Back in the (Literary) Saddle, a guest post by Jessica Burkhart
CW: talk of addiction
I’m what’s known as a “Publishing Old” because I’ve been in the business for 16 years. So, I know how lucky I am to be able to revisit a series a decade after the last book has been published and be able to spin it off. But as one of my good friends likes to say, nothing is ever truly dead in this business—and that can be a series or one’s career.
Take the Reins, my debut middle-grade novel, was published in 2009. I was a 21-year-old baby writer who had grown up reading The Saddle Club, Misty of Chincoteague, the Black Stallion series, and any other horse fiction I could get my hands on.
Writing about girls who rode and loved horses was cathartic for me as a former equestrian who had her big dreams of being a professional equestrian dashed after intensive spinal surgery. I was only 14 when my dreams died, and after years of healing and pushing away horses, I finally returned to them at 19 when I wrote my first book. I had zero idea that such a story would resonate with so many readers, but it did. The Canterwood Crest series expanded into 20 books in multiple languages with over 1.5 million copies in print. It allowed me to ride vicariously through my characters and when the series finally ended in 2013, it felt like a death in the family.
But despite the publishing industry success, the years I’d spent dedicated to Canterwood weren’t without turmoil. I hid two giant secrets from the public: I was an addict throughout almost all of Canterwood’s run, and I wasn’t being my authentic queer self because I was terrified that coming out publicly would tank my book sales, and I would lose my income.
After reaching a breaking point where I was an OD away from not waking up, I went to rehab and began the torturous process of weaning myself off multiple drugs. Addiction had taken almost everything I’d worked so hard to build, and it took me years to physically and mentally recover post-rehab.
But in 2020, when lockdown began, I was clean and finally feeling like myself again. I needed something to distract myself from all the terror unfolding around me, and I wanted a way to ease myself back into writing again after years of trying and failing. So, I went back to Horse World and lost myself all over again.
And in March 2021, the offer for Saddlehill Academy came from Aladdin. My editors suggested we make Saddlehill a crossover with Canterwood Crest, and I was . . . shocked! Would readers want that? Would they still care about Sasha Silver and her friends and enemies? Canterwood had ended ten years ago, after all! But I went for it and revised Sweet & Bitter Rivals as a crossover. Now as I dive into writing the fourth book, I’m trying not to post spoilers anywhere online while screaming to my writing group in Discord about all the Easter eggs and Canterwood character appearances I’m working in.
And there is a particular storyline with two prominent Canterwood characters that will confirm what many readers have already known and have been asking me about for over a decade, but I’ve always given a non-answer because I was scared to tell them the truth. Well, I answered in the pages of Saddlehill, and I’m eagerly awaiting the screams that are sure to come in my comments and DMs.
As for the main characters—the riders from Foxbury Stables and the students of Saddlehill Academy—I can’t wait for you to meet them! Abby’s openly queer and so is her stepsister, Emery. With all the anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric that was swirling around at the time (and has only continued to grow), I came out via a series of Tweets because I was tired of hiding this part of myself from so many and was in a privileged position to be able to safely come out. I also Tweeted a thread about getting clean and making my way back to writing, hoping it would help anyone else struggling with addiction.
I’m so looking forward to connecting with old readers and hopefully making new ones. Sadly, I’ve tried to prepare myself—if that’s even possible—for the inevitable book banning and backlash that will soon come my way. Someone asked me why I made Abby queer if I knew it would get my books banned. Well, because despite reading hundreds of horse books as a kid, I never saw myself in them. I knew from a young age that I was queer and while I found plenty of books with horse girls, I had no books with queer horse girls. I want that to be different for this generation, so Saddlehill is that “gonna give the gays everything they want” Erika Jayne meme. It’s my love letter to all the equestrians who haven’t seen themselves on the page. I’m going to need your help and support to get my books into the hands of kids who want and need them, so I hope you go on this ride with me.
Meet the author
Jessica Burkhart is the author of the best-selling 20-book Canterwood Crest series with over 1.6 million copies in print in multiple languages and a spinoff series, Saddlehill Academy. Her other works include the Unicorn Magic series and the stand-alone YA novel, Wild Hearts. She made her editorial debut with Life Inside My Mind: 31 Authors Share Their Personal Struggles. Visit Jess online at www.jessicaburkhart.com.
About Sweet & Bitter Rivals
From the author of the Canterwood Crest series comes the first book in a middle grade series about an equestrian boarding school following a girl who struggles to keep her eyes on the prize while receiving anonymous threats.
Abby St. Clair can’t wait to start another season with her elite riding team at her boarding school. She has something to prove after literally falling on her face during the biggest competition of the year the previous season. And she could really use a win after her mom left her family, her dad remarried, and Abby’s new stepsister, Emery, proved to be a strong rider and stiff competition.
Abby wants to return to some semblance of normal but is hiding a secret: she accidentally cost her biggest rival, Selly, a chance at team captain. Then Abby begins to receive anonymous messages, threatening to expose her unwitting sabotage and a video that makes it look like she’s trash-talking Emery. With an important competition on the horizon and the knowledge that someone in her circle knows way too much about her, the pressure is on.
Abby tries to put on blinders and have the perfect meet with her horse, Beau, but she’s about to find out the hard way that secrets don’t make friends at Saddlehill Academy.
Publication date: 05/30/2023
Series: Saddlehill Academy #1
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network