By Audrey Coulthurst
We all have our favorite flavors of candy. Maybe for you it’s cherry, sweet as the first days of summer, or perhaps lemon, a spark of citrus on the tongue. For me it’s cinnamon. I’d eat Red Hots or Atomic Fireballs off a filth-encrusted city sidewalk for an embarrassingly small sum of money. Sweet isn’t sweet enough for me unless it burns.
As a reader, I’m on a quest for cinnamon books—the ones that cater to my taste, burn inside me, and leave me thinking of them for days after I finish reading. Those books are important, because they speak both to my fantasies and my experience. They are worlds to which I can escape and also worlds that I understand because they reflect a part of me.
Malinda Lo’s Ash was a cinnamon book for me. Before Ash, I’d indulged my taste for young adult books with queer female protagonists through what stories I could find, which were mostly contemporary issue books. Those books helped me navigate the challenges of being queer in a world that isn’t, especially back in high school when I suffered from a terrible Xena: Warrior Princess haircut and a doomed crush on my best friend.
But as an adult, I craved more. I longed to see GLBTQ heroes in young adult fantasy, my favorite genre. I wanted to read the stories of queer protagonists living in worlds where their sexuality didn’t matter, or where the central conflict of their stories wasn’t dictated by the homophobia of the society in which they lived. Ash began to answer the question that haunted me every time I entered a bookstore—where was the book that would indulge me with the literary convergence of everything I loved?
The fact was that it didn’t exist.
Still, finding Ash on the shelves was a revelation, and a huge step toward understanding the anatomy of my ultimate cinnamon book. Ash taught me that a book in which the protagonist’s sexuality wasn’t an issue could exist. After years of reading countless books, it was literally the first time I’d experienced a fictional world like that. Kaisa and Ash shared the kind of love I wish I’d known as a teenager. It would have been so different to fall in love with my high school best friend in a world where gender didn’t matter.
So I picked up Ash and devoured it in a single sitting, aching for more at the end. But it wasn’t only the familiar ache of wanting to spend more time with a certain set of characters or in an author’s world. This ache was different, and honestly kind of a jerk. It said, “Hey clunge-biscuit, you’ve been writing crappy first drafts of novels for five years. Stop waiting for the ultimate cinnamon book and write it yourself. No one else is going to write it for you.”
But it was harder than just sitting down to write. While it was true that I’d been writing books for a while, I also had a habit of doing everything short of lighting my manuscripts on fire and pitching them off a bridge as soon as they were finished. My commitment to writing fell far short of my commitment to telling myself I wasn’t good enough. After Ash, that changed.
In previous years, I had started every draft by writing about ten pages of pure garbage before figuring out the story. But the novel I began to write after reading Ash didn’t have to figure itself out. From page one, the story poured out through the eyes of two characters that I fell in love with right away. I threw in every reading kink I’d ever hoped to indulge: horses, music, magic, and a princess who falls in love with her fiancé’s sister. Best of all, the book didn’t have to be about demonizing men or my characters being persecuted by a world that criminalizes homosexuality. It’s just the story of a girl who falls madly in love with the wrong person—a person who happens to be female.
The funny thing is that my quest isn’t over as a writer or a reader. I’m getting ready to query my princess manuscript and still looking for cinnamon books every time I step into a bookstore. But the world needs cherry and lemon and orange and even black licorice & spinach soufflé, if that’s your favorite flavor. So if the book you want to read doesn’t exist—get out there and write. It’s up to all of us to create the fictional worlds we want to inhabit, and there’s an audience for every flavor.
Audrey Coulthurst writes YA books that tend to involve magic, horses, and kissing the wrong people. Her debut novel, OF FIRE AND STARS, will be published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. When she’s not dreaming up new stories, she can usually be found painting, singing, or on the back of a horse. Find her on the web at audreycoulthurst.com or on Twitter @audwrites.
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