Trouble Is a Friend of Mine: An Interview with Sarah Prineas About her Latest Science Fiction Endeavor
So I’ve been reading the middle grade science fiction novel TROUBLE IN THE STARS to my six-year-old son recently at bedtime. I didn’t plan to. Technically I figured that once we’d finished the second Wizard of Oz book that we’d do something like The Giver or The Phantom Tollbooth or something. Then he took one look at the cover of the latest from Sarah Prineas and it was all over. Now every time he finds a hole in his sock and wants me to throw it out he’ll proclaim, “Space it, mom! Space it!” Like I’m going to hurl the offending footwear into deep space through the nearest airlock.
But can I admit that I love his interest? I’ve loved science fiction for a long time, and have fought against the perception that “kids don’t read it”. That’s a pretty prevalent prejudice in some circles, and I’m hoping it’s on its way out. Sarah Prineas, as it just so happens, was kind enough to actually answer some questions about her book as well. But before I get to that, I’d better give you a taste of what this book is about:
From acclaimed author Sarah Prineas comes an action-packed, funny, and heartwarming outer-space adventure about a troublesome little shape-shifter on the run from the law. Perfect for fans of Rick Riordan and Geoff Rodkey!
Trouble knows two things: they are a shapeshifter, and they are running from something–but they don’t know what. So when the government–the StarLeague–shows up, Trouble figures it’s time to flee.
Changing from blob of goo form, to adorable puppy form, to human boy form, Trouble stows away on the Hindsight, a ship crewed by the best navigators and engineers in the galaxy, led by the fearsome Captain Astra. When Trouble is discovered, the captain decides to be nice–instead of tossing them out an airlock, she’ll drop Trouble off at the next space station.
As the ship travels, Trouble uses the time to figure out how to be a good human boy, and starts to feel safe. But when a young StarLeague cadet shows up to capture Trouble, things get complicated, especially when Trouble reveals a shapeshifter form that none of them could have expected. Soon a chase across the galaxy begins. Safety, freedom, and home are at stake, and not just for Trouble.
From acclaimed author Sarah Prineas comes a rip-roaring outer space adventure about an oddball hero, a crew of misfits, and finding family where you least expect it.
Cool, right? No wonder my kid got sucked in.
Here then is a talk with Sarah herself:
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, how are you in these, the waning days of the pandemic (I hope!)?
Sarah Prineas: Thanks so much for asking! At first it was super hard mainly because–like many of us–I was completely freaked out. But as a writer I already work at home, so in the end it wasn’t much of an adjustment. Now being home all the time feels normal, to the point where I think we’re going to feel like wide-eyed naked babies when we go out into the world again. Can you imagine walking around without a mask or hugging somebody you’re not actually related to?! It’s going to be amazing.
BB: Tempt me not with your impossible tales. And on that note, it’s no secret to say that your hero, Trouble, is a shapeshifter. Space shapeshifters have existed before. Odo from Deep Space 9 comes to mind. But honestly, I can’t think of a single children’s book where they’re the hero. It’s such an intriguing and fun concept. Lord knows I hate asking this question, but I just have to. Where did you get the idea for this book?
SP: Well, you’re a parent, so you know as well as I do that all children are shapeshifters. I look at pictures of my son when he was an adorable four-year-old, and now he’s this six foot tall beardy young gentleman, and I’m like, how did that happen!??? I think all kids know this about themselves, that they are shapeshifters, so I hope they’ll all see themselves in Trouble. I’ve also always wanted to write a book about humans from a sort-of alien perspective, because we are so weird.
Speaking of weird, by a strange and total coincidence, one of my BFFs, MG author Greg van Eekhout, was writing a shapeshifter kid book at the very same time I was. His book is called Weird Kid, and it’ll be out in July. Even though both of our protagonists are shapeshifters, they are very different books.
