They say you should always know your audience, but in author Nicole Kornher-Stace’s case, she took this saying literally. Follow along in her Big Idea as she tells you about who she wrote Jillian VS Parasite Planet for, and why.
Since approximately five minutes after I started publishing, my mom has been telling me I should write a kids’ book. For a while I was…skeptical. Many of the kind things people have said about my work involve it being dark but ultimately hopeful but before that just. so dark. And many of my rejections have been for being “too dark.” None of which really felt super compatible with, y’know, a children’s book.
It’s not that I thought it was a bad idea, it just felt like an idea that was beyond my skillset or ability to even really conceptualize. So on the back burner it sat for a long time, along with a whole bunch of other stuff I’d talked myself out of writing for various reasons. (Thanks, impostor syndrome. You’re the best.)
And then I had a baby. And then my baby grew up into a kid. And just like that I had an audience to write a kids’ book for. And everything kind of came together from there.
Up until recently my kid was always a reluctant reader—which, as a person who’d spent her childhood holed up in her room with her nose in a book unless compelled to be otherwise, was honestly a really jarring thing to adapt to. He loved books and being read to, but reading was always a chore for him. So I took this as a challenge. I wanted to write a book that might appeal to reluctant-reader kids like mine—but to my kid above all.
My son’s favorite book at the time was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, which thrilled me because as a kid I was all over the survival story books and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking how I’d prepare for my own Survival Adventure. I used to sit for hours and go through outdoor adventure catalogs that randomly appeared in our mail and pick one item per page that I would be “allowed” to have with me when my plane crashed or my ship ran aground or I got irreparably lost in the woods and had to live off the land. Hours.
(I was a weird kid. Surprise.)
He was also at the time going through a phase I remember fondly from when I was around that age. Namely, deliberately and meticulously scaring the living crap out of himself. I’d already bought him the Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark treasury when he was still practically in the womb, and it sat on a high shelf for about ten years before he was ready for it. But when he was ready he was ready.
So my kids’ book had to be a survival story, and also be a little creepy. Already at the top of my mental stuff I want to write about someday list were: portal-based space travel, mind-control parasites, and a character who’s an intelligent shapeshifting nanobot cloud.
I had a ton of fun doing a research deep dive into real-world parasites and how they manipulate their hosts into doing their bidding. (If this topic interests you even a little, do yourself the absolute favor of getting your hands on a copy of Plight of the Living Dead by Matt Simon. Please.) And a ton of fun coming up with the name for my AI character, the Semi-Autonomous Bio-Reconnoitering Intelligent Nanobot Array (SABRINA).
Suddenly it was starting to look an awful lot like a story.
But first I needed a protagonist.
I was writing the book for my son, but at the same time I knew that if I was going to write a science-heavy hard(ish) SF adventure book for kids, I wanted the protagonist to be…not a boy. We’ve already got a ton of those. So I asked my son how he felt about the main character of his book—who he knew was based on him—to be a girl.
And he was like sure, why would I have a problem with that? Not to brag, but he’s basically the best.
He’s also a kid with a generalized anxiety disorder that took ages to diagnose because his teachers kept telling me things like nooo, can’t be anxiety, he’s so extroverted and outgoing! But then I took him in to see a developmental pediatrician who spent an hour with him and said, basically, yeah no this kid has an anxiety disorder.
Which got me thinking about how anxiety gets depicted in fiction, and how the often-inaccurate shorthand of “anxiety=shyness” that we’ve all internalized might get in the way of other kids’ actual real-life diagnoses. Because my kid? Is not shy. He’s the biggest people person in my household. But he’s also got a brain that is waaaay too good at playing the what-if worst-case-scenario game. A brain that wants to know exactly where things are going before they get there. And which will ask the same questions over and over and over and over again. Not because he wasn’t paying attention when you answered the first time. Because he’s checking in. To see if anything has changed since last time he asked.
And from there I started pondering how that what-if way of thinking and that tendency toward careful planning might actually benefit a person in a survival situation. And how I’d never seen anxiety represented in fiction in a way that was accurate to my experience, or my kid’s. And that I suddenly really wanted for that to be a thing that exists, not just for my kid but for other kids like him.
So my reaction was what it always is when I want to read a thing and can’t find it. I went ahead and wrote it myself.
I guess in the end the Big Idea behind this one was: pinpointing your ideal audience, and then writing them the very best book you can. Even if it catapults you—much like the protagonist, surviving by her wits on a hostile planet—straight out of your comfort zone.