Book Raves, Books That Inspire, Writing Tips

Books That Inspire: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Strange in the best possible way. Full of intimate, gorgeous details. An imaginative tour de force.

kim ventrella on cuckoo song

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge makes me strive to be a better writer. It pushes the boundaries of imagination in ways that feel like a challenge: Why didn’t I allow myself as a creator to go one step further? Why was I afraid to be a bit wilder, to push the boundaries of possibility a few more inches?

As a writer, I often find myself constructing these invisible limitations. I might say, “Oh, what a wonderful concept, but who would believe it?” By which I really mean, “Am I as an author capable of making readers believe in something so beautiful and absurd?”

The answer to these questions is a resounding YES! For me, and all the creators reading this, but sometimes it takes a book like Cuckoo Song to kindle and encourage my deep creativity.

Following a mysterious accident that leaves her sopping wet, Triss awakens to a world that’s eerily off-kilter. Her memories are muddled, her sister despises her, and when she brushes her hair, out come crumbled fragments of leaves. Is she going mad? Or did her accident trigger a nightmarish chain of events? In her quest to learn the truth, Triss ventures from the shelter of her parents’ protective wings into the city’s underbelly. There she encounters strange creatures whose grand schemes could forever alter the fates of her family. From master storyteller Frances Hardinge comes the unnerving tale of one girl’s struggle to confront her darkest fears in order to triumph over a world where nothing is as it seems.

Publisher’s description of Cuckoo Song

Every story combines certain percentages of the familiar and the strange. As authors, we strive to include enough familiar elements to draw readers in and put them at ease, while still adding a twist. There’s a reason certain plot elements, visual cues or character traits have become tropes. They work. Readers connect with them. But certain stories have been told so many times, it’s difficult to find a new spin.

Cuckoo Song tackles two such classic tropes, the creepy doll story and the changeling story, but manages to upend expectations in the most delicious way. Hardinge strikes a delicate balance, crafting an off-center world through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know what to believe, or what memories she can trust. With so much mystery and abstraction, it would be easy to leave readers behind, but Hardinge grounds us in intimate detail and gorgeous figurative language.

Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball, and stuffed her skull with it.

CUCKOO SONG by frances hardinge

She tasks herself with finding empathy and reason behind every so-called monster, and this story features a lot of them. Every character, from the clearly ominous Behinders to Triss herself, presents as some form of monster, but Hardinge takes time and care to tease out hidden layers of humanity.

This story represents imagination at its most agile. As a reader and writer, I can feel the edges of my mind expanding as new dimensions of this fantasy world unfold in scrumptiously odd detail.

A Moment of Inspiration

As an author, this novel inspires me to:

  • Trust myself to bring my odd, twisted visions to life. Yes, I have often been told my stories are too dark or too strange by editors or my agent, but when did I become the one building those walls?
  • Believe there is a place for beautifully odd stories that push the boundaries of imagination and empathy, AND that I am capable of writing them (and so are you!).

More About This Blog Series

Lately, I’ve been yearning for ways to hold onto the stories I love. My memory has grown so fleeting. I can adore a story one day, and completely forget about it the next. This series, Books That Inspire, is an attempt to memorialize my favorites in some kind of tangible form. Mainly, I want to highlight how these stories inspire me as an author, to make each post less a summary and more a personal call to action.

To close, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Cuckoo Song:

“Trista’s eyes stung with dust, and joy, and the cobweb tears that she was beginning to accept. Her lungs and mind were full of life – life as it was, not as anyone said it should be.
This second is mine, and this, and this, and this….”


About the Author

KIM VENTRELLA is the author of THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM (Fall 2020, HarperCollins), HELLO, FUTURE ME (Aug. 2020, Scholastic), BONE HOLLOW and SKELETON TREE. Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Kim has held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff person at a women’s shelter, but her favorite job title is author. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Find out more at or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

*A portion of purchases made through affiliate links goes to support indie bookstores everywhere and yours truly!

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