Every Bird a Prince: An Interview with Jenn Reese
In July of 2020 we were in the earliest days of the pandemic. And as things stagnated a great number of amazing children’s authors debuted middle grade novels. Too many ended up forgotten in some way, but some were able to gain their followings. It was my very great pleasure to review Jenn Reese’s eclectic and enticing A Game of Fox & Squirrels on July 23rd of that year. At the time, I said of the book that, “There are foxes in waistcoats and squirrels that betray or befriend depending on the circumstances. What happens, though, is that after you finish reading this novel, somehow it has ended up feeling even more real than those straight up realistic books. With Jenn Reese’s great narrative risks come even greater rewards.” That streak now continues with her latest book Every Bird a Prince. Again, a female hero enters a wood and strange things happen, but the plot is very different. Or, as the publisher describes it:
“A girl’s quest to save a forest kingdom is intertwined with her exploration of identity in Every Bird a Prince, a gorgeous middle-grade contemporary fantasy by Jenn Reese, the award-winning author of A Game of Fox & Squirrels, perfect for fans of Josephine Cameron and Barbara O’Connor.
The only time Eren Evers feels like herself is when she’s on her bike, racing through the deep woods. While so much of her life at home and at school is flying out of control, the muddy trails and the sting of wind in her face are familiar comforts.
Until she rescues a strange, magical bird, who reveals a shocking secret: their forest kingdom is under attack by an ancient foe—the vile Frostfangs—and the birds need Eren’s help to survive.
Seventh grade is hard enough without adding “bird champion” to her list of after-school activities. Lately, Eren’s friends seem obsessed with their crushes and the upcoming dance, while Eren can’t figure out what a crush should even feel like. Still, if she doesn’t play along, they may leave her behind…or just leave her all together. Then the birds enlist one of Eren’s classmates, forcing her separate lives to collide.
When her own mother starts behaving oddly, Eren realizes that the Frostfangs—with their insidious whispers—are now hunting outside the woods. In order to save her mom, defend an entire kingdom, and keep the friendships she holds dearest, Eren will need to do something utterly terrifying: be brave enough to embrace her innermost truths, no matter the cost.
Are you not amused?
I took some time to sit down with Jenn to discuss the book:
Betsy Bird: Jenn! What a delight to speak with you. I, like many others, was a huge fan of your previous middle grade novel A GAME OF FOX & SQUIRRELS and had hoped we’d see more of your books for kids. I don’t know that I ever had a chance to ask you with your first book, so I’ll do so now, but since you’ve been writing for adults in the past, why the switch to writing for kids? What’s the allure?
Jenn Reese: I usually say that I write “speculative fiction for readers of all ages,” because science fiction and fantasy are the throughline of my career, not stories for any particular age group. I can’t imagine a time when I won’t want dragons or spaceships or magical forest creatures in my writing, but I hope to continue bouncing around age groups forever. Even as I was writing A Game of Fox & Squirrels and Every Bird a Prince, I continued to publish short stories for teens and adults.
As for the allure of writing for kids? Please picture a glint of excitement in my eye as I answer this.
Kids usually don’t have as much experience with the great oeuvre of science fiction and fantasy, so there’s a chance that your griffin or generation starship or creepy nanotechnology might be the first one they encounter. Your book might be the first time they have their mind blown by a Groundhog Day-like time loop, or alien species that doesn’t communicate in any of the ways that we do, or even the idea that actual magic is lurking in the cracks of the very mundane sidewalk they traverse to the bus stop. As a writer, you have the incredible honor and privilege of introducing them to new creatures and worlds and ideas.
I remember the books I read at that age as if I’d read them yesterday; they are chiseled into the foundation of my being. On my author bucket list is to someday have one of my books be part of that foundation for another person.
BB: A goal that, if I had my guess, you’ve already accomplished. Now in FOX & SQUIRRELS the fantastical elements were almost along the lines of magical realism. A girl comes in contact with magical forces. This book also has a girl who comes in contact with magical animals as well. Where did the idea for EVERY BIRD A PRINCE originate?
