A Secret Corner, a guest post by Tehlor Kay Mejia
It was before a girl treated my heart like a catch- and-release fish. Before newly-blue-haired courage sent me across a parking lot to compliment the patches she’d sewn on her jean jacket. It was before I felt like myself, the awkwardness of sixteen still sitting heavy on my skin, and the house was empty, and the library was open until nine.
Back then, the teen section was upstairs and in the back, away from the computer banks and the prying eyes of people my mom might know. I dropped my heavy backpack next to the chair in the corner every day while cooler kids got in cars to haunt the steps of pizza places and their parents’ business-trip-empty condos. I looked for books that looked like people might kiss in them.
I watched people more than I talked to them, the way their hair fell in these intentional looking waves, the way they seemed to know what to do with eyeliner. The way they just locked together, effortlessly, like there weren’t a million tiny miracles between not-holding-hands and holding hands. Not-kissing and kissing.
So far, none of those miracles had happened to me.
I was obsessed with kissing, because I’d never done it. Not unless you counted that awkward “see what this is all about” thing in the backyard with my best friend on my thirteenth birthday. But I didn’t. I was a lifetime from thirteen now, taller and weirder and quieter. I pined after boys I would never talk to from afar. I waited for my miracle.
In the library, I browsed the sparsely populated teen shelf looking for something I hadn’t already read on a hundred other nights like this one. But on this particular day, I found a book with a perfect cover. It was a sunshiney thing, the main image two hands with their fingers interlocked. It looked cheesy and summery and I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading it in front of my debate team friends – who were on an Ayn Rand kick – but in the secret corner of the library no one knew I was haunting, I let myself take it anyway.
That night, the librarian had to tap me on the shoulder to tell me they were closing. But by then I had read enough. Empress of the World was about a girl like me. Smart, awkward, a little thorny, so the world believed she was mostly friendless and unkissed by choice. I had read other books about girls like her, but those girls had kissed boys in the end and I had been fascinated but not always moved.
This time, the awkward girl did not grow closer to a popular boy who sees her beyond her glasses. This time, the awkward girl kissed a blonde, beautiful preacher’s daughter. A dancer who was a friend before she was more. I read it with my heart pounding, this sleepy summer camp book, and when I walked out into the world again, fluorescent lights turning off in my wake, the air felt different on my face.
It was a book I couldn’t have picked up at the bookstore. A book I wouldn’t have been brave enough to read on the bus, or the cafeteria, or the living room, or even my bedroom. It was a book I left behind, my library card unused in my wallet. But I came back to visit. I learned the code words in the cover copy like they were a secret language. I found other books like it, and in the safety of that secret library corner I read until the lines around me were a little darker, the colors inside them more filled in.
There was a long way to go before I’d cross that parking lot to tell a girl with a mohawk I liked her jean jacket. Before I’d stop feeling left out and unkissable and weird (let’s be honest, I still feel that way sometimes). There was a long way to go before I’d realize the things I was scribbling in my notebook margins were poetry, or that I’d collected enough of the secret code to write a book of my own.
But when I finally found I had enough, I went back to that corner. I sat in the chair where I’d discovered Nicola and Battle, and two hands intertwined on a cover that my friends would have teased me for reading. I thought about the holes I’d fallen into in those stories, the patchwork of myself I’d tried to make out of all their pieces. All the things that had been missing from them that I’d had to find myself out in the world.
There were so many people on my mind and in my heart when I wrote We Set the Dark on Fire, but first and foremost it will always be for that lonely, mixed up girl, looking for keywords in cover copy, jumping and hiding the book every time she heard feet on the library stairs.
The one who found a home in a library corner when the world wasn’t quite ready for her brand of magic.
The one who found her own words there.
Meet Tehlor Kay Mejia
Tehlor Kay Mejia is an author and Oregon native in love with the alpine meadows and evergreen forests of her home state, where she lives with her daughter. We Set the Dark on Fire is her debut fantasy novel. She is active in the Latinx lit community, and passionate about representation for marginalized teens in media. Her short fiction appears in the All Out and Toil & Trouble anthologies from Inkyard Press, and her middle grade fantasy debut, Paola Santiago and the Drowned Palace, is forthcoming from Rick Riordan Presents/Disney Hyperion. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tehlorkay.
About WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE
In this daring and romantic fantasy debut perfect for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Latinx authors Zoraida Córdova and Anna-Marie McLemore, society wife-in-training Dani has a great awakening after being recruited by rebel spies and falling for her biggest rival.
At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children. Both paths promise a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.
Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.
And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.
Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/26/2019
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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