The idea for Anne Ursu’s latest novel, The Lost Girl (Walden Pond, Feb.), came slowly; it’s a story woven from disparate ideas that she kept in a stash until she knew what to do with them. “We are crows as writers,” she says, “collecting little bits of things from here and there and spinning them into something.”
Ursu’s main characters are twin sisters Iris and Lark Maguire. The summer before fifth grade is ending, and with it, their streak of being assigned to the same classroom at school. “The school believes that you two need to learn to adapt to being on your own,” their mother tells them.
Iris and Lark think this is a terrible idea. They may look identical, but Iris is outspoken while Lark is shy. When a class bully calls Lark a freak, it’s Iris who puts him in his place. Both girls are outraged that no one asked them how they felt about being split up.
“At the time this story was coming together, my son’s school system was dismantling what was a really wonderful autism program, for money reasons,” Ursu says. “This was a decision that was going to have a dramatic effect on these kids’ lives, and they didn’t even know about it—never mind being asked what they thought. It struck me how awful it is when kids have to suffer the consequences of all these adult decisions.”
Lark and Iris’s parents would disagree. They are so sold on the idea of separating the twins that they even pick different afterschool activities for them. Lark goes to art class; Iris is signed up for Camp Awesome, a girls-only program at the library where, for the first time ever, she has friends and experiences Lark doesn’t share, including an encounter with the owner of a shop she passes on her way home that sports an odd message on its sidewalk sign.
“I was driving by an antique shop and saw a sign that asked, ‘Alice, where are you?’ so I wrote that down,” Ursu says. “I knew it belonged somewhere.”
Though Iris initially resists Camp Awesome, there she and her fellow campers learn that, because they are girls, some people make assumptions about how they should behave and what they are capable of doing. “There are people in this world who will tell you you need to dim your flame, that it’s better to be nice all the time,” the camp counselor says. “But you don’t have to listen to them.”
The idea of gender discrimination and female empowerment—beginning in elementary school—is important to Ursu, who has seen firsthand how “girls are devalued as readers.” Her last two novels, Breadcrumbs (2011)—which featured a female protagonist—and The Real Boy (2013), had main characters with very similar personalities. “But in reviews, only the girl was called unlikable, again and again,” Ursu recalls. A librarian who had invited her to speak to students right after Breadcrumbs was published had to rescind the invitation. “She very sheepishly called me back and said she’d been overruled because the school’s administrators wanted a book that would appeal to boys.”
Magic and fairy tale motifs inform all of Ursu’s recent novels. Breadcrumbs is a retelling of “The Snow Queen”; The Real Boy contains allusions to Pinocchio. In The Lost Girl, Iris dreams about the Pied Piper. But perhaps the book’s most magical element is the point of view from which the story is told: the narrator is a big black crow.
Ursu grew up in Minneapolis and left for Brown University in Providence, R.I., where she earned a degree in creative writing with a playwriting focus. “I went there wanting to be an actor but found I couldn’t really act, which was an impediment,” she says. She did some directing but found herself drawn to storytelling. “I realized what fascinated me was all the different ways a story could be told,” she notes. She might have become a playwright if not for a “truly terrible workshop experience.” She never wrote another play, but she held on to the techniques, such as breaking the fourth wall, and the use of unconventional narrators or perspectives.
After graduating, Ursu wrote theater reviews for an alternative weekly while working in the children’s department of a Barnes & Noble in Minneapolis, where one of her official acts was to stock all of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books, a favorite childhood series. Actually, when asked to name her favorite children’s books, Ursu responds, “All of them.” She and Newbery Medalist Kelly Barnhill, also a native Minnesotan, patronized the same public library but didn’t know each other back when Ursu was inhaling the novels of Judy Blume, Betsy Byars, Paula Danziger, and Lois Duncan.
Even Ursu’s childhood acting career centered on children’s literature: “I played Charles Wallace in a production of A Wrinkle in Time that toured, so maybe 70 productions,” she says. “And I was also in a stage production of The Phantom Tollbooth, so I can still recite the entire opening, which is a really lame party trick.”
