Last month, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers editor Jess Harold won a seven-house auction for YA author Jamison Shea’s debut novel I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast Is Me plus a follow-up title, I Am the Dark That Answers When You Call. Described as “suspenseful and speculative like Ninth House and Legendborn, but equal parts scintillating and spine-tingling in the vein of Black Swan and White Smoke,” the first book, set within the world of Parisian ballet, is slated for publication in fall 2023. Jennifer March Soloway at Andrea Brown Literary Agency did the deal for world English rights.
The story centers on Laure, an American-born ballerina with a French father. She’s in Paris, striving to make it into the exclusive Paris Ballet company. Shea said although they’ve never danced ballet, their experience as a classically trained flutist informed the character. “When I was her age,” they said, “I pulled the stitches from my oral surgery so I wouldn’t miss a performance. So I understand the impulse of pushing your body past its limits for your art, the rampant racism and classism, the intoxicating applause, and the devastation of realizing that devotion isn’t always enough.” They describe Laure as “a demonic ballerina,” adding, “I love monsters. It made sense to play with their opposite: ballerinas are beautiful, graceful, and with so much self-control.” That contrast made Laure a fun character to write. “She’s unapologetically ambitious, selfish, angry, and willing to sacrifice anything to get what she wants.”
A long-time fan of horror, Shea said they were inspired to write the story based on a desire to explore “what it means to love a world that doesn’t love you back.” The contemporary cultural obsession with people who achieve “firsts” such as “first woman in space, first Black president” provoked them to address the questions: “What happened to the others who tried? Why did it take so long for one to succeed?” They wondered if those who didn’t succeed were really not good enough or were actually held back or driven out. “When you have an institution—be it an arts organization or a government—that’s disproportionately white, this exclusivity is by design,” they said, adding that I Feed Her to the Beast examines the individual toll exacted when “dedicating yourself—mind and body—to a space built on your exclusion. Is that validation really worth it?”
Harold said the book’s thrilling suspense left her breathless from first read. She also identified with the character’s experience. “I’m bilingual and spent some time in Paris. I’m also a classically trained pianist, so I know the experience of being the only Black person in an elitist space.” Laure’s character kept her riveted. “I love seeing the unraveling of a mind or body that has been oppressed for so long, to rebel against the confines of society to be who they need to be in order to survive outside of those rules.”
The story upends familiar tropes, Harold continued. “Our main character never tries to present herself as a morally good person, and despite skill and ability, she knows she lacks the legacy privilege and decides to level the playing field at a high price and uses the powers with destruction and retribution on her mind. It’s particularly exciting for a queer Black girl to lean all the way into her villain era.” Addressing the experience of being “Black, queer, and ‘other’ in a European country,” she added, the story offers sharp social commentary.
Harold expects the book to resonate with a wide variety of readers. “There are so many people who lived or are living the life of an outcast, struggling to find a community where they belong and feel safe,” she said. “I hope readers enjoy the descent into chaos and madness just as much as they are enthralled by heart-stopping moments of a young woman ready to destroy herself just to satisfy people who have never once thought she belonged.” Ultimately, she wants “queer Black kids [to] use this book and others like it as a reminder that they never need to settle for scraps or reduce themselves to fit into the narrow definitions the world forces upon them.”
One of Shea’s goals for the book is for readers to take away an important truth from the story. “Sometimes the price of belonging is too high, and it’s okay if you’re tired of fighting,” they said. “There’s also strength in walking away to save what’s left of yourself and go where you’re wanted. It took some time for me to get that.”