BB: I have heard of that book! Must be something in the air. Your book, though, is written in the first person from Trouble’s p.o.v. Yet Trouble has memory gaps that make it difficult to recall the past. Did Trouble’s personality come to you right away the minute you started writing or did it form more gradually?
SP: A key line in the book is when Trouble says, “Whatever shape I’m in, whatever gender, I’m always me.” Even with memory gaps, Trouble knows who they are–their essential self–and so I did too, right from page one. I was working on this book during the beginning of the pandemic and the toxic chaos of the last presidential administration. Trouble’s personality was my response to that–I wanted to write a character who, even in the midst of vast, frozen darkness, is curious and happy and loves unconditionally. Trouble was an absolute joy to write.
BB: There’s just a hint of Guardians of the Galaxy to the crew Trouble joins. I’ve always been very attracted to books in which a ragtag team of adventurers band together. It must have been so much fun to come up with the different kinds of aliens and people that populate the ship. Were there any you wanted to include but ultimately couldn’t fit in?
SP: I love ragtag band of adventurers stories, and found family stories, so putting them together was a lot of fun. In this book, Trouble finds a family, but I didn’t really get to see what they’d be like interacting with other kids. As it happens, there’s a sequel, Asking for Trouble, out next year, in which Trouble becomes part of a squad–a bunch of other kids with a mission to complete. Regarding aliens. The aliens in the first book (and, really, humans are among the aliens here) are all relatable. They’re carbon-based, oxygen-breathing bipeds. In the second book there is a galactic creature who is none of those things.
Actually, now that I think about it, Trouble themself isn’t a carbon-based, oxygen-breathing biped either!
BB: Touché. You know, the book would make a rather good play since so much of the action is relegated on board the ship. I could imagine, for example, the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago adapting it. If this book was ever adapted to the stage, what aspect of the story would you particularly like to see live and in person?
SP: Wow, this is an interesting question. I can totally see this book adapted as an animated Miyazaki film (I’m a big fan). The trick in a live version would be showing Trouble’s changes from blob of goo, to adorable puppy, to human boy, to rat, to … [redacted for spoiler]. The shapeshifting would be such a cool stagecraft challenge. I bet you could do the blob of goo with puppeteers–a glowing giant amoeba floating along against a dark background, with Trouble voice-over.
I love that juxtaposition–the ship like a little cozy house in the vastness of space. I think you’re right–it would fit well onto a stage.
BB: One thing that I’ve always appreciated about modern science fiction for kids is that space has become a lot more LGBTQIA+ friendly. Was that something that was important to you as you wrote the book?
SP: As above, Trouble is themself, the same way my queer daughter is herself and the way her partner is themself while transitioning. Yet it didn’t occur to me that Trouble’s identity was important in that way until I was doing a school visit (via Zoom) with a class in Connecticut. We were discussing another one of my books, but at the end of the visit I showed the Trouble in the Stars cover and referred to Trouble as “them,” and one of the kids in the class just lit up, practically glowing, because they were gender fluid, and in meeting Trouble they felt seen and acknowledged. It was a wonderful, unexpected moment.
BB: I love that. Will this book, by any chance, become a series or would you say it’s a standalone?
SP: As above, there’s a sequel, Asking for Trouble, coming out about this time next year. The first book comes to a nice ending point (I do require that the reader cry with happiness if at all possible), but we still don’t really know where Trouble came from or what they really are. Those are big questions that are answered in the sequel.
BB: Excellent! Finally, can you say what you’re working on next?
SP: The copy-edited manuscript of Asking for Trouble dropped into my inbox this morning! I have a pitch and proposal just about ready to go to Kelsey Murphy, my editor at Philomel. And I have an idea for a third Trouble book, which I’d love to write. But we’ll see how it goes.
Many thanks to Sarah for so patiently answering my questions. Thanks too to Lizzie Goodell and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for setting this interview up. Trouble in the Stars is now available in libraries and bookstores everywhere.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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