To say that Melissa Albert knows her way around the myriad varieties of YA literature is to understate things by quite a bit. As founding editor of the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog (and managing editor of BN.com), Albert spends her days reading and reviewing books for teens.
So when Albert decided to write her own novel, she chose a slice of the YA pie so narrow she had to create her own label for it: fairy tale noir. The result, The Hazel Wood (Flatiron), is the dark story of a girl not trying to outrun her mysterious past but instead running toward it, desperate to understand why she and her mother, Ella, have always operated like fugitives, constantly moving from one temporary residence to another. It has received a remarkable seven starred reviews.
“It’s funny that it’s kind of hard to remember exactly where the idea for the story came from,” says Albert, who may be forgiven for any memory lapses as the working mother of a baby now just nine months old. “But what I am sure about was that I wanted to write something dark, something sort of inspired by Raymond Chandler, to employ that hardboiled voice to tell a fairy tale.”
The Hazel Wood of the title is an estate owned by Althea Proserpine, a reclusive author with an obsessive following, and the setting for her only novel, Tales from the Hinterland, a collection of sinister fairy tales. It’s a place Albert’s main character, 17-year-old Alice, the granddaughter of Althea, has heard about all her life but never visited. When Althea dies, Alice wonders if Ella will perhaps inherit the estate. Instead, her mother goes missing. Alice knows intuitively that she has been taken to the Hazel Wood.
Albert wanted to create a “writer’s book,” and one of the novel’s treats is a text suffused with references to classic children’s literature such as Peter Pan and, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a fantasy novel with the bonus feature of incorporating a reading list of other classic fantasy novels.
“I do wear my allusions on my sleeve,” Albert said. “The Magicians [by Lev Grossman] is a big one; Narnia is another.” She credits her parents with nurturing her reading—and writing—habit.
“I used to dictate stories to my mom when I was four,” Albert remembers. “They took me to the library, bought me anything I wanted from Scholastic’s book fair. I was baked in books.” She calls her father the “Hazel Wood Street Team.”
Albert is hard at work on book two, set in the same universe, which doesn’t have a title but has a 2019 pub date. After that, she plans to write the book at the center of both novels: Proserpine’s Tales from the Hinterland. Film rights to The Hazel Wood were optioned by Sony with Ashleigh Powell signed on to write the screenplay. “She also wrote The Nutcracker in the Four Realms, which was her first screenplay to be produced,” Albert says. “Hopefully, The Hazel Wood will be her second. It’s fun to dream.”
She doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about that, of course, because time is precious with a book due, a full-time job, and a baby, whose day care charges by the minute if a parent is late to pick up his or her baby. “Because of my son, I know what I’m doing every hour of the day,” Albert says. “I know when during the week I’m going to be writing, and if I have to miss that time, I’m miserable. Everything is so regimented right now that I don’t have time to go down rabbit holes of Googling myself.”
Albert did make time right after her book was published in January for a brief tour (with baby in tow), appearing at Winter Institute and making stops in New York (she lives in Brooklyn), Illinois (she’s from Chicago), San Francisco, Los Angeles, and at the North Texas Teen Book Festival. An introvert, she surprised herself by having a lot of fun.
“I have always avoided public speaking, but it’s been so great to meet readers that it’s changed my perspective,” Albert says. “It’s actually really energizing to be reminded that there are so many people who come out to celebrate books. As a book blogger, reading is my life, but meeting so many kindred spirits made me feel like I had plugged into something really positive.”