Book Raves, Books That Inspire, Writing Tips

Books That Inspire: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge


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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….”

— FRANCES HARDINGE

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 https://kimventrella.com/ or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

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

Book News, Writer Interviews, Writing Tips

The Story Behind: Hello, Future Me (Part 2)


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HELLO, FUTURE ME tells the story of eleven-year-old June, a girl who tries to stop her parents’ divorce using her super planning skills, magic and a little help from her future self. Too bad magic has a way of going horribly, and hilariously, awry. June’s rollercoaster of emotions mirrors the turbulent path this story took from first draft to final product. In this edition of “The Story Behind,” I’ll focus on the writing journey that led to the publication of HELLO, FUTURE ME.


Sometimes, life stinks and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we keep going. And, hopefully, the stuff that seemed so terrible at first will start to feel a little less terrible over time..”

— June Day, from HELLO, FUTURE ME

This quote from June can definitely apply to writing. We all know the old saying: 90% of writing is revision. It’s true. We start with a crude sculpture and slowly mold it into something subtle, moving, magnificent. At least that’s the idea. But the revision process isn’t always that straightforward. Sometimes it’s not so much about whittling something crude down to a more refined form. It’s about building sculpture after sculpture until you finally realize the shape you’re trying to achieve, then starting from scratch with a fresh block of clay.

That’s what happened with HELLO, FUTURE ME. I wrote three complete versions of the story, each starting from a blank document, each informed and hopefully improved by the last. When I sat down for the third time, I had such a clear vision of what I wanted to write (the form I wanted the clay to take) that I wrote the draft in seven days. Now, I’m a fast writer, but that’s my fastest ever.

Why so many drafts? Why start from scratch when you could simply shave layers off your first attempt? Why would anyone put themselves through all that heartache?

Answer…they wouldn’t. Unless it just so happened to be their process, which they have learned to love and embrace over time, like me. Basically, I have no choice.

I can only truly understand a story when I experience it in narrative form, through writing it. Yes, I can create a beautiful outline with all the right beats and emotional touch-points. But when I sit down to write, it rarely stays the same. The characters veer off in new, more interesting directions, and I choose to follow them. I follow them because the paths I discover through prose are often more organic and emotionally honest than anything I could come up with in outlining mode. For me, the act of drafting gives me access to the wiser, more creative part of my brain, and so it pays to veer wildly off the path and see where it takes me.

That said, stories need shape and structure. That’s why my first one or two drafts (either partial or complete) often turn into narrative experiments. They allow me to feel the structure out using the most imaginative parts of my brain, but they don’t always lead to working stories. So I take what I’ve learned, all the wondrous discoveries, I open a fresh document and I put those discoveries into a brand new draft with both a clear vision and a working structure.

It makes sense to me. I’m not prescribing this method to anyone by any means. Even for me, every novel is different. Sometimes my wild first draft does end up largely staying the same through to the final version. But sometimes, like with HELLO, it’s a much more interesting and twisting ride.


Finding your voice.

One of the hardest parts of writing is finding your main character’s voice. In this case, it took three drafts before I found the real June Day, with her hopeful, determined, oh-so-totally enthusiastic outlook. In the end, she was the easiest character I’ve ever written, because she sounds exactly like me!

Well, she’s the voice in my head, mixed with some light Buffy-speak, plus about a zillion ounces of sugar and coffee. HELLO, FUTURE ME is also the only book I’ve published in first person, so it was especially important to find a funny, endearing, authentic voice. Wait…did I just call myself funny and endearing…um…technically, yes 🙂

It was especially fun writing three different versions of June: present, past and future. Future June was probably the most fun, because she’s so snarky and full of herself. Sigh. At times, it did feel like there were three versions of me, all chatting via IM, all getting super annoyed with each other.

What can I say? It’s the life of the writer.


If you have questions about the writing process, why not drop me a line in the comments? Or find me on social media and let’s chat!


