation very nicely.
BTW: Would you want to visit the Hinterland? Why, or why not?
MA: How can you say no to a chance to step into the multiverse, no matter what that might look like? Though the Hinterland would not be my first choice — that would still be Narnia, after all these years. Oh, except I have a baby now, so I guess I’m not allowed to go tripping through any portals without a guaranteed return date. So, let’s say a firm maybe.
BTW: Booksellers named The Hazel Wood the Winter 2017–2018 Kids’ Indie Next Great Read. What advice would you give to booksellers when it comes to hand-selling your book?
MA: Ooh, this is a fun one. I worked as a bookseller, and I still remember how annoyed I was when the woman looking for “funny science fiction” for her son refused my suggestion of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sometimes the most perfect recs, given in the most gushing tones, still don’t stick! First, I would show readers the book’s glorious cover, by the amazing Jim Tierney, both because it’s irresistible and because its blend of timeless and very contemporary elements — coffee cup, skyscrapers, street sign — is very illustrative of what’s inside. Then I would tell them the book’s author is actually a stack of Catherynne Valente, Kelly Link, Lev Grossman, Helen Oyeyemi, and Diana Wynne Jones paperbacks stuffed into a trench coat — or aspires to be, anyway. I might also mention that there’s a stealth reading list tucked into its pages: every book Alice mentions is a book I’ve loved, and I hope readers walk away with a whole stack of reads they want to try. Once a bookseller, always a bookseller.