Stephanie Oakes: MINNOW

We have a lot of fantastic authors at OneFour KidLit and are excited to introduce them all to you. One author, four questions.  Today we’re talking to Stephanie Oakes, author of MINNOW.  Here we go!

What’s your debut book about? Can you share any cool details with us?

The Short Version: Fairy tales! Cults! Murder! Forbidden love! Behandings!

The Long Version: MINNOW is based on a Grimm fairy tale called “The Handless Maiden” in which, you guessed it, the main character’s hands are cut off. In the fairy tale, the main character doesn’t have a name and is described only as being “beautiful and pious” (so, um, pretty boring). My protagonist is named Minnow. Minnow is emotionally-scarred and prone to violent outbursts and, yep, handless. Minnow has just escaped the Community, a religious cult in the mountains in which she grew up. The Community, led by a creeptastic and evil man known as the Prophet, pretty much sucked in every way imaginable (see: hands get cut off), except for one thing: the times Minnow could to sneak away to visit Jude, a boy living with his mildly-deranged father in the backwoods. Jude is like nobody Minnow has ever known: thoughtful and musical and also very much against the Prophet’s rules.

Minnow isn’t free for long before she is arrested and thrown in juvenile detention. Her first view of the real world is through the bars of a cell, forced to answer questions she doesn’t want to think about: What happened to Jude? How did she lose her hands? And, most importantly, who set the fire that swept through the Community the night she escaped, the night the Prophet was murdered? Everyone is a suspect, including Minnow.

Some other things: Though it’s clearly a loose adaptation of the fairy tale (pretty sure the brothers Grimm didn’t plan for their beautiful, pious protagonist to be thrown in jail), all of the major elements are there: the pear orchard, the kindly king, the angel, the Devil. If you’re familiar with the fairy tale, I hope reading MINNOW is a kind of literary scavenger hunt for you.

Hey, you’re getting published! How’d that happen?

I did the whole “Write, query, get rejected, re-write” cycle about a billion times with MINNOW. In that time, the sting of rejection faded to barely a blip on my radar. This was positive in a lot of ways since I developed a kind of shield to rejection, but I also developed a shield to the possibility of anything good happening. I stopped daydreaming about ever seeing my book in print. I was propelled only by the desire to do the best I could by these characters, who seemed to deserve it. So I just kept plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other.

And then I got an offer from an agent, Jennifer Laughran (in other words, I lucked out BIG TIME). Jenn had worked with me on two revisions before she offered representation, so there wasn’t an extensive revision phase to get the book ready for submission. A month after I accepted Jenn’s offer, I had a book deal with Dial/Penguin, which I’m still trying to wrap my mind around.

I don’t regret those years of rejection because it made me realize what I would do to fight for this dream. There were many, many times when I felt like giving up, and each time I gave myself permission to. I understood that not everybody who writes a book gets to be published, and I learned that having a sense of entitlement is really poisonous for an aspiring author. So, I’d think, “Maybe I’m giving up now,” but inevitably, a couple days later, I’d think of something I was excited about writing, and I’d be puled back. That happened enough times for me to realize that it was a little beyond my control. I was going to be a writer regardless of whether I ever got published.

What do you do in your daily life outside of writing?

I teach 7th grade reading and writing. I basically get paid to joke around and talk about books all day long (when I’m not telling children, “Friends don’t hit each other in the heads with water bottles,” which I’ve had occasion to say more than once). Most of the time, these kids are a fricken joy and I am privileged to get to hang out with them all day long.

I also teach US History, so I get to use my Native American history skillz to teach about cultural appropriation and why Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson were a) not that cool, and b) some of the biggest jerks in history. Watching a pack of 7th graders transform into crusaders for Native American justice is one of the things I’m proudest of out of anything I’ve ever done in my life.

What cool facts might readers not know about you?

  • I’m from Spokane, Washington and currently live in Seattle.
  • I got an MFA in Poetry (which was actually way more fun than it sounds)
  • I love the following things with a fiery, fiery passion: Sherlock (and Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones), Downton Abbey (WHY, SYBIL, WHYYY), Harry Potter (Gryffindors FTW), The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (yay modern adaptations of classic literature!) and musicals (currently singing “Valjean’s Soliloquy” from Les Miserables, loudly and off-key, in my car every morning).
  • I recently discovered gummy vitamins for adults. My life will never be the same.
  • Thanks to The Walking Dead, I have a thorough plan for surviving a zombie apocalypse (two words: Samurai sword).
Stephanie Oakes lives in Seattle and spends her days teaching a crazy and brilliant pack of 7th graders why reading and writing is awesome. Her debut novel, MINNOW (Dial/Penguin, Summer 2014), about a girl who escapes from a religious commune only to find herself at the center of a murder investigation, is based on the Grimm fairy tale, “The Handless Maiden.”
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10 thoughts on “Stephanie Oakes: MINNOW

  1. Stephanie! Everything about your post is inspired and inspiring. Brava to you for crafting and keeping faith in what sounds like a delicious book, all while guiding the minds of those 7th graders, i.e. being in the Business of Changing Lives. Can’t wait for MINNOW!

  2. There are so many things that I can relate to: the shield to rejection as well as the one to good things happening, that you teach 7th grade reading and writing (my mom did as well). MINNOW sounds like a really good read that I could get into. Cool!

  3. Stephanie, MINNOW sounds amazing! I love adapted fairy tales (one of these days I might try my hand at one). And I think we may have been separated at birth. My first novel was a historical set on the Lewis & Clark expedition so I’m a HUGE US History geek. I’d drop my drawers for Benedict Cumberbatch in an instant, LOVE Downton (poor, poor Sybil…but so intrigued to see how Mrs. O’Brien’s scheme for Thomas turns out), my old email address was quidditchgirl, and I can pretty much sing Les Miserables a cappella in its entirety. Oh, and I too just started chowing down on gummy vitamins! So awesome to have kindred spirits in OneFourKidLit!

  4. The Handless Maiden is one of my favorite fairytales, so I was excited when I heard about this book, but I’m even MORE excited now that I know you’re keeping all the major pieces! Can’t wait to see it.

  5. Your book sounds so. cool. Scrolling through my reader, your post caught my eye because a few years ago, the first time I taught middle school, I did NaNoWriMo with my 6th graders, and my project was also called Minnow. (In my case, it was about going from elementary school to middle school, and becoming a small fish in a big pond for the first time.) That piece is long since trunked, but I’m glad it made me stop to read about your book because it sounds right up my alley! It’s on my Goodreads TBR now, so I’ll be keeping an eye out in 2014!

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