Q&A with Alethea Kontis—Bestselling Author, “Fairy Princess,” and Former Librarian
Alethea Kontis knew from the age of ten that she wanted to be a writer, but her parents informed her that writing was a “hobby,” not a career. She has, as a result, become a self-described “professional hobbyist” and “fairy princess” who has made the New York Times bestseller list. Ms Kontis’ debut novel Enchanted won the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award in 2012, and was nominated for the Audie Award in 2013. Her third novel, Dearest, is forthcoming in February of 2015. Herself a former librarian, Ms. Kontis was eager to sit down with the CLCD Newsletter and talk about her experiences as a young adult writer, and the needs of the YA market in general.
When you were a children’s librarian, did you notice a gap or disconnect between the books children and young adults wanted to read, and the books that were available? If relevant, how do your books fill this void?
For me this issue goes beyond my brief tenure as a librarian…my problem is that I was a genius kid who read far beyond her age level. Subsequently, I write books I would have loved as a kid. Alphabet books full of poetry and SAT words. Fairy tale novels so jam-packed with inside jokes that only a dilettante who has combed through entire volumes of Grimm and Andersen and is just as widely versed in pop culture will catch them all. This is what I write.
The true disconnect is, and has always been, between what children read and what parents think children read. How often have you read the same story over as an adult and discovered an entirely new level of perspective? Children do not have the life experience to pull from, so they read with wide eyes and unabashed vigor…so many adults forget what that is like. I loved being the librarian who read stories and performed puppet shows and talked to the kids on a level far above what their parents thought they could understand.
How has the YA market changed (in terms of the books out there, and the books young people are reading) since your time as a librarian?
This is going to seem flippant, but there IS a YA market now. Back in the day (ha!) there was just a Juvenile section and an Adult section. Now there is and entire Teen section, and sometimes even a Teen Audio section in libraries today.
On one hand, it’s a wonderful thing. But on the other hand, the more divided into age groups and genres books tend to be, the more limited range of reading we’re presenting to kids. I would love to see some artist render a to-scale version of a kid looking out into all the titles available today while a librarian says, “THIS is what you have to choose from.”
What would you consider to be essential elements for good YA literature, regardless of genre?
Character. Plain old great characters will always win out.
What prompted you to retell Grimm’s “The Six Swans” for Dearest? What can we look forward to in your particular spin on this tale?
Hands down, my favorite fairy tale is “The Goose Girl.” I’ve always wanted to do a retelling of this. When I first sat down and plotted out the fate of the Woodcutter sisters (I had always planned seven books, no matter what my publisher says), I knew that Sunday’s story would be “Cinderella”,”The Frog Prince”, and “Jack & the Beanstalk.” I knew that Saturday’s story would be “Petronella” (aka “The Master Maid” from Lang’s Blue Fairy Book), and I knew that Friday’s story would be “The Goose Girl”, “The Wild Swans” (or “The Six Swans”, if you’re going by Grimm), and “A Weave of Words” (an Armenian folktale retold by Robert San Souci in 1998).
Once I get going in the story, of course, is when everything starts to fall into place. Once I settled the swans vs. geese debate (swans) and how many brothers Elisa should have (Grimm had 6, Andersen had 11–I picked 7 because of the Christmas song), other legendary fairy tale tidbits weaseled their way in as well.
If I list them all here, they will be spoilers…but I can promise you this: Dearest is possibly the most romantic book of the whole series. Which makes sense for the Loving and Giving sister, right?
What is one example of some of the most meaningful feedback you have received from a reader or readers about your work?
My absolute favorite fan letters are the ones where the readers tell me they finished my book and then went back to the beginning and started reading again. This is the best feedback ever, because I actually intended for this to happen. The reader is meant to read the first chapter again and see all the clues that were laid out before them, right in front of their eyes, that all played out to the very end.
The first book I ever did this with was William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. This is probably my favorite book of all time. So to hear that a reader has done this with my book makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and cry, “YES!” to the heavens. And sometimes I actually do.
How important is an active social media presence for a contemporary YA author?
ACK…it’s a double-edged sword. Not the social media, just this question. The honest, common sense answer is that it doesn’t matter. If you can write lots of quality books as fast as you can, you should do that and not worry about it. If you hate social media with a fiery passion, you should definitely not worry about it.
Me? I’m a performer. I love making new friends and I enjoy feedback. While re-reading L. Frank Baum’s Oz books as an adult, I realized just how much of the storyline he took from suggestions children made to him in fan letters. And why not? He was the writer! There are no rules!
I love taking silly pictures of my teddy bear and posting them on Instagram. I adore the long, inspirational conversations I have on Facebook and Twitter with friends from all over the world. And I love-love-love filming Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants for YouTube. I get to be educational and silly and covered in glitter, all at the same time. It feeds the part of me that lives outside the books, and motivates me as a writer to keep on doing what I’m doing.
Which writers do you identify as most influential on your work?
In prose: Robin McKinley. Diana Wynne Jones. Meredith Ann Pierce. Tamora Pierce. Lloyd Alexander. Grimm, Andersen & Lang. William Goldman. Lewis Carroll. Ogden Nash. Voltaire.