Author photo

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. Follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

Book News, Writer Interviews, Writing Tips

The Story Behind: Hello, Future Me


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Books serve readers in so many ways: by providing escape, by inspiring imagination and creativity, by offering a framework for processing our own real-life experiences. My parents got divorced when I was two weeks old, or two months old (my mom can’t remember). Growing up with an absent parent, one I knew in name only, made it especially difficult to process what had happened. As far as I was concerned, nothing had happened. I had never known my family to be any different, so what was the big deal? That’s where books come in. They help us process and understand our lives in ways that seem closed off to us. They give us vocabulary and narrative frameworks that we can apply to our own situation.

HELLO, FUTURE ME tells the story of eleven-year-old June, a girl who tries to stop her parents’ divorce using her super planning skills, magic and a little help from her future self. My challenge with this story was to conjure up all the raw honesty I had never processed regarding my own situation, while adding light, humor, fantasy and sparkly magic. Rather than mirroring my own experience, the story became a way for me to explore how a break-up could go, if you infused it with imagination, kindness, empathy and hope. I wanted to be aspirational, while at the same time staying real and facing issues head-on.


Sometimes, life stinks and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we keep going. And, hopefully, the stuff that seemed so terrible at first will start to feel a little less terrible over time..”

— June Day, from HELLO, FUTURE ME

The novel isn’t autobiographical, but it did allow me to explore a side of my past I had previously ignored. Writing, for me, is always a process of self-discovery. I want to uncover and develop my hidden wells of emotion, hurt, love and loss, but with added touches of magic.

Crafting a cast of characters.

One of the most intriguing parts of writing is creating a brand new world full of rich, fully-developed characters. Even the people we only see on the page a few times need to feel real and rounded, and it’s a fun challenge to select just the right details.

Some of my favorite moments in the book involve June’s dad, a rough and tough biker/handyman with ALL the emotions. I loved writing the scenes where he and June are working on Honey Pie, his bike, and having tearful, breathless heart-to-hearts. And the moments where he breaks down, despite trying so hard to keep it together, and June is there for him with patience and a kind word.

June’s best friend, Calvin, was also super fun to write. The novel is written in first person from June’s perspective, but the reader still gets clued in pretty early on to Calvin’s secret crush…on June…his best friend…and his hilariously awkward attempts to reveal all. There’s one scene in particular that I won’t spoil, but let’s just say that Calvin’s attempt at using magic to woo June does NOT go well.

Another favorite side character may be kind of surprising: It’s June herself! Past and Future June, that is. When June’s dad gets her a second-hand laptop for her birthday, she’s thrilled, until she starts getting IM’s claiming to be from her future self. Future June is snarky, rude and so totally annoying! She treats present-day June like a baby and warns her NOT to interfere with her parents’ relationship, no matter what. Things get even more surreal when June meets her past self, giving her the opportunity to reevaluate her nostalgic view of her parents’ love story and ask, Where did things go wrong?

Writing the different versions of June proved to be an especially fun challenge. It allowed me to explore how we change and grow, how the stories we tell ourselves don’t always line up with reality and how, sometimes, making mistakes is the only way to move forward.

Imagining a brand new world.

June lives in the imaginary town of Tanglewood Crossing, somewhere near the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. Tanglewood claims to be the Bigfoot sighting capital of the world, and its quirky downtown features a hodgepodge of colorful shops, many with a Bigfoot theme. You can stop in The Friendly Bean for Merline’s famous scones, where you might see June and Calvin in the back booth plotting yet another elaborate scheme…with glitter…lots of glitter. If you’re feeling adventurous, join a group of tourists on one of the daily Bigfoot tours. The bright yellow bus features a giant foot on top, and you can buy hats or fanny packs to match!

In such an unexpected locale, it’s no real surprise when a new shop pops up, seemingly overnight.


This place looked like a magic shop and a fantasy unicorn tea party had gotten into a fight, and they’d both won.

–June from HELLO, FUTURE ME describing The Shop of Last Resort

Creating Tanglewood Crossing was definitely aspirational. I love exploring new places, especially tiny downtowns with old shops tucked away in dark corners. With Tanglewood, I was inspired by childhood trips to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, my love of colorful buildings and my desire to spend hours upon hours in coffee shops, the more unusual the better.

Don’t miss The Story Behind: Part 2!

In Part 2 of The Story Behind: Hello, Future Me, I’ll talk process. How did the story move from a proposal to the final draft? Hope you can join me!


Author photo

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. Follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.