The Big Idea: Kali Wallace
Current events have had a hand in Kali Wallace’s newest novel Hunters of the Lost City, but as Wallace points out in this Big Idea, some elements of it are taken from facts that are perennial, for better or worse.
You ever have one of those ideas that you really, really wish you didn’t have to think about? Like maybe one day you’re just minding your own business, plugging away at a your next children’s book that’s full of monsters and magic and adventures–you know, fun things–and you look up from your desk and you realize, oh right, oh no, the world outside is still a flaming garbage fire and somehow that has infested everything you write.
I don’t want to get into how this is my pandemic book. Everybody is tired of hearing about pandemic books. I’m tired of it too. It can be a bit wearying to look at a book and think, “Yup, I sure was feeling some kind of way about the world when I wrote that.”
Hunters of the Lost City is, in fact, a fun kids’ book full of monsters and magic and adventure. It really is, I promise. It’s about a brave girl gets into a lot of scrapes and trouble trying to learn more about her home, her family, and herself. There’s magic. Monsters. A bakery. A lost city. Scheming sorcerers. You know. Everything a fantasy book needs!
But amidst all that fun is the big idea that underlies the story, the one that wormed its way in as I was writing and revising, the one that I now recognize is unstoppable bleed-over from the real world. And that is the fact that the stories we tell ourselves and our children about the history of our communities and our societies are very rarely the complete truth.
I always knew this was going to be a book about an isolated community, but what the meant evolved throughout the writing process. My initial idea was more of an aesthetic than an idea: a peaceful walled town in the mountains, bright and idyllic during the daytime, but both surrounded by danger when darkness falls and shadows by its own secrets. The story is told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Octavia, for whom the past events that resulted in the town believing they are alone in the world are distant history. She is concerned about the here and now, not about tragedies that happened decades before she was born.
But part of growing up is learning that everything is connected to what has come before–and that adults often lie through their teeth about what that means. Sometimes they don’t mean to, as they are only repeating what they have been taught. Sometimes they do it on purpose. It’s not always easy to tell the difference.
I love writing middle grade fiction precisely because it’s for and about an age group that is starting out on the frightening, confusing, and wonderful journey of figuring out what it means to be a person in a big, messy world. This means learning that your parents are fallible. Your teachers are not telling you everything. There are people whose lives are nothing like yours. There are people in power who make terrible choices. There are times when people can believe they are doing the right thing and still cause so much harm.
Octavia’s story is both a journey through a magical land and one through the tangled quagmire of her home’s history, one that has been clouded for a long time under the lie of safety and protection. I wish this didn’t end up being such a timely concept. I wish I wasn’t having to say, “Well, this book is in part about how adults fabricate lies about history for their own personal gain,” while school boards and politicians across the US having full-on histrionic freakouts over the idea that schoolchildren might learn uncomfortable truths about the world.
And I wish kids didn’t have to deal with all that adult stupidity, but they do. Because the other thing about being ten, eleven, twelve years old is that kids see and understand so much more than grown-ups give them credit for.