Authors who have mentored me and inspired my career as Author Princess: Sherrilyn Kenyon. Orson Scott Card. Andre Norton. John Scalzi. Mary Robinette Kowal. Jude Deveraux.
What are you reading right now?
Chris Rock’s interview in Vulture. Various articles on snakes, eagles and Native American folklore. The Brothers Grimm. Unfortunately it’s not more exciting than that—at the moment it’s All Writing All the Time.
But I will drop everything when Sarah Addison Allen’s new book comes out. I always do.
Are there any resources that you consider invaluable for aspiring writers?
We’re always listing websites and research books, but PEOPLE are where the stories come from. They always surprise me. You can ask what seems like a simple question and get 45 answers you never dreamed of. People are fascinating, and I feel like kids who grow up on the internet forget this. This is why libraries are so important and always will be. That human connection and sense of community is SO INCREDIBLY VALUABLE. Because people are awesome.
I have a saying: Strangers are just best friend I haven’t met yet. And I stand by that.
What else would you like to say to your fellow librarians?
I miss being a librarian almost every day of my life, but I do not miss that paycheck (or lack thereof). I always tell folks to thank their librarians, because I know first hand what a labor of love it is to have that job.
However, my experience as a librarian taught me how to be financially responsible in a way most young people don’t get to learn. (It also taught me how to answer colossally bad questions with a straight face…but I digress.) This has helped me more than I can say in my career as an author. When one never knows when the next contract is coming in, or how much the royalties will be in the next six months, one must take precautions and be prepared for the lean times. Sometimes I think if I had not had that time as a librarian in my back pocket, I would not be able to juggle all the things I manage.
THANK YOU, Librarians. You are amazing and special. Every single one of you.
(Contributed by C. Joshua Villines)
In the land of Arilland, Sunday the seventh daughter of a seventh son is supposed to be “blithe and bonny and gay” and no more than a silly afterthought in the shadow of her older brother and six remarkable sisters. However, it’s clear she’s meant for more when she meets a talking frog. True, a talking frog is not unusual in her neck of the woods, but this one is insightful and kind, and he listens to the stories she writes, tales that have a strange knack for coming true. Slowly, the two fall in love and share a kiss, and that’s where the real “once-upon-a-time” begins. Arilland is a delightful blend of original world building and traditional fairy tales. And Sunday herself is a greatest-hits mash-up of different princesses and fairy-tale heroines, including, of course, Cinderella. But it’s the relaxed humor of Kontis’ presentation that not only ups the realism of characters unfazed by talking frogs and fey characters but also gives this offering its sweet, distinctive stamp. Grades 9-12. REVIEWER: Courtney Jones (Booklist).
The only non-magical member of her large family of fairy-blessed siblings, Saturday Woodcutter hates being “normal.” An “overly tall girl with overly large hands and an overly loud mouth,” Saturday accidentally finds her destiny when she hurls a disappointingly magic-deficient mirror out of her window, only to realize that she has conjured up an ocean and can sail off on her own adventure. Snatched from the ship’s deck by an enormous black bird and carried to a witch’s castle at the top of the world, Saturday faces a desperate mission: Destroy the witch before her curse destroys the entire world. Even as Saturday prides herself on scorning romance–“Does romance have to be part of the adventure?”–she is drawn to the witch’s slave Peregrine, whose destiny intertwines her own. This companion novel to Kontis’s popular Enchanted (starring Saturday’s younger sister, Sunday) offers so many plot twists and turns, with so many fairy-tale allusions to earlier adventures of other Woodcutter relatives, that readers may struggle to get their bearings. When they do, however, Kontis’s gender-bending love story proves surprisingly stirring: It is rare to be offered romance between a sword-wielding, rough-and-tough tomboy mistaken for her hero brother and a long-haired, skirt-wearing man mistaken for a witch’s graceful daughter. Kontis presents “a boy in a girl’s body and a girl in a boy’s” in this refreshing departure from the “normal” gender expectations of fantasy fiction. 2013, Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,, $17.99. Ages 12 up. REVIEWER: Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children’s Literature).
This is no run-of-the-mill A to Z alphabet book. Z is tired of being last! He insists on beginning the alphabet this time. Other letters, also tired of their places in the alphabet string, debut in a unique order, interrupting the true Z to A rotation. But that just adds to the novelty of the book. Each letter has a personality that won’t be forgotten! The illustrations are boldly colored and the letters are in easily recognizable block Arial font. The illustrations of objects which the letters stand for are done in basic shapes and bold colors and would be easily recognized by preschoolers. At the bottom of each page is the alphabet in reverse. As the letters are introduced, the random colored letters are put over this reverse alphabet. This book would be enjoyed best by preschoolers or beginning readers who are very familiar with the A to Z alphabet sequence. Rating: Outstanding. Reading Level: Toddler; Preschool; Primary. Category: Picture books. 2006, Candlewick Press, 48 p, $15.99. REVIEWER: Sandra L. Tidwell (Children’s Book and Play Review).