An exclusive first look at Strange Creatures, my June novel from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
As a novelist, I’ve spent the last six years leaning heavily into my ambitions, trying to craft novels that are bigger, more ambitious, and stranger than anything you — or I — have read before. There were times this seemed like a foolish path, moments when I doubted my ability to write emotionally honest and genre-bending stories that other people would, you know, want to read. But once my novel Strange Creatures found a home with the folks at Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, I felt confident that I was in safe hands.
And nowhere has this been more apparent than during the cover design process.
At 544 pages, Strange Creatures is, quite literally, a big book — it also straddles genre lines and has three (or is it four?) different points-of-view. Think Cloud Atlas. Think House of Leaves. Think S. Think about those books that, on some level, defy explanation — but also those books that almost compel you to fold down pages, underline passages, and pass well-worn copies to friends. As I recently tweeted:
On the surface, Strange Creatures is simple: it’s the story of a brother and a sister and the imaginary kingdom they build in the woods. The brother goes missing. The sister is sure she knows where he’s gone. But then he returns and she has to contend with the truth . . .
But the deeper you go into the novel, the more complex it becomes. It’s about an imaginary land, and about trauma, and how we use fantasy to navigate trauma. It’s about queer identity and how we shape our own truth. It’s about falling in love with a certain kind of story, or a certain kind of musician, because those things make our world feel bigger and better and brighter. It’s about falling in love with a certain kind of girl — perhaps the girl your older brother fell for, just a few years before.
I mean, I find the whole thing difficult to sum up in a few sentences, much less an image. And I wondered how my team at Harper would fare, too.
But I needn’t have worried.
Because as soon as my editor sent me the image below, I know that no other cover would have worked for my sprawling, multiformat portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young nerd. Fundamentally, Strange Creatures is the “Little Boxes” of young adult novels — all about the darker secrets that lurk below the surface of suburbia. And this, above all, is what this gorgeous cover captures so well. It’s pretty. It’s idyllic. And just a little bit, well, strange.
I’m so pleased to share my cover with you here, as well as some lovely words of praise three authors friends have shared for Strange Creatures, and a first look at the novel’s opening pages. Or at least some of the novel’s opening pages. I promise all will be clear when you read it this June . . .
Emperata Annit wasn’t born, and she was never truly an infant. At least not that she could recall. To Annit, the first memory was this: coming to life in the mudluscious bottom of the River Endless, as all Feral Children do, gasping and getting a mouthful of sludge and water, green.
The mermaids had wanted her for themselves, but Annit never belonged to anybody except herself. Still, she felt desperate hands, grasping at her shoulders and toes and ears. Annit thrashed against them, fighting to reach the pale light of the surface. When she landed on the sodden shore, there were still the marks of nails over her bare belly, like a dozen long, hungry mouths.
The children came to greet her. They’d been waiting, aimless and empty without her. The days, the endless, listless summer days, had piled up like a cairn on the shore. But here she was, perfect: a girl, her hair a tangled mane of algae and mud.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, scowling.
Torn apart. That’s what my brother called it. He believed in our magic right from the start. According to Jamie, we weren’t two identical souls, but one soul housed in two bodies. We could only be our true selves when we were together; and because we were inherently together on the inside, in the places that mattered, we could never really be alone.
September 26 was Jamie’s first birthday. It was also the day that I was born. Jamie always claimed he remembered it with crystal clarity. In the moment before, Aunt Jennifer turned out the light in the dining room, and Jamie, in his high chair, in the momentary darkness, was filled with a yawning sense of dread. He said he always felt that way back then — but this was sharper. Even as Gram and Poppy began to sing and the candle on his cupcake flickered, he felt the blackness encroach on him. A squeezing nothing. He worried, as someone blew the candle out for him, that the doom might swallow him whole.
But then the light came on, and in the second that it took for our dining room to return to its ordinary sallow color, something inside my brother shifted. Snapped into place. Exploded, too. In that moment, he was abruptly made right.
Because in that moment, he knew, I was born. A sister. Annie — the name he’d helped Mom and Dad pick from their baby name book by waving his chubby hands at exactly the right moment that Mom’s hand alighted on exactly the right name. It meant gracious, he later told me. Merciful. Most important, in Hebrew, it meant prayer.
Back then, when Mom sang prayers to him at bedtime, he’d prayed for me. I was the sibling who would make everything right. The other half that made him whole. He knew I was born before the phone started to ring, before Aunt Jennifer could share the news. He knew it the same way he knew the color red, that Grover was furry, or the special way the crack in the ceiling over his crib formed the shape of a lucky hare. I hadn’t been there, and now I was, and he would never be alone again. The only injustice, he later said, was that he’d been born first. That the rest of the world would never know how we were secretly twins, or how we had been torn apart.
For me, there was no life before Jamie. He was older, and so his presence shaped everything that came after. And everything came after Jamie. In all things — walking, talking, weaving stories — he came first and, while he was patient with me, in the beginning I could only do my best to keep up with him. I wasn’t merely following in his footsteps. I was tracing those footsteps perfectly, and often in his hand-me-down shoes.
But Jamie claimed he could remember a time before me. One long, empty year when there was a hole inside him he could not fill. Now, from a rational standpoint, it seems absurd, as absurd as the idea that he remembers all those details from his first birthday. Before I was born, he was an infant who could barely wrap his lips around a small handful of words, much less the idea of a deeper emptiness inside him.
At home, when it was just the two of us, Jamie was brilliant — a shining gem. He knew the scientific names for all kinds of animals, knew every type of gemstone, knew every knot that could be tied. On the rare occasions that he was ignorant about something, he would press forward with dogged determination until he unlocked that knowledge or skill. One day, when we were very young, Dad brought home a yo-yo. I was hopeless at it, much to my father’s disappointment. But my brother kept at it while I watched him from our back steps, winding and unwinding the string over and over again, until the night was thin and buggy, until our mother beckoned us inside for dinner.
“Just a minute!” he called, slapping away mosquitoes, his brow furrowed. Jamie, a knot around his middle finger, made the emerald cabochon of plastic spin and glow. By the time we went inside, he not only understood how to make his yo-yo bounce; he knew how to walk the dog and go around the world, too.
“It’s almost like a superpower, Annie,” he told me later. “If you try hard enough, you can learn to do anything. To be anything.”
My brother was a genius. I understood that better than anyone, so when he told me that he remembered my birthday, remembered even a time before I was alive, I believed him. Back then, I believed every word he ever said.
Pre-order Strange Creatures from Oblong Books (or wherever books are sold) and look for it on shelves on June 1, 2021.