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  • Kacen Callender

WIP: Moonflower


"Andrea Davis Pinkney at Scholastic has bought, in an exclusive submission, middle grade novel Moonflower by National Book Award winner Kacen Callender (King and the Dragonflies). The story is about 12-year-old Moon who struggles with depression and travels to the spirit realms every night, hoping never to return to the world of the living again. But when the realm is threatened, it's up to Moon to save the spirit world, sparking their own healing journey. Publication is set for 2022; Beth Phelan at Gallt and Zacker Literary Agency negotiated the deal for North American rights."


Moonflower was probably one of the most difficult books I’ve written. The main character, Moon, is depressed and struggles with suicidal ideation, just as I did when I was their age. I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy that reminds me of Spirited Away, one of my favorite films of all time, and this seemed like a good opportunity to write about the spirit world and about no longer wanting to be in the world of the living.


There were many reasons this book was difficult to write: first, I always wanted to keep the safety of the readers in the forefront of my mind. Though the main character has suicidal thoughts, I didn’t want to express those thoughts in a way that could be triggering. I needed to find a safe way to express Moon’s authentic feelings, which was a challenge, but I found that focusing on their desire to escape the world of the living became a gentler metaphor throughout. It reminded me of similar thoughts I’d had when I was twelve years old, too, and would attempt to close my eyes and simply leave my body so that I could fly up into the sky.


Another concern for safety was writing the spirit world in a way that it didn’t seem more exciting or fun to a young child than the world of the living. I was careful to have the spirits Moon interacted with talk about their love for Moon’s world of the living, that our world is an even more magical place. I also didn’t want to imply that death is scary, or a bad thing, so needed to keep a careful balance throughout for that as well.


It was also difficult to find a voice that didn't feel assumptive to young reader's struggles, or preachy about their valid feelings. I wanted to share beliefs that have helped me with my depression and suicidal thoughts, but I also knew that these beliefs would not necessarily help every reader. In the end, writing for my younger self who needed the guidance that has helped me, guidance that Moon is given throughout, showed me the direction I needed with the hope that being true to myself would resonate with others, as it has for my other novels for children. I began to talk directly to young Kacen throughout, compassionate to their true and valid painful emotions, and wanting to offer them hope.


I’ve heard authors talk about the struggle to write about depression and suicidal thoughts at different book signings and events. It’s hard. Depression, for me anyway, feels like a black hole where there’s no energy, no joy, nothingness. I’ve attempted to write books about depression before, and I’ve always hit the same block where the story doesn’t come to me and the character’s depression—my depression—takes over. I realize now that it’s because, as I’ve said in past posts, creativity for me is energy, joy, excitement. It’s difficult to funnel expressions of non-energy, non-joy into a book that requires energy and joy to be written. Like Moon, I had to find that joy while writing their journey, and that joy came through my spirituality.


When I first sat down to write Moonflower, I believed that spirits existed, vaguely, in the sense that enough people said they were real, so maybe they were. I wrote about the spirit world purely as a fantasy. I wrote about a spirit that looked over Moon, and I wrote a few lines that were interesting, but I didn’t give much thought at the time, such as the belief that our ideas are actually given to us by spiritual beings.


And then. I woke up on my 31st birthday, almost a year ago now, and I kept hearing over and over again that it’s time to step into my power. Not hearing, with my ears, but an internal thought, as if I was thinking it myself with no prompting. It was odd. I kept feeling this heat in my chest and stomach, a vibration through my body. That was really only the beginning of what has been an incredible year of change and growth.


Step into your power. I’ve been learning what power is—perhaps the definition changes from person to person, but for me, it’s the realization that I am worthy of unconditional love, that I am unconditionally loved, that I unconditionally accept myself exactly as I am. I have learned that there is so much purpose in life. It isn’t as easily translated as I came here to be a doctor or, in my case, I came here to be a writer. I think that I’m here to experience, to have fun and feel excitement and joy, to shine brightly—and that in order to shine brightly, I need to evolve through healing and show myself and share myself with love.


I still struggle with anxiety and depression, which I also accept—but realizing that I’m here with purpose, and looking at the cycles I’ve been caught in all of my life due to my traumas, and looking at the ways people react to me because of their traumas, and thinking about how, really, every single person in this world is hurt and wounded and wants to be unconditionally loved and accepted has helped me. Processing and healing past traumas have helped me. Thinking about the fact that people who have not healed their own past traumas and so feel unworthy of love and so feel powerless and so feel the need to hurt others because they are hurting themselves, has helped me.


Moon begins to learn these lessons. They begin to heal their past, and in a way, begin to heal the traumas that were passed onto them by their mother, which was passed on to her by her parents, too. Moon heals with the guidance of spirits and celestial beings and guardians, feeling as if there is a tree inside of them, and that their flower is starting to bloom.


That’s how I’ve felt this past year—that the flower inside of me has begun to bloom. I'm beyond excited for the future where I release fear and experience life with joy. I don't fear death, because I've realized that there is no such thing as death—only transformation, a moment where I'll wake up from a dream, grateful for the experience I'd had, because life is magical, too. As I’ve begun to heal, I’ve also begun to hear and see spirits. I learned that I have guides, too. I learned that ideas have been given to me by spirits all along, such as in Hurricane Child when Caroline is protected by the woman in black, and in King and the Dragonflies when King’s brother talks about the secrets of the universe in his sleep, and now in Moonflower when there is a spirit who loves and watches over Moon, beings who guide with excitement and love.


I’ve realized that I am a spirit in a physical body, and that I came here because I wanted to experience this life and heal and learn and evolve and grow. I’ve realized that I deserve to exist simply because I do exist, in the same way that the sun and the moon deserve to exist because they simply exist, too. These are words I desperately wish I could tell young Kacen, but maybe I needed to experience the pain I had when I was young so that I could write about it today.

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