JR: When I first pitched the idea for Every Bird a Prince to my then-editor, I wasn’t sure in which part of the United States I would set it. My editor suggested it might also take place in Oregon, like A Game of Fox & Squirrels, and I loved that idea. I see them as stories that can exist in the same world—a slightly askew version of Oregon where this sort of fairytale/nature magic sometimes seeps from its deep forests.
And birds are just incredible, right? I didn’t interact with them much in Los Angeles, where they sensibly stayed away from my noisy city block. When I moved to Oregon, I became entranced anew. Birds have always symbolized freedom to me — and to most people, probably, especially those of us who grew up feeling trapped. In many ways, Every Bird a Prince is about being trapped in other people’s ideas of you, in their expectations and biases and wants. It made sense to me that the birds were uniquely positioned to help Eren find her own truth, and thereby win her freedom from these forces.
BB: One might say that woods and forests stand in as characters in their own right in your books. Were you a kid that liked nature in particular or is that just something that comes through your pen now?
JR: I grew up on the East Coast in that era when kids could disappear into the woods for hours without raising any alarms. I built forts and swung from trees and followed creeks as far as I could go. An autumn forest with a stream running through it can shake me to my core with its beauty.
Many years ago, I visited Oregon with some friends and we found a forest that matched that description. My friends hiked down the path and I sat on the bank of the stream staring at the water for an hour. It was so perfect, so magical, that I decided I had to move to the Pacific Northwest so I could experience it more than once a decade.
Part of the appeal of forests, for me, is that as soon as you enter them and go a few feet, the outside world disappears. They are liminal spaces where anything can happen. You can go in one person, and come out another.
BB: Pardon me while I steal that sentiment. I understand exactly what you mean. And what would you say are your own literary influences? Who did you read as a kid? Who are you reading now (on the adultside or kidside).
JR: As a kid, I ended up in a special reading program where I could leave class, go to the library, and read any book I wanted—as long as it had a Newbery Award sticker on it. (I got into that program by being so slow at reading that I needed extra help—a silver lining if ever there was one!) This is how I found The Westing Game and A Wrinkle in Time and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley sent me to The Blue Sword, and then headlong into the world of sword and sorcery. I started buying paperbacks by the bagful at the flea market and working my way through science fiction novels and massive fantasy series. I was not a discerning reader; I loved everything. (Another reason I love kid readers now, as a writer!)
Nowadays, I have a book going in almost every room of the house, in almost every format. I’m reading Nicola Griffith’s Spear in print and P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn in ebook, the latter of which just won a Nebula Award. I finished the graphic novel Squire by Nadia Shammas and Sara Alfageeh last night, and am starting Katie the Catsitter Book 2, by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue next.
I spent the first year or two of the pandemic not being able to read much, but the dam is finally starting to break. I feel as if I’m getting a part of my soul back. (If you’re in the same place, hold fast! There is hope.)
BB: Heads up. Hard hitting question. Only real answers. Favorite bird. Go.
JR: My favorite bird right now—because there’s no way I’m answering that for all time!—is the Steller’s jay. It’s a loud, opinionated bird with an outrageous crest of feathers shooting up in a single spike on its head. I came home one day and found twelve of these birds in a circle on my front lawn. I’m still wondering what they were summoning, and when it will come to destroy my house.
BB: There is truth to what you say. Finally, what are you working on next? Can you say?
JR: Another slightly magical Oregon book! A Game of Fox & Squirrels took place in summer, and Every Bird a Prince takes place in the fall. I decided to continue “stepping through the seasons,” so this new story—still in need of a title—takes place in a very odd house in the middle of a snowstorm. If things go well, it will involve riddles and secret passages and reflections on happiness and how much of ourselves we owe to other people.
Thank you so much for these great questions!
BB: Thank YOU for answering them!
Every Bird a Prince is out on shelves everywhere right now, so you’ve really no excuse not to run out and grab yourself a copy or two. Or three. A great deal of thanks to Tatiana Merced-Zarou and the folks at Macmillan for arranging this interview. And thanks to Jenn for answering my questions!
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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