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Pride Month is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where during the month of June, queer authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being queer, queer books, and their experiences of being a queer reader. Find the introduction post for Pride Month at The Quiet Pond here.
So many queer stories are about self-discovery, about coming home to yourself; in young adult books, especially, queer realisation and fulfillment are also often tied to coming-of-age narratives. Being a teenager is a wonderful, volatile, and beautiful thing, and as someone who had her “gay awakening” (so to speak) at the tail end of my teens, I’m always so grateful for stories that shine a light into that awkward and revealing experience of finally beginning to figure out who you are—and, if you’re lucky, who you love. I am therefore delighted to be welcoming Maggie Tokuda-Hall to the Pond today to talk about her wonderful fantasy books about queer teens figuring themselves out!
I was blown away by Maggie’s debut The Mermaid, The Witch and the Sea last year: a lyrical YA fantasy absolutely suffused with magic and myth and whimsy, following a genderfluid pirate and daughter of a noble family who come to love each other. The book’s expansive setting was such a fun and thoughtful place to be in, and I am beyond excited to get to revisit that world with Maggie today, as well as chat about her upcoming graphic novel Squad, illustrated by Lisa Sterle, which releases later this year! Maggie, whose pondsona is a hammerhead shark (how on brand for a debut about the sea!) in an adorable polka-dot skirt, was such a joy to host. Wave 🌊 hello, friends, and I hope you enjoy our little discussion today!
The Mermaid, The Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Aboard the pirate ship Dove, Flora the girl takes on the identity of Florian the man to earn the respect and protection of the crew. For Flora, former starving urchin, the brutal life of a pirate is about survival: don’t trust, don’t stick out, and don’t feel. But on this voyage, as the pirates prepare to sell their unsuspecting passengers into slavery, Flora is drawn to the Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, who is en route to a dreaded arranged marriage with her own casket in tow. Flora doesn’t expect to be taken under Evelyn’s wing, and Evelyn doesn’t expect to find such a deep bond with the pirate Florian.
Soon the unlikely pair set in motion a wild escape that will free a captured mermaid (coveted for her blood, which causes men to have visions and lose memories) and involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, an opportunistic witch, and the all-encompassing Sea itself.
Author Interview: Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Skye: Hello Maggie! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond! For anyone just now discovering your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Maggie: I’m a picture book and young adult book author. I was an independent bookseller for years, and now I’m a full time writer. My favorite animals are spotted hyenas, angler fish, and crows.
Skye: I really loved spending time in The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea—the fantasy worldbuilding was so suffused with little details (a sea whose memory is stored in her mermaids! witches and practical magic! explorations of colonialism!) that made the whole world feel magical and expansive! Are there any little easter eggs that you put in the book that hold special meaning or resonance to you personally?
Maggie: I completed the first draft of MWS while I was road tripping through South America. So many of the locations were inspired by places we visited; the Forbidden Isles are based on the Galapagos, the Floating Islands were based very loosely on northernmost Colombia. But the Easter Egg that was JUST for me was that Rake hates throw pillows. It’s a running joke between my husband and I, since he hates throw pillows with a truly irrational fervor. So. That was fun to slip in there.
Skye: Both Evelyn and Flora/Florian go through a lot of self-discovery in the book, especially with regards to their own gender and sexuality. How much of yourself do you see in the characters’ narrative journeys, both individually and with each other?
Maggie: Oh gosh. They’re both informed by my own experience in so many ways, though I’ve never had a relationship quite like theirs. Evelyn’s relationship with her own privilege in a misogynistic culture is pretty easy to pin on my own experiences. Her desire to right injustices she witnesses, but lack of awareness or even curiosity about the ones she doesn’t is very much how I experienced the world as a teen. Florian’s changing feelings about his gender identity are more dramatic than any I have felt, but my feelings about my own gender have varied wildly from context to context, and time in my life, so I tried to bring those feelings to the page when writing him. But there are also so many things about both of them that are so different from my experience, not only because I don’t live in a world with mermaids, and that’s the real joy of writing fiction for me. Taking crumbs of what I do know and expanding them and tightening them until they’re something completely different.
