Traditions in Life and Literature, a guest post by author Jessica Vitalis
I was not raised in a family that held much stock in traditions. Sure, there was cake at birthdays, a Christmas tree at Christmas, and an egg hunt at Easter, but those traditions were viewed more as suggestions than as anything set in stone––we were a transient family, and there was often little room in our schedule (much less our budget) for more than making it through each day.
But traditions are an important part of life––they give it meaning and rhythm and help create a sense of belonging. This is true of popular traditions as well as smaller, more private traditions. I must have sensed this even as a child, because I envied the family next door that always embarked on a family walk after dinner. I also envied a friend who was gifted the unimaginable luxury of selecting her dinner on the evening of her birthday. And I pretended to sympathize with another friend who grumbled about getting up every Sunday morning to attend church with her family, all the while jealous of what I saw as a comforting ritual.
Perhaps it was this longing that explains why, as a mother, I took care to establish cherished traditions surrounding important events in my children’s lives. And it explains why, as a writer, traditions play an essential role in my books. According to author Pat Conroy, “The human soul can always use a new tradition. Sometimes we require them.” This was certainly the case with my first book, The Wolf’s Curse. In order to make the fantastical story come alive, I knew the villagers’ traditions––including their beliefs about death––had to be rooted in unique observations from their daily lives. For example, as residents of a seaside fishing village, they believe that stars are lanterns lit by departed souls as they travel to the Sea in the Sky to sail into eternity. Funerals are called release ceremonies, and the deceased are buried in boat-like coffins, with friends and neighbors supplying worms, fishing poles, and all the essentials they will need on their journeys.
When it came time to write my companion novel, The Rabbit’s Gift, I faced a similar challenge. This time, the story is set in a country where humans trade bundles of purple carrots for babies that grow in cabbage-like plants raised by rabbits. The society believes their ruler is from a family chosen by the Great Maman in the Moon. Once again, I turned to tradition to flesh out the story world and help readers feel immersed in a culture they otherwise might not find believable.
For example, the ruling family possesses a moon rock, gifted to them by the Great Maman in the Moon for their service. In turn, they recognize and honor the Great Maman in the Moon in a Spring Festival as well as an annual Blessing of the Carrots––a ceremony that guarantees one lucky family a child that is sure to live a blessed life.
But as I fleshed out these traditions further, it quickly became apparent that the citizens in my world were so invested in honoring the Great Maman in the Moon that they feared (and outlawed) scientific advancements—the same scientific advancements that my main character believes could improve the lives of her fellow citizens.
It’s probably not a coincidence that I was eager to explore the idea that traditions might sometimes serve as barriers since I was writing the story during a global pandemic. Indeed, most of The Rabbit’s Gift was written in 2020 when vaccinations weren’t yet a reality, but already our responses to the emerging technology were being shaped by personal and societal forces that were as dependent on the stories we told as the science involved. We were suddenly faced with questions about whether we’d vaccinate, wear masks––even whether it was safe to gather with our friends and loved ones.
For some people, Covid changed relatively little in their lives. For my family, Covid meant major changes, including how we celebrated holidays; for the first time in over a decade, we spent New Year’s Eve alone rather than with our best friends. The essence of these very personal decisions can be found in a quote from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a historian and social critic who wrote, “Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.”
Although The Rabbit’s Gift has nothing to do with the pandemic, it has everything to do with asking big questions about the forces that define who we are as individuals, friends, family, and a society.
It occurs to me that this process––examining ourselves and celebrating our connections––might make stories themselves the most important tradition of all––one I hope we all cherish as much for the sheer joy of reading as for our growth as individuals and as a society. Happy Reading!
Meet Author Jessica Vitalis
JESSICA VITALIS is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer on a mission to write entertaining and thought-provoking literature. As an active volunteer in the kidlit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. She founded Magic in the Middle, a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new fantasy books. She was recently named a 2021 Canada Council of the Arts Grant Recipient and featured on CBCs Here and Now. Her first novel, The Wolf’s Curse, published in 2021, and a standalone companion novel, The Rabbit’s Gift, comes out October 25th.
Praise for The Wolf’s Curse
“I am obsessed with this story” ~ Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly
“. . . extraordinary fantasy debut . . .” ~Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“Vitalis’ striking debut is alluringly told . . .” ~Booklist
“Thoughtful, creative, and engaging.” ~Kirkus Reviews
“A fable as polished and timeless as a fine wooden toy.” ~Newbery Honor winner Catherine Gilbert Murdock
About THE RABBIT’S GIFT
Waterloo, Ontario – According to French lore, babies are grown in cabbage and delivered by fairies. But what if they were actually grown in cabbage-like plants called Chou––and delivered by rabbits?
The second in a two-book, six-figure deal, The Rabbit’s Gift (October 25, 2022, Greenwillow / HarperCollins) is another vivid, voice-driven fantasy for middle grade readers from author Jessica Vitalis.
After putting her own spin on traditional Grim Reaper mythology in The Wolf’s Curse, Vitalis set her sights on creating a stand-alone companion novel exploring the exact opposite of death. Inspired by the world’s first female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blanché, and her 1900 black and white silent film, La Fée Aux Choux, (created after the 1896 original, arguably the world’s first narrative film, was lost or ruined), Vitalis created a unique fantasy world in which babies are grown, harvested, and delivered by rabbits.
Told in dual points-of-view, The Rabbit’s Gift is set in a country governed by the belief that science upsets the natural order. The story features a rabbit and a twelve-year-old aspiring botanist in a feud that puts the entire country in peril. A blend of STEM and magic, the narrative shines light on the delicate balance between man and nature. Continuing the theme of friendship established in The Wolf’s Curse, The Rabbit’s Gift also shines light on familial expectations, working together for the common good, and the power of perspective in storytelling..
Filed under: new books
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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