Darcie Little Badger wrote her first book—a 40-page mystery—when she was in first grade, and even submitted it to a publisher, with help from her father, then a graduate student of English literature. Undeterred by the publisher’s rejection, she kept writing, producing a 400-page fantasy at the age of 12. She never doubted that she was a writer, so when she was rejected (twice) by Princeton University’s creative writing program, she decided to pursue a newly discovered interest in oceanography instead, ultimately earning a PhD in the subject. “I thought, okay, I’ll just do the writing on my own, then,” she recalls.
Now in her early 30s, with a much-lauded YA debut under her belt, Little Badger clearly didn’t need the creative writing certificate the Princeton program would have provided. Her supernatural mystery starring an asexual Lipan Apache teenager, Elatsoe (Levine Querido), received five starred reviews, was an Indie YA Bestseller, and was named one of PW’s Best Books of 2020. “I’m deeply appreciative of the response Elatsoe has received,” she says. “The recognition has made this a positive debut experience in an otherwise extremely difficult year.”
An enrolled member of the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas like her heroine Ellie (short for Elatsoe), Little Badger started writing the novel after earning her PhD and before starting a job as a scientific editor. “I began it as a book for adults, but I soon realized that it had to be a teenager’s voice, because one of the things I wanted to write about was the limitations society places on teenagers,” she notes.
The seed of the book, though, was planted years earlier, when Little Badger was a teenager herself and thought of writing about the ghost of a parrot that was haunting a house. “Over the years I kept thinking how cool it would be to write about ghosts of animals. And some years after that, I began thinking I wanted to write about a Lipan Apache teen who seeks justice for her family.” Elatsoe, which is narrated by a teenager determined to find her cousin’s killer, is indeed teeming with ghosts of animals.
Elatsoe was the name of Little Badger’s grandmother, who was a strong influence in the writer’s life. “The Lipan are a matrilocal people,” she explains. “I never knew my great-grandmother, but I knew my grandmother very well. I’ve never known a woman who had gone through so much and was like a rock.”
Like the women in her novel, Little Badger says, “the women in my family are strong and resilient.” Her mother is a scientist who taught high school math and science and was one of the first of the Lipan Apache tribe to earn a degree in biology.
Little Badger was far into the manuscript when her nonfiction and speculative short fiction for adults, which appears in publications like Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, and The Dark, caught the eye of agent Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. In mid-2018, she finished her manuscript and sent it to Curry.
When it arrived on editor Nick Thomas’s desk at Scholastic, he was just about to move with Arthur Levine to Levine’s new company, Levine Querido. “I had to decide whether to go with Nick to LQ or to stay with Scholastic,” Little Badger recalls. “Seeing the work LQ has been publishing, I know I made the right choice.”
Little Badger especially valued Thomas’s appreciation of the story she wanted to tell. “His suggestions sharpened some of the messages I was trying to convey,” she says. “I would look forward to receiving his edits! He’s a cat lover and noticed that with all the animals in Elatsoe, there were no cats. So in my second book I made a cat play a pivotal role, just for him.”
Thomas recently bought that second book, A Snake Falls to Earth, which Little Badger describes as “very speculative fiction, strongly focused on Lipan Apache storytelling traditions.” She adds, “It takes place in two settings: a very near future on Earth and a secondary world of spirits and monsters.” She’s now working on a third book, which she labels “Indigenous futurism.”
Little Badger’s late father was Irish American, and her scientific work is produced under his surname, Ryan. “I was given the Lipan name that translates as ‘Little Badger’ in English in a ceremony when I came of age,” she explains. She identifies as biracial and as “a queer Native woman” and because of her personal identity, she says, “I try to help other LGBTQ+ Native Americans in any way I can, especially if they want to be writers. As someone who was helped by writers herself, I want to pay it forward.”