Joy Is an Act of Resistance, a guest post by Kendall Kulper
When I set out to write my latest novel, A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife, in which a would-be starlet hopes for fame in 1930s Hollywood, I immediately hit a problem. One of the things I loved about my previous novel and Starlet’s companion, Murder for the Modern Girl, about crime and corruption in Prohibition Chicago, was that I could end it on a happy note. In real life, the things Modern Girl’s main character, Ruby, was fighting for—increased social services for vulnerable populations, a reckoning for crooked politicians—actually did happen, as the high-flying 20s paved the way for muckraking journalists and progressive activists. But when I looked deeper into early Hollywood and the things Henrietta, the titular starlet, would experience and witness—abuse, exploitation, sexism, racism, homophobia—I knew she couldn’t “win.” The systems of oppression she faced in the 1930s ran unchecked for decades and still, to some extent, exist today.
Scratch under the surface of nearly any story from Hollywood’s first few decades and you’ll find seemingly unending misery: it appeared no star escaped unscathed, under tremendous pressure to adhere to the studios’ strict morality codes and punishing work schedules, to fit inside the narrow stories created by publicists, to go along with every demand made by people in authority or risk their dreams disappearing forever. I love writing powerful, inspiring young people fighting for change who can show my teen readers what happens when you stand up to protect others, like Modern Girl’s Ruby. But how could I possibly write a story set in this world—where the so-called good guys changed nothing—and not leave readers feeling completely hopeless?
I’d just about given up on my Hollywood book when I came across a beautiful, powerful quote that put everything into a fresh perspective: Joy is an act of Resistance.
Originally the title of a poem by Black poet Toi Derricotte, Joy is an act of Resistance has been embraced by activists as a sustaining, positive force for change, a defiant announcement that you exist, you’re powerful, and you can’t be broken.
The first time I read those words, I stared at them for a minute or two. And then I knew exactly what my book needed. Amid the darkness of early Hollywood, the men seeking to control and commodify young women, Henrietta would be an absolute firework of joy. Embracing joy as resistance is also about celebrating the very nature of you; for Henrietta, that meant taking the things that people, then and now, often trivialize, especially in young women—hope, enthusiasm, playfulness, silliness—and showing that they weren’t frivolous nonsense, they were jet fuel.
After Henrietta arrives in Hollywood, she begins to see ghosts everywhere, young women who hoped for fame and stardom but instead found themselves used and thrown away by the powerful men who run the city. And as soon as these ghosts realize she can see them, they’re furious, desperate for revenge, broken by the pain of their tragic endings. Henrietta doesn’t at first seem like a great champion for them—she’s funny and impulsive, outgoing and a shameless flirt—but it’s exactly those qualities that allow her to look past the weight of their stories to the girls they once were, girls just like her who fell in love and dreamed and got dressed up and had adventures. Her joy helps the ghosts reclaim their identities and stories, wresting control of their narratives from the men who tried to erase them from history, but it’s also a powerful statement: she’s not going to be broken, and she’s not going to stop fighting.
No spoilers, but Starlet’s ending is different than what I expected when I first envisioned this story. I was worried it would end in hopelessness, but I actually think it’s my most wildly, desperately hopeful book ever. It’s a book that embraces activism as a long journey pointed toward the future, where all you can do is keep going and keep hoping that your actions, however small and pointless they might feel in the moment, eventually add up to something bigger.
This generation of young people has faced incredible upheaval, and their intelligent, passionate voices are needed more than ever. But I also know how daunting it can feel to stare down huge problems like climate change, threats to reproductive rights, dismantling systems of oppression, and rising censorship. What I hope my teen readers take away from this book, and what I learned by writing it, was that while there is no end to the fight for justice, simply staying in that fight, pushing for something better, is its own victory. The seriousness of these issues doesn’t mean there’s no room for joyfulness. On the contrary, by cultivating and celebrating joy and all that it encompasses—hope, unity, resiliency—we can more powerfully effect change than we ever thought possible.
Meet the author
Kendall Kulper is an author living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She writes historical fantasy for young adults, including Murder for the Modern Girl, which was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and received two starred reviews. She graduated from Harvard University with an honors degree in History & Literature and lives with her husband, two daughters, and much-Instagrammed dog, Abby.
Visit Kendall online at KendallKulper.com.
Visit Holiday House online at HolidayHouse.com
About A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife
A budding starlet and her handsome-but-moody co-star go from bitter enemies to reluctant partners when they get tangled up in the disappearance of a beautiful young actress in 1930s Hollywood.
Eighteen-year-old Henrietta arrives in Los Angeles in 1934 with dreams of trading her boring life for stardom.
She’s determined to make it as an actress, despite her family’s doubts and rumors of would-be starlets gone missing. And by the skin of her teeth, she pulls it off! A serendipitous job offer arrives and Henrietta finds herself on a whirlwind publicity tour for a major film role—with a vexingly unpleasant actor tapped by the studio to be her fake boyfriend.
But fierce Henrietta has more in common with brooding Declan than she realizes. They both have gifts that they are hiding, for fear of being labeled strange: he is immune to injury and she can speak to ghosts. When the co-stars get tangled up in the disappearance of a beautiful young actress, they go from bitter enemies and pretend lovers to reluctant partners—and possibly even friends.
Together, they might be the only people in Hollywood who can do something about these poor missing girls. And in doing so . . . they might just fall in love for real.
This whip smart, seductive caper by the author of Murder for the Modern Girl has the perfect combination of romance, vengeance, and a hint of the supernatural, set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Hand to fans of These Violent Delights and My Lady Jane.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 05/23/2023
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
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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