A good friend recently said to me, “When people who don’t fit the mold succeed, those who do conform to societal norms are resentful.” This is true, and it’s why we can never get enough strong characters like the Katniss Everdeens or Tris Priors in fiction. Perhaps the next to follow in their footsteps is Sarah Roberston, the main character of new YA novel The Misshapes, out April 29 via bestselling author Jason Pinter’s new publishing house Polis Books.
Being a teenager is hard, but when you live in Doolittle Falls, where superheroes walk (and fly over) the streets and boast many exceptional powers, it’s easy to feel intimidated. Like everyone else in town, 15-year-old Sarah Robertson has a superpower, but her ability to control the weather with her emotions isn’t enough to get into the prestigious Hero Academy. To make matters worse, her mother recently disappeared after becoming the town’s biggest super-villain and daring mess with Fantastic Man, the America’s Sweetheart of superheroes. Sarah is forced to attend public school with the other Misshapes, an oddball assortment of kids with unusual powers that aren’t up to the town’s standards. She’s still determined to prove she deserves admission to the Hero Academy, but would she be better off embracing the Misshapes and being different?
Authors Elisabeth Donnelly and Stuart Sherman, a writing team using Alex Flynn as a pseudonym, answered some questions about strong female characters, the power of the underdog and the significance of superpowers in an exchange with HelloGiggles. Here’s what they had to say about their awesome new YA book The Misshapes.
1) What inspired you to write The Misshapes?
It really started with wondering what it would be like if you could control the weather … with your emotions, and it was funny to think about what that power would be like if you couldn’t control your emotions, which is, well, pretty typical when you’re a teenage girl and you’re feeling everything. Starting from that point, we couldn’t stop writing.
We are really avid readers, and wanted to see more stories about girls who are heroes and face challenges we faced in life. Superhero stories can be kinda alienating (when’s Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow getting her own movie, Marvel? Or Wonder Woman!!!) and there’s a lot of black and white, good vs. bad, when the world is much more complex. We wanted to write a world with a lot of gray.
2) Though it might not always seem this way, “being different” is embraced in pop culture these days. Why do you think movies/books/shows about outcasts, misfits, and “misshapes” so to speak resonate with people so much, and what do you think sets The Misshapes apart from the current crop of stories about not fitting the mold?
Underdog stories are the most interesting stories, and they’re definitely easy stories to fall in love with, which may be why they’re popular and resonant. With The Misshapes, it’s a bit different. It’s about people who are outcasts because of something inherent that they were born with, so it’s wrestling with rejection and discrimination, and learning to find your own path and the importance of friends and community. Teenagers, young adults (and all adults for that matter) have to deal with a lot of rejection – from groups, colleges, jobs, and endless stupid millennial news stories about how the world is hard these days. We certainly did and that’s a big part of the story. Most stories about outcasts, especially those with powers, use the powers as a device for the characters to prove themselves to society. We start with the powers and want to dig deeper.
The Misshapes is also a really funny book.
3) Which writers do you admire most, and did any particular books, movies, or authors inspire you to pen The Misshapes?
This could be long! J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gilmore Girls, Bunheads, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and The Tick, a hilarious comic series (with two TV adaptations) by Ben Edlund that’s basically Don Quixote with superheroes. There’s also a ton of great YA writers out there that are very inspirational in a lot of different ways, from epic plotting to swooning romance. Leigh Bardugo, Rainbow Rowell, Abby McDonald/Abigail Haas, Bennett Madison, and Leila Sales come to mind.
4) How did you get in the head of 15-year-old Sarah? Did you draw from experience, observe other teenagers, etc.?
A little of both. One of us was once a teenage girl, so that helped. It’s also really fun to write while listening to Taylor Swift, she’s great at writing with that specific teenage intensity where everything is so important. Red is such a great album and we can’t wait for her next one. She’s definitely Sarah’s favorite musician.
5) What would you like young girls of today to gain from The Misshapes?
We’d like girls to know that they are heroes. They don’t need the approval of some outside institution or person to be amazing. True power comes from within when you figure out that you’re a fantastic person with the ability to change your life. We all face rejection in life at some point, and just because something like a Hero Academy (or college) rejects you doesn’t diminish you or your power. That’s not something that people talk about a lot, and figuring out how to move on from a tough situation (you get 24 hours to wallow and eat Ben and Jerry’s out of the carton) and to get powerful is a really important tool in life.
6) Sarah lives in a town full of people with big superpowers. Any reason in particular you wanted her to be able to control the weather with her emotions?
It seemed like an apt metaphor for what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Love, heartbreak, rejection, success, failure, these everyday things feel so monumental they should change the world around you. When you’re sad, doesn’t it always feel like it should be raining? And sometimes a sunny day can feel like it’s mocking you if you’re miserable. It’s perfect, and dangerous, if the world reflects your inner feelings – it also means that people may have an idea of where your head is at, even when you’re trying to hide your emotions. It’s also funny because it should be an awesome power but it’s like it got lost in translation by the time it got to Sarah.
7) On a more serious note, the book sends a dark message about the dangers of conformity and media/authority figures controlling the way everyone thinks. Are you trying to warn young readers about what goes on in the real world through the lens of a fun superhero novel?
Totally! The novel is fun and filled with adventure but the themes we wanted to play with were ones that people have to face today, while not beating them over the head with the message. We definitely want to warn about the dangers of conformity, not just peer pressure, but media pressure on how to look and how to act. We also wanted to explore inequality and injustice in society and how that can filter down to teenagers, even if they haven’t done anything wrong.
8) If this were adapted into a film, which actresses could you see taking on the role of Sarah?
Considering Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars, isn’t Shailene Woodley required? (And she’d be great – love her in The Spectacular Now.) But Hailee Steinfeld would make a fantastic Sarah, she’s brilliant in True Grit, and then there’s Saoirse Ronan, who’s maybe the best young actress working today, and she’s so versatile, from How I Live Now to the Grand Budapest Hotel. Of course, Saoirse would need a wig or hair dye or something, but costuming is magic.
9) If you two could have any of the superpowers listed in the book, which one would you want most?
Stu: The power to convince people seems pretty awesome, but way too dangerous. I’ll go with paintball eyes. I love going to see art and creating art, and I think I could have a blast with eye-paint.
Elisabeth: Being able to turn water into alcohol would be a cool party trick, but it’s pretty clear in the book that it’s a power that’s got chronic consequences, with drawbacks and responsibilities. If I had backup singer ghosts, I would hope it would make my life-like a nonstop party. After all, shouldn’t people be cheering you on with song when you’re doing stuff like brushing your teeth or shopping for food?