Skye: Let’s talk about your upcoming graphic novel, which you worked on with the fabulous Lisa Sterle! Squad, which is forthcoming in October this year, follows a new girl in an elite school who soon finds out that the popular clique she’s invited to hang with are all werewolves—and they exclusively prey on date-rapey boys. WHAT A PREMISE. Where did the spark that grew into Squad come from, and what has the process of coming together with Lisa for a full-fledged comic been like?
Maggie: “Exclusively” may be a bit of a stretch, but I don’t want to give any spoilers!
The spark for Squad has been there since I graduated high school. Piedmont, where the book is set, is a real town in California. When I was there, the rape culture was absolutely rampant, and even though we didn’t have the vocabulary to describe that yet (I graduated in 2003, so this was a long time ago) I knew that what I saw and what I experienced was deeply wrong. I was furious about it. It took me a really long time to get enough distance and maturity as a writer to figure out how to tell that story.
Then, after the script sold to Greenwillow (Martha Mihalick, specifically, who is a magnificent editor, and a joy to work with), Lisa Sterle signed on to illustrate and just knocked it out of the park. She has the perfect sensibility for this story, and she’s so so talented. I’m so lucky to have gotten to work with her, and seeing her bring these characters I made up to life has been one of the most rewarding moments in my career. Also, her tarot deck, The Modern Witch Tarot, is gorgeous and fantastic, and everyone should buy it.
Skye: Both Squad and The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea explore the formative teen experience of figuring out who you are, where you belong, and what (or who!) you love. How would you say both books explore different aspects of identity and coming-of-age?
Maggie: I think they’re just united through their category, which is young adult. All YA is, to me, a coming of age story in one way or another. And coming of age often means reflecting on things like your identity, your purpose, who you want to be. They’re wildly different stories, just the way YA is a wildly diverse category. But I’m glad they’ve both found homes in their own little niches. It makes me really proud to have a variety of work under my belt.
Skye: Circling back to The Mermaid, The Witch and the Sea, while I was doing some research for this interview, I came across this piece you wrote about how the book was both inspired by and written for a particular reader. I was really moved by your relationship with her, and how you experienced your own queer ‘coming-of-age’ arc while working on the book. Now that it’s been a year since the book was first released, I have to ask: has the reader Mermaid was dedicated to… read the book yet?
Maggie: Clare! Yes, she has! I had the great privilege of watching her present her college these not too long ago, and she referenced it a few times as an inspiration for her own novel length project that she was presenting. It was such a beautiful full circle moment for me. To see her talking about her own work, and knowing that I had even a tiny part in her thinking around it was just so meaningful to me. I am always proud of her — she’s brilliant and talented and kind — and I was especially proud of her in that moment. One day she’s going to blow us all away.
Skye: Okay, looking forward to the future a little: what’s your wildest pie-in-the-sky writing dream?
Maggie: Writing a Xena Warrior Princess reboot in literally any form. It hits the shelves / theaters / screens and it’s a wild hit, and I become exorbitantly wealthy. I am named Queen of Xena Warrior Princess. Lucy Lawless gives me a kiss with tongue. We get married, so that she, my husband and I become a happy lil polycule. We own a small bnb that’s entirely mythology themed, and we have goats and dogs. We’re all very happy together.
Skye: Closing on a sunny note! What is something—big or small—that’s been bringing you joy lately, despite everything else currently going on?
Maggie: Reading. Recently I read One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston and I loved it so, so much. Just roll my body up in that book, and toss me out the window. A delight.
Other favorites recently include:
- Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
- The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
- The Conductors by Nicole Glover
- Kiss and Tell by MariNaomi
- Witch Elm by Tana French
- The Girls are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
- The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
- We Are Not Free by Traci Chee
- The Dead are Arising by Les and Tamara Payne
- the Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman
I like either super pure and cute, or else super dark and murder. I tend to get lost in between.
Also paintings by Gertrude Abercrombie, an early surrealist. Every one of her stories feels like a short story.
About the Author
Maggie Tokuda-Hall has an MFA in creative writing from USF, and a strong cake-decorating game. She is the author of the 2017 Parent’s Choice Gold Medal winning picture book, Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is her debut young adult novel, which was an NPR Best Book of 2020. Her forthcoming graphic novel, Squad, will be on shelves Oct 5th, 2021. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband, son, and objectively perfect dog.
Photography: Red Scott