The Chosen Ones by Laura Ruby
A few weeks before the publication of my latest book and just in time for my birthday, I got a bouquet of my favorite lilies, a spa gift certificate, various cat- and fox-themed T-shirts, an industrial-sized bag of Pirate’s Booty, and breast cancer.
Well. This is already going off the rails.
I’ve been planning to write this essay for quite a while, in anticipation of the release of YORK: The Shadow Cipher. I had all sorts of ideas about what I wanted to discuss. How I came up with my vision of an alternate New York City. The research of historical figures. Puzzles. Giant cats. Robots. But when you get a cancer diagnosis—even when your prognosis is good, as mine is—it’s pretty much all you can think about. It overshadows birthdays and book releases and every other thing until there’s not much you can do but sit in front of the TV stress-eating that ginormous bag of Pirate’s Booty until you can pull the empty bag over your head and hope it all goes away.
It didn’t go away. And suddenly there were and are a lot of things I won’t be able to do for a while. Like signings and school visits and conferences and bookstore appearances, and writing essays not about cancer. I felt—I feel—bad about this. It’s my job to promote this book and I can’t, not the way I want to, not the way I’d choose to. But maybe this essay is about my book after all, because when I first started writing the novel back in 2013, I was pondering all the things people choose, and all the things that choose us.
You see, I’ve always been a sucker for Chosen One narratives. Star Wars. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Harry Potter. The Matrix. Stories about a sad or lonely misfit who suddenly discovers he—and it’s usually a he, usually white—has special abilities or magical gifts that he must learn how to use so that he can vanquish evil. When I was young, I really wanted to vanquish evil. I was desperate to be bitten by a radioactive spider, given an impossible task by a wizard, be the subject of an ancient prophecy, move objects with my mind, talk to ghosts, enter other people’s dreams, discover my true parents were actually witches/spies/aliens/fairies/mutants forced to abandon me to a suburban couple in New Jersey just to keep me safe.
For me, a pathologically nerdy kid, Chosen One narratives were more than wish fulfillment. They helped me to focus on my own strengths, they told me that a single person, a person who all-too-often felt weird and awkward and powerless, could make a difference in the world if she put her mind to it, her heart in it, if she would just try for once.
I still believe one person can make a difference in the world, but I’m not sure that the image of the Lone Hero Standing Against Evil is the only vision of heroism we should ascribe to. (This, of course, is not a revolutionary idea. Non-Western writers have different cultural traditions and different notions of what makes a hero.) The Shadow Cipher was meant to be a story about a set of twins who set out to solve an elaborate puzzle in an alternate New York City in order to save their building from a greedy developer. I’d originally planned to write from one point of view, possibly two, as the twins dashed around a city populated by robots, hybrid animals, and a whole lot of secrets. But, during the writing, the story took an interesting turn. The cast grew and grew, with some characters operating at cross-purposes, but most working together to vanquish evil both grand and banal. Because when you’re trying to save the world, you’re probably going to need some help.
The pathologically nerdy kid that lives inside of me thinks that now is the ideal time for that radioactive spider bite, but while I’m trying to find a way to power myself through, another kind of magic is happening, another kind of narrative unfolds. Family and friends and colleagues have rallied around me, quietly taking things off my plate when I can’t manage to keep them in my schedule or in my head. People have filled my house with ginger tea and groceries, good thoughts and kitty pics. People ask, and keep asking, what I need—rides, company, wigs. They’ve got me thinking about community and how important it is. And how strange, how very baffling, that our culture places so little value on it. That we insist a person has only herself to rely on. That asking for help is weak. That one “chooses” good health—or wealth or any other kind of privilege—and if you don’t have those things, you obviously made the wrong choices and don’t deserve health insurance, you whiny whiner.
I’m lucky enough to have a good support system, but my cancer diagnosis means that I need help—how much help and for how long remains to be seen. But then, I’ve always needed help, I’ve always needed community, who doesn’t? No terrible situation I’ve ever struggled through, nothing good I’ve ever done, was accomplished without the care of family and friends, teachers and mentors, passionate readers and compassionate strangers. This idea that we’re all Lone Rangers all the time, that we should be, is nonsense. So what does it mean when that’s the predominant form of story available for children in our culture, for all of us? Nerdy kids can still make a difference if they put their minds to it and hearts in it, if they just try for once, but isn’t slaying dragons so much easier when you’re doing it with friends?
Children’s authors are often urged not to be too political, to write and talk about our books as if we exist in little bubbles of bliss and rainbows. But our worldviews are part and parcel of the stories we write. Though I didn’t expect The Shadow Cipher—my funny mystery-adventure about kids trying to save their home from wealthy men who give speeches about responsibility as they lie and steal to cement their own power—would feel so personally and politically relevant, here we are. I say “we,” because no matter what myths we choose to tell ourselves, we’re in this together. And we can only save ourselves when we find the courage and the humanity to save one another.
Laura Ruby is the author of books for adults, teens, and children, including Bone Gap, a National Book Award finalist and Michael L. Printz Award winner, among dozens of other accolades. Her other books include the Edgar-nominated mystery Lily’s Ghosts, the Book Sense Pick Good Girls, and the acclaimed novels Play Me and Bad Apple. She is on the faculty of Hamline University’s MFA in writing for children and young adults program and lives in the Chicago area. You can visit her online atwww.lauraruby.com.
Your Nerdy Book Club community has the book promotion part covered! As you say, not the way you’d have chosen to do it, but still, we got this. Sending you strength and comfort and hope.
We’re with you, Laura (and oh how I love your book!!)
Oh wow. Sending all of my good thoughts your way, Laura!
