A lightning bolt — that is how most of Anne Ursu’s previous books came to be; a jolt of inspiration and the pieces fell into place. Her latest middle-grade novel, The Lost Girl, however, was more sculpting than lightning. “I had to keep chipping away at it, shaping and reshaping until I found its form,” said Ursu.
In 2014, Ursu had the idea of writing a novel about watching someone you care about struggling at school. Identical twins seemed like the perfect way to tell that story and so characters Iris and Lark were born. Ursu added magic, fairy tales, summer camp, female identity, and a chalkboard sign that read “Alice, Where are you?” which she’d once passed in her car. Then she let the idea sit and waited for lightning to strike.
In 2015, with no lighting bolt forthcoming, she sat down to find the story herself. She wrote the first draft. Read it. Decided it was fundamentally flawed and shelved it to work on something else.
When she started working on it again, in 2017, she approached it as though she had a box full of the ideas. One by one she removed each idea and observed what happened. “What would break the book if I took it out?” Ursu asked herself. Her conclusion: The relationship between the two girls had to be the guiding force in the novel. She refocused the writing on how these sisters, who had a history of better outcomes when together, experienced being separated for the first time. With that focus, things began to slowly take shape.
Working with her and writing friends, Ursu “kept knocking the house down, again and again, trying to strengthen the foundation.” Ursu knew it was important for Iris’s new friends, The Awesome Girls, to be part of the resolution at the end of the book. When her editor didn’t understand why the story didn’t stay with the twins Ursu did re-writes to clarify that “the bonds between girls are magic” beyond just the sisters. Well into the revision process, a friend sent Ursu an article about a little girl who was given gifts by crows with a note that said, “This is Lark.” It immediately felt essential, so Ursu rewrote again with the crows a pivotal element tying the novel together.
In many ways, the struggle of the novel to find its identity is paralleled by the characters in the book. Identical twins start off life largely defined in relation to someone else. Iris and Lark struggle to define who they are beyond the labels put on them by their peers, teachers, parents and themselves: imaginative, practical, angry, dreamy, etc. It is a struggle all adolescents are going through but to Ursu it seems most important for young women. She's written middle-grade books with both male and female protagonists. Despite the fact that industry folks repeatedly told her boys won’t buy a book with a girl on the cover, Ursu has seen no difference in sales between the two. What she has seen is that, while both protagonists are complex, only her female protagonist gets labeled “unlikeable” because of it.
“Society isn’t comfortable with the complexity of girlhood,” Ursu says. Media frequently shows large groups of girls as mean or dysfunctional, when really they have tremendous subversive power. Society wants girls that are happy and fit in, but young women are complex. Iris gets frustrated and angry. She loses her temper and does things she shouldn’t. Lark makes mistakes and gets embarrassed. Ursu wanted to show there is no "right" way to be a girl.
Before diving into the world of middle-grade writing, Ursu wrote for adults. “The craft is the same,” Ursu said, “just the perspective is different.” Middle-grade readers are more open to elements of fantasy and magic than adults. Ursu never worries about reading level. Her poetic voice and vocabulary came from obsessively reading as a child and she trusts her readers to figure things out. Eight to twelve-year-olds are also concerned about different things than adults. When writing for middle-grade, she recommends writers “find an emotional experience a ten-year-old can relate to; something you can write about that will help them with the job of growing up.”
“I am now a better writer because I know I can do this,” said Ursu of her experience writing The Lost Girl. She is a professor at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and has now lived through what she is always telling her students: “Have faith and keep trying.”
Anne Ursu is the author of several books for young readers. Ursu’s novel The Real Boy was on the 2013 longlist for the National Book Award, and was listed as a best book of the year by the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books and the New York Public Library. Her book Breadcrumbs was acclaimed as one of the best books of 2011 by the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com, and the Chicago Public Library. Anne teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and lives in Minneapolis with her son and cats. Find her at www.anneursu.com and on Twitter @anneursu.
Elizabeth is a writer, designer, professor and dedicated bookworm.