On Sunday, I attended an author panel on middle grade fantasy at Moon Palace Books. Although I’ve known about Moon Palace for a while, it was my first time visiting the bookstore. It’s located in Minneapolis’s Longfellow neighborhood and is known for its engagement with the local community and its activist and social justice-oriented stances. In 2020, during the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, the plywood boarding up Moon Palace’s storefront bore the slogan Abolish the Police painted in huge letters. The bookstore was spared from damage. Moon Palace also continues to require masks in the store, so the audience at the panel was entirely masked.
The panel was held in a back room reminiscent of a blackbox theater. The signs reading Abolish the Police were stored against the back wall. The moderator (also an author) was J.M. Lee, and the panelists were Anne Ursu, Kelly Barnhill, Payal Doshi, and H.M. Bouwman. All the authors are Twin Cities residents. I’m most familiar with Anne Ursu and Kelly Barnhill’s work, but I had heard of all the writers.
Lee asked the panel a series of questions about what fantasy meant to them, their thoughts on worldbuilding, the characters in the novels they were each promoting that day, Ursula K. LeGuin’s quote about how fantasy isn’t factual, but it’s true, and children know that. Anne Ursu said that for her first secondary world fantasy novel, The Real Boy (which is good–I recommend it!), she created a map of the island with a river bisecting it, and her editor told her that rivers didn’t work that way. This was in the context of her expressing that she wasn’t good at the more scientifically-minded side of worldbuilding. She said she then decided she needed a real-world cognate so that she could look up all the answers to her own worldbuilding questions; she opted for an island in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 17th century. For her latest book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy (also great!), the setting was inspired by very early 19th century Romania (her heritage being Romanian on her father’s side).
Kelly Barnhill said–or at least this was my interpretation–that authors or perhaps readers sometimes get too hung up on worldbuilding details that we aren’t even familiar with in our own world. That is, you (or your characters) don’t need to know everything about your fantasy world because there’s so much ordinary people don’t know about the world we live in. She cited as an example the fact that she’d driven to Moon Palace Books in a car, but she had no idea, say, where the tires of her car came from. For her part, she was more interested in the side of worldbuilding that covers what stories everyone knows. For example, if we read an article in the sports section of the paper that uses the phrase Cinderella story, we all know what that means (at least, most people). She likes to know what such cultural touchstones are in her world. Or, what stories do children tell when they really want to scare each other/themselves? These are the things she’s interested in, even if they never make it onto the page. Separately, she also mentioned that the history of sewer systems, and how the technology kept being lost, was fascinating.
Payal Doshi shared an anecdote from when she was getting her MFA in New York and her workshop classmates thought Darjeeling was the fantasy world (I think this was about her debut, Rea and the Blood Nectar, which is a portal fantasy that starts out in India). She also talked about how people assume that fantasy by Indian authors will involve India-inspired worlds or incorporate Indian mythology. The fantasy world in her book, Astranthia, is more “East meets West,” combining different inspirations in a way that is more reflective of her childhood growing up in Mumbai.
Earlier in the conversation, Anne Ursu revealed that she and Kelly Barnhill had grown up going to the same library (the Walker library), though they didn’t know each other at the time. This was in the context of Barnhill talking about how she’d been obsessed with the Oz books as a kid because they were deeply weird and she was a deeply weird child. Her zeal for borrowing all the Oz books was how she discovered interlibrary loan. This led to a whole tangent about how strange the Oz books are and all the startling gender stuff in them and also the fact that L. Frank Baum apparently had all his royalties go to his wife. He also kept trying to stop writing Oz books in order to write other things, but then he’d run out of money and have to write another Oz book.
I especially enjoyed when the panelists got to talking about the characters in their latest books because it turned into a discussion of their siblings. Heather Bouwman’s book features four sisters, and she herself has three sisters. When they found out she was writing this book, they were anxious to check that it wasn’t memoir. Bouwman said the story began as Little Women fan fiction, and indeed the characters’ names still echo Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Payal Doshi has a sister, whereas her main character has a twin brother, but she talked about the love-hate relationships siblings often have (you might hate your sibling sometimes, but if they get kidnapped, you’ll do anything to rescue them!). Anne Ursu said that, like her protagonist Marya, she has an older brother who, it sounds like, got a lot of attention related to his hockey playing when they were growing up. However, she said that he was much nicer than the older brother in her book. Her parents were actually in the audience–she gestured at them–and she said she’d assured them that the family dynamics in her novel were not about the hockey.
Finally, Kelly Barnhill said she was inwardly freaking out because she realized she had this thing about writing oldest daughters. She talked about growing up as an oldest daughter whose job it was to take her four younger siblings (and sometimes extra cousins or friends) to the library each Saturday to give their mother a break. She also has thirtysome cousins on one side of the family and twentysome on the other, and there was something particular about all the oldest daughters. My interpretation was that they were expected to take on a lot of responsibility and internalized that such that they were then always shouldering all responsibilities for the rest of their lives. (I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter…of an oldest daughter! But I only have one younger sibling, so I’m not sure how much I really exhibit oldest daughter traits.) At this point, Anne Ursu jumped in to say that she thought Kelly Barnhill also liked to write very kind characters, and Barnhill agreed.
After several audience questions, the panel ended, and the authors were available to sign books out on the main floor of the store. There was no formal setup for this; they were just hanging out, and people were going up to talk to them. I explored the bookstore, since it was my first time visiting, and I ultimately bought Kelly Barnhill’s most recent book, a novella for adults called The Crane Husband (I did hesitate over When Women Were Dragons). By this time, the small crowd had started to disperse, so I asked Barnhill to sign my book, which she did. Then I went to say hello to Anne Ursu, who I’ve met a couple of times before.
Next, since I was in the neighborhood, I crossed the street to check out the new location of Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. This is another well-known local bookshop that I finally got around to visiting in early 2020. It was then destroyed by fire in the unrest, but happily it has reopened a stone’s throw from Moon Palace. I knew this since I’d been following updates on the store’s fundraising page. The new store feels a bit warehouse-y in its bareness (I think there was a recent flooding issue too, which may have contributed to that), but it’s chock full of books, which is the important thing. There’s also still a bookstore dog. I found what I was looking for: Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace (sequel to A Memory Called Empire) in paperback.
Books purchased, I walked further down Minnehaha Ave. to the Minnehaha Scoop, a little ice cream shop I hadn’t known about before this month. It’s a small store on a corner lot, with doors open on two sides. The seating is all outdoors: a few brightly painted benches under colored umbrellas, with planters of coleus and petunias. They serve Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, which comes from Madison, WI (a sandwich board outside had some amusing “nutrition facts” that included the phrases “don’t even ask” and “if you want nutrition, eat carrots”). At first, I was disappointed that they were out of chocolate ice cream and I wasn’t sure what to get, but there was a flavor called Zanzimint that combined their Zanzibar chocolate (a richer, more chocolate-y chocolate ice cream, I believe) and mint, so I chose that, and it was delicious, especially on a hot, sunny day.
On my way back up the street, I passed the art studio and store of Ricardo Levins Morales, whose artwork I recognized. I don’t think I’d realized he was local! He creates art for community organizing, social justice, and activist movements. Printed on the windows of his studio were the 10- and 13-point programs of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, respectively.