Stray by Elissa Sussman – a review, an interview and a giveaway!

Stray Cover
I think there’s something primal about fairy tale re-tellings.  I really do.  And I think that they are a staple of YA because of this very thing, because they say to teen readers: you can pull the sword from the stone, you can evade the evil step-parent, you can save the day.  And, yes, you can wear a beautiful dress and fall in love while doing it.  That’s a message worth hearing, and it’s one that I understand teens are drawn to time after time.  So!  If it’s a fairy tale re-telling, IU am on board.  But even if this weren’t a favorite genre of mine, I would have still absolutely adored Elissa Sussman’s magnificent debut Stray.

I love everything about Stray.  I love the fully realized magical world where women have strong magic that their patriarchal society has turned into a tool to shame and control them. I love the blending of fairy tales in a subtle and dark way – there’s a kingdom tangled in thorns and plenty of fairy godmothers but they are not what you remember and they are most certainly not what you expect.  (This is maybe the part I love the best – I am sick of fairy tale re-tellings where it’s a gentle tweak on the story or a happy kind of twist – Stray is unafraid to put sharper, darker edges on things and that makes it not just stand out from the pack but twice as readable as you rush to find out what happens next and HOW.) I love Aislynn the main character, who is not perfect, who makes stupid mistakes. She has more magic than she can manage and lives in a world that tells her that this is her fault and she must be punished for it. What I love the most about Stray is that it asks teenagers to consider if they agree.  It asks teen readers to actually sit down and think about how magic would be handled and who would try to control it and what a society would do to keep it under control.  What I love most about Stray is that it takes these questions about magic and turns them into questions about our world – about female autonomy, about class inequalities, about justice and love.  It makes the magic, it makes the stakes, real.

That’s what the very best fairy tales, re-tellings or not, do.  And that’s what Stray is.

Stray is on-sale now and I recommend it as a first purchase for public and high school libraries. Your fairy-tale fans will love it but I think it also has high appeal to fans of stories with darker edges.  If you can’t afford to buy a copy, recommend your library purchase one.  ALSO…I’M GIVING ONE AWAY! Aw yes!

I was more than excited when Elissa asked me to be part of Stray’s book tour!  “YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES,” I instantly replied.  She agreed to answer some of my burning questions about the larger themes and genesis of Stray and they just made me love it more.

She’s also going to give away a copy of Stray AND a very cool tote bag (tote bag with a fairy tale slogan on it, bestill my heart!) to one lucky reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by October 15th and I will choose a random winner. (US only, please.)

Onto the questions … but first a picture of what you have a chance to win!!

stray and tote

1. The fairy tale influences in Stray are, of course, obvious. But I felt a real Margaret Atwood Handmaid’s Tale vibe, particularly about the subjugation of women, in it. And I loved what you did with the undeniably feminist underpinnings of the story. Am I totally off-base or was this deliberate?

Thank you! I love it when people can see my feminist underpinnings (that sounded dirty). But seriously, yes, it was quite deliberate. I’m a huge fan of THE HANDMAID’S TALE. I think it’s a testament to how little things have changed that so many writers (because there have been several recent, excellent YA books dealing with similar topics) still feel that these are issues that still need to be addressed.

2. But back to those obvious fairy tale elements … there’s a blend of fairy tales and fairy-tale-like elements happening here. What inspired you to weave these particular elements/stories together in this way?

There’s that saying “write what you know”, but I really think it’s “write what you like”. And I really like fairy tales. And feminism. And food. I basically let those things simmer in my brain pot for a few years, occasionally tossing in bits of familiar fairy tales until it turned into the stew that is now STRAY.

3. I know you have a history in animation. Parts of Stray felt, in the very best of ways, like a darker, deeper version of not just classic fairy tales but of the Disney/pop culture variants most teens will be familiar with. Was this intentional? An inevitable byproduct of your work and our culture?

The very first inkling of STRAY was born out of my love for animated movies, and my attempt to reconcile my feminist leanings with my love for a genre that historically has not been very welcoming or respectful of women. I wanted to write a story that addressed the problems I had with most princess movies, while still paying homage to them.

One of the wonderful things about fairy tales is how layered they are. Each new version builds off of the old one. And for me, someone who grew up with Disney films, it made perfect sense to construct STRAY with those pop culture elements.

4. Besides being a genuine pleasure to read – a fairy tale yarn full of action, surprises, strong characters, twists, and a dash of romance – what do you hope teen readers will take from Stray?

I’m a big fan of fantasy and fairy tale retellings, and I find there’s a particular type of heroine that is very popular in these stories. From page one, she has a fully formed feminist identity. She doesn’t want to follow cultural guidelines because she knows they’re restrictive and outdated.

I love those characters and when I was sixteen, I desperately wanted to be them. But I wasn’t. It took a long time for me to understand, let alone verbalize how restrictive the world can be to women, especially ones in their teens. And I’d look at the characters I idolize and wonder “how did they get there?”

There’s a learning curve when you’re that age. You’re just beginning to sort through all the bullshit, trying to figure out who you are and what you believe. Society works really hard to convince young women that sexism is over and that women’s right’s activists are humorless, sexless shrews. Did I prefer to (inaccurately) call myself a “humanist” over a “feminist” when I was in high school? You bet I did.

We expect a lot of young women, both fictionalized and real. I wanted Aislynn to be someone who’s at the very beginning of her journey. I wanted her to be naive, who believes things that maybe she shouldn’t, someone who makes mistakes. Because not all of us have the answer on day one. Or on page one.

5. Can you touch, ever so briefly, on the awesomeness of the title and the levels it works on? What’s the genesis of the title? Also – does this series have a larger name yet and when might we expect the next book? (note how I am politely not asking for any plot details though I crave them wildly!)

The title, as well as the concept of the Path, are inspired by the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and especially by the song “I Know Things Know” from the musical INTO THE WOODS. It’s also where a lot of the wolf imagery originates from – this idea that leaving the path, straying from it, will only lead to bad things.

STRAY and BURN are both Four Sisters Novels, because although each book exists in the same world and often has appearances from familiar characters, each will follow a new protagonist, or in BURN’s case, two new protagonists. It doesn’t have a release date yet, but I am having a really fun time working on it.

(I Know Things Know – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK81Rv65fgQ)

Thank you SO MUCH, Elissa!  You can find out more about Elissa (including more about her history in animation and with Disney, which I alluded to in the interview) at her website.  Also, I follow her on Twitter and she’s just delightful so you should follow her on Twitter!  Comment for a chance to win this awesome book (and awesome tote, screenprinted by Elissa herself, what!) and hurry up and read it so I can discuss it with the world!

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