Laura!!!! You have all the good thoughts I can muster and send your way. Please take care. With great affection – j
Laura, I read and greatly enjoyed YORK last week–had no idea about the cancer diagnosis, of course, but now am sending all good wishes your way by magical mechanical moth, by pigeon, by pleasant breezes, by every imaginable means!
You are loved, Laura, and your work is loved and making a difference in the world. I am so proud to know you. I’m reading York now, and loving it. Friends near and far are here for you, holding you in the light.
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Laura, I’d slay a dragon with you – or for you – any time. You’re phenomenal and beloved, and so incredibly talented. Thank you for your stories, and for this story. ❤
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us – I will be thinking of and praying for you……and reading and promoting your book 🙂
Laura, this is such an important idea! Thank you so much for sharing this reminder that commonunity is valuable and that it should have a strong place in novels for kids. You’ve blown my mind in the best way, and I’m so glad a mind and heart like yours writes for kids. Your writing is impacting readers, young and old, in strong, timely ways. THANK YOU.
I’m sending you healing thoughts and deep affection. Be well, dear, one-of-a-kind, so imprtant to this world Laura. ❤
Sending you love and support … when I was diagnosed in 2014 I found comfort in my family, friends and words. I loved this quote “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” and I loved friends who’s faith that I could handle my diagnosis was greater than mine (“You got this” – they would say.) So I am now 3 years cancer free and although breast cancer taught me to embrace every gorgeous moment of my life – it has not defined me and I just want to say to you – “You got this!”
As a YA author who has just gone through a battle with breast cancer (with subsequent double mastectomy), my feelings for what you’re going through range far and wide. Here’s my takeaway: Eat turmeric veggie soups, blueberries by the handfuls, enough to turn your mouth blue, and take rest with mental body check often. The healing will come. Rely on those who love you!
Thanks for a moving post. I adore YORK as do my teens–it resonates with us.
Laura, thank you for this inspiring, courageous post. I’m so glad your breast cancer was caught early. My hair is growing back from treatment for breast cancer and I’m doing well. I know you will have this behind you soon. I’m looking forward to reading YORK.
Hugs and warm thoughts to you, Laura. Thank you for writing books that wrap around/wriggle inside/echo within our minds and hearts.
Laura, sometimes we forget our authors are human. Thank you for sharing your story. The first time I read LILY’S GHOST, I actually had bad dreams! What an awesome book. You take all the time you need, concentrate on getting back to us.
Amen. Community is priceless. Glad to be a part of this one. Sending love!
You are, and forever will be, the Queen of Awesomeness. You are an amazing writer, teacher, and human being. Your community stands with you. Whatever you need, we’re here for you. Xoxoxox
Dear Laura, I raced through York and absolutely loved it! I’m a sucker for middle grade novels about smart kids solving puzzles, and I’m trying to write my second such novel right now! I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. And you are right…we all need our communities to help us through difficult times. And sometimes the most valuable things we do are as part of someone else’s community. I know I don’t actually know you, but after reading your book, I feel like I do. I’m sending you healing wishes for a quick recovery.
Such a lovely, inspiring post. Sending thoughts of courage and peace and healing as you slay the cancer dragon–you’ve got this! My mother had breast cancer 27 years ago and has been cancer-free and well ever since. We’re all rooting for you!
Holding you in my heart, Laura.
You are an important part of my community, Laura. I’m so sorry you’re sick, and I will be sending you good thoughts for healing every day. I love you very much.
Sending all my love and strength.
Love, hugs and signal boosting that book already.
Finished my treatments for breast cancer in September and had an all clear mammogram this April. Not a journey you chose but just keep swimming and one day, it will be over. Now I have another reason to get your book!
Laura, I had the pleasure of chatting with you at ALA Midwinter a few years back when you were promoting BONE GAP (such a stellar book), and I’m so sorry to hear of your diagnosis. Wishing you all the strength and support, and congrats on the new book! I can’t wait to read it and share it with my library’s young readers. We’ll all be sending you loads of positive thoughts!
I also have cancer. Keep up the good fight! Sending positive vibes and adding The Chosen Ones to my reading list 💖
So sorry to hear this but I’m glad you are feeling loved, surrounded by community. Hang in there. I’m sending hugs and prayers your way.
Thank you for sharing your upsetting news, Laura. Having been there–almost 20 years ago– I sympathize, empathize, root you on, and send you well-founded hope for a healthy future. At the time, an acquaintance told me, “A day will come when you don’t think about cancer.” I didn’t believe her. But she was right. It’s a slog until then–a maddeningly distracting, worrisome, and uncomfortable slog–but you will reach other end. Until then, your job is to take care of yourself. Do it the best you can; you owe it to yourself–and to your future readers.
We got you.
Laura, once upon a time and long ago I was in a writing workshop with you. I’m a small little speck on the periphery of your community, but reading this I totally resonated with the idea that we need each other. Oh, we need each other. And while I can’t do much in the way of delivering a meal or running an errand, there are prayers shooting up from Austin, Texas for recovery and rest for you as you battle this most recent dragon/demon. May you be surrounded by everyday heroes along the way.
I just bought York for my 13-year-old son. He read it in three days and pronounced it awesome! FYI, he just finished the Expanse series before reading York, so he’s a hard core sci-fi guy. He said he loved the steam punk sci-fi aspect of it and is ready to read the next one. He and I send our best wishes. Slay that cancer dragon and move on. It sounds like you have a wonderful community that is lifting you up. Hugs and all the best to you.
Thank you for your post and the reminder to accept support and help. I’m looking forward to reading YORK this summer!
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