THE KALEIDOSCOPE SISTERS is the first novel in a young adult series hinging on the indomitable spirit of young women. It centers on fifteen-year-old Quinn and her younger sister, Riley, who is dying from a degenerative heart defect. As the novel opens, Riley is weeks away from her seventh birthday, and her decline is obvious. Years in and out of hospitals have left the family with no support system, but Quinn is determined to save her younger sister. In her quest, Quinn discovers a portal to another realm peppered with characters based in history, all of whom disappeared mysteriously. Aiding Quinn throughout her journey in the Other Realm is Meelie. Quinn learns that a new heart for Riley can be harvested in the Other Realm, but not without sacrifice. While Meelie helps Quinn come to terms with an impossible decision, Quinn uncovers the truth about Meelie’s disappearance and why she never returned home. The book chronicles Quinn’s journey, focusing on the inevitability of loss and the realization that no matter what Quinn decides, her mother must lose one of her daughters.
Today, we’re talking with Ronnie K. Stephens about his forthcoming novel.
What drew you to Oddities by Kaylie Jones Books?
I appreciate that both Kaylie Jones Books and the Oddites line seek to challenge publishing norms and provide literature which pushes a great sense of human rights.
How did you come up with the concept for this book?
I drew on my personal life for the emotional weight of the book, but I also leaned heavily on the artwork of Desarae Lee when creating the other realm. Quinn, the protagonist, and her mentor, Meelie, first spoke to me through ekphrastic poems based on two illustrations from Lee. As I wrote the book, I turned to another illustration for the inspiration behind Aimee. I filled the other realm with all the surrealism, whimsy, and grief that Lee infuses into her work. Beyond that, I made a deliberate choice early on the create a narrative in which women have complete agency. As an educator, I have long heard teens lament the lack of strong female protagonists, as well as the frustration at how many young adult narratives center on love interests. I trusted their reactions, and I worked to create a story in which the female protagonist does not have a love interest, and a story in which every female character is fully capable of saving herself. Finally, I made a choice to exclude explicit descriptions of the characters, especially those not based in history, in an effort to allow for a broader readership to be able to identify with the protagonist. Though Quinn uses she/her pronouns, little else about her identity is concrete. This was a risk that I was willing to take because I know how many teens yearn for protagonists with whom they can relate, and I was determined to make this book as accessible as possible to young people.
If this book is based on your experience, please elaborate on what parts of your experience you drew on and how this affected your work.
My daughters, Helen and Molly, are identical twin girls. In utero, both had heart defects and, for quite some time, I had to process the possibility that both girls would not survive, as well as the potential that the girls would not have normal childhoods. Once born, only one of my daughters, Helen, continued to have heart issues. Following two heart surgeries during infancy, she has grown up well and been able to do all the things her siblings do. For me, this novel was a way to fully vet the lives that may have been, to unpack the immensity of loss and the impossible weight of the word “almost.”
What inspired you to write this book?
At the most basic level, this book was a requirement for my MFA program. But this story, in particular, is one that I wanted to tell because I have witnessed the strength and resilience of young women again and again. I wanted to write a story that did my students justice, that recognized how powerful and whole and necessary young women are in this world, that rejected traditional representations of young women as love-sick and incapable.
What challenges did you encounter?
While writing this book, I didn’t feel like I encountered challenges at all but, in talking to others about my routines and my life, I realize that perhaps I am just normalized to the daily challenges. When I started this book, I had four children and my wife was pregnant; I worked full time as a secondary educator; I commuted 45 miles each way to work. Because of our schedules, I had to write during what we dubbed “marathon weekends.” Over the course of two such weekends, or four total days, I wrote a little over 40,000 words for this book, or roughly sixty percent of the novel. That probably qualifies as a challenge.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
As I mentioned above, the vast majority of the book was written over two weekends, about 32 total hours. Beyond that, I tried to write early in the mornings, before the school day began. I used alpha waves to turn off my critical mind, often typing with my eyes closed to prevent myself from self-editing.
What surprised you about this book?
Honestly, the most surprising thing for me has been the reaction that people close to me have had after reading it. I was aware that I was processing my own emotions around my twins and the fact that I may have had bury my daughters before even naming them, but I wasn’t prepared for the visceral reaction that others have had when they step away from this story.
What are you most excited for readers to discover about this book?
I am really, really excited for readers to get to know Quinn and Riley. I’ve always been drawn to character-driven narratives, and I think this novel really highlights that affinity. I love a lot about this book, but it’s the sisters and their strength that give me life when I return to it.
If this is part of a series, can you elaborate on what we can look forward to what Quinn will be facing in the next book?
It’s difficult to share too much about what’s to come without spoiling the ending of the first novel, but suffice to say that Riley takes up a quest of her own, and Quinn stumbles upon things in the other realm that even Aimee doesn’t know about.
What are you working on now?
I always keep a lot of projects going. I’ve been reviewing heavily, so I write 2-4 book reviews each month. I’ve also been helping a friend navigate her critical analysis, transitioning from public education to the college sector, and of course talking with Riley and Quinn about their adventures whenever possible.
Additional: For the educators out there, there’s a free teaching guide that accompanies the book. It includes everything from discussion questions and potential research projects to recipes from Jane’s kitchen!
We thank Ronnie K. Stephens for chatting with us, and can’t wait to see what happens to Quinn, Meelie, and all the wonderful characters in THE KALEIDOSCOPE SISTERS which becomes available August 21, 2018.