Ursu turned to writing novels, the first of which, Spilling Clarence (2002), was about a drug wafting through the air of a small Minnesota town, intoxicating its residents in surreal ways. The second, The Disapparation of James, involved a boy who disappeared—forever—during a magic act. Both were published for adults.
The switch to writing for children came as an epiphany. She was behind a table at a conference, her adult novels on display, when a passerby asked her what they were about. When Ursu explained that both used magic to explore serious issues, the woman dismissed her. “I like books like Atonement,” she said.
“I realized that what I liked was magic,” Ursu recalls. She was a grown-up who proudly admitted her love of Harry Potter. “Magic allows us to live in the land of metaphor. There are so many more stories you can tell if you use magic.”
Inspired in part by Potter, Ursu decided to write a middle grade fantasy series: the Cronus Chronicles, a trilogy about the adventures of two cousins in a modern world populated by characters from Greek mythology. “Once I had written a book for kids, I knew I was in the right place,” Ursu says. “Kids as readers are so open and loving, and you have so much more room to take risks.”
Now, in addition to novel writing, Ursu teaches at the Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University in St. Paul. “It’s extraordinary to be able to help people hone their craft, and it’s also taught me an enormous amount about the way a story works,” she says. The biggest perk, she notes, is being part of a faculty whose members constitute a family of writers. “It’s like I have a whole community of Camp Awesomes. Writing is so lonely, but having these peers who are your kind of dorks, that matters so much.”
That support was perhaps never more important to Ursu than last year, when she dove headfirst into #MeToo activism. Ursu doesn’t shrink from offering her opinion. Once, years ago, after she tweeted some sarcastic comments about Jonathan Franzen, a Toronto Star reporter described Ursu as “an obscure writer with three cats and a murderous rage.” Ursu made this phrase her Twitter bio. “I should mention that she did not do her research well—I had four cats at the time,” she adds.
When #MeToo allegations hit home—as Minnesota favorite sons Al Franken and Garrison Keillor both faced accusations of sexual harassment—Ursu felt the need to weigh in, especially after the conversation widened to include stories about people she knew personally and professionally. “I started to hear whispers of things from other writers about people in our industry who had been harassed or who had reputations as harassers,” she says. “I thought, ‘Someone should do something about this.’ About a month later, we were still just talking and I realized, ‘Oh, it’s me. I am the one who is going to have to do something about this.’ ”
Ursu created a survey and offered anonymity to respondents. “If people were going to be mad, I wanted them to be mad at me and not at the brave people who were willing to tell their stories,” she says.
And Ursu asked them not to name their abusers. “Once names are involved, people start defending the harassers and accusing the harassed,” she says. “It stops the conversation before it starts, and I was trying very hard to focus on the systemic problems and not particular individuals.”
After analyzing the more than 100 responses she received, Ursu wrote a lengthy report, which she posted on the blogging platform Medium. She did not allow comments, but her findings generated a lot of social media chatter. Several writers’ conferences—where a lot of the reported bad behavior had occurred—rewrote or added sexual harassment policies and made changes to how harassment is reported and handled, most notably the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Lin Oliver, the SCBWI’s executive director, says, “Although the SCBWI always did have a policy in place, after Anne’s article and the commentary it evoked, we did revamp our antiharassment policy, making it much more complete, specific, and comprehensive. We also set up a reporting system via an email for harassment complaints and specified consequences.”
Small steps in the right direction, Ursu says. “Obviously there’s still a ton of work to do.” But did her even modest success as an activist inform her writing? There’s a scene of girl power at the end of The Lost Girl that suggests it might have.
“I knew people might draw that conclusion, but I started writing The Lost Girl in 2015, and I found in my notes little bits about whisper networks that girls use to protect each other,” Ursu says. That said, one element she included in the book’s plot continues to gnaw at her—that sign outside the Minneapolis antique shop. “I still want to go in there and ask if Alice ever turned up,” she says. “I’m quite concerned about her.”