Hale's unlikely heroes resonate with readers of all ages
Shannon Hale's 2005 novel Princess Academy was not only a bestseller but an award winner as well, earning a Newbery Honor and a spot on the ALA Notable Children's Book list. That highly prized princess tale, which brought Hale's work to the attention of a wider audience, is just one of the imaginative worlds she has created. Her most recent release, River Secrets, is the third in a line of companion books set in the magical land of Bayern, where characters of supernatural talents discover new strengths and abilities.
"I really do believe everybody has some kind of superpower or some secret talent. People of all ages have many things they're good at. They're a little different from other people," Hale tells BookPage from her home in Salt Lake City. "That comes out when I write these books. These characters find out they have talents that other people don't and discover what it means to them." When she writes, Hale purposefully avoids emphasis on her characters' ages, which may help to explain why River Secrets, and its two companion books, The Goose Girl and Enna Burning, are attracting an audience of all ages. "Half of my readers are adults, usually women, and the other half are preteens and teens, mostly girls."
So who does she target while she's writing? "My audience is always me. In fact, when I wrote The Goose Girl, I had not thought about it as a young adult book. I felt it was something that would have pleased me at a younger age, as well as now. But until I had an agent who said this is YA, I had not considered it that way." Hale gleans feedback about her crossover appeal from her book signings and her popular website (squeetus.com), where she blogs about everything from raising a toddler son to teaching the classics. Teens and older readers alike tell Hale they find life parallels in Razo, Enna and other intriguing characters from the three books in the Bayern series, which don't have to be read in any particular order.
Razo, a minor character in the first two books, stars in his own adventure in River Secrets. He's an unlikely main character for any story and probably would say so himself. Constantly pestered by his older brothers, Razo spends a lot of time alone in the woods, his only talent the firing of a slingshot that often provides squirrel for a family meal. Little does he realize how much his bull's-eye ability will come in handy, and no one is more thunderstruck than Razo himself when he is chosen to join a peacekeeping mission to the hostile enemy land, Tira. Razo becomes a major player in finding the truth in the darkest of shadows of Tira. He finds the first of many scorched, charred bodies and must solve a deadly mystery. In time, Razo discovers he has a knack for being a spy and turns into quite a liaison, befriending the lowest and the highest of rank. People trust him. Some of the young women even flirt with Razo, much to his bewilderment. But in spite of the help of his extraordinarily talented comrades, who have powers to harness wind, rain or fire, this peacekeeping mission is forever being sabotaged. Razo's time in Tira is rapidly running out, and the lives of Bayern's ambassador and his beloved friends are in his self-doubting hands.
As in all of Hale's books, River Secrets hosts a cast of players who accept one another's imperfections but tease each other about their flaws in good-natured fashion. A lesson in acceptance, perhaps? "If I thought I was writing a book to teach somebody something, I'd be completely paralyzed," laughs Hale, who notes that the fantasy genre lets readers find their own themes within each of her stories. "It allows readers to take from the book what they want. They read into the book their own struggles and needs I think that's fantastic."
Will there be a fantasy number four? "Bayern feels like a home to me, and I can't say how many there will be," Hale says. "I'm in love with a lot in Bayern. Razo's sister is next." So Razo's little sister is making noise for her own fantastical tale? That's terrific news for Hale's fans, who should also watch for a graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge, which Hale is co-writing with her husband, and an adult novel from this talented author on the rise.
Dee Ann Grand writes from a crowded couch with her two English cocker spaniels, one on either side of her laptop.