"And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return." - Paulo Coelho
In the town where I live, October is a month of preparation. When November arrives, we celebrate this season with crushed flowers and papier-mache and painted skulls made of meringue powder and sugar. We design arches and ofrendas that decorate the placita. We cut flags from candy-colored paper to drape from our doors and windows, over our streets. My husband and I eat mini-Snickers and sour gummies and cookies spicy with ginger and piloncillo. We invite the dead to come, to step into the light and be remembered. We tell them they are welcome.
I did not grow up with these traditions. I married into them. As a child, I attended a school where the word Halloween was toxic and dangerous. Instead, they hosted harvest parties and fall festivals advertised with flyers that said, "No scary or violent costumes." They said, "Bible characters recommended," as if Biblical heroes were never scary or violent, as if Samson or King David didn't kill more people than Jason or Freddy ever could. They said, "No ghosts or ghouls," as if to acknowledge that the dead might be anything but dead was to relinquish some kind of control and safety, to allow fear free reign of the house. Maybe the intentions were good — to foster a kind of peace and comfort by holding fear at a distance, by postponing difficult conversations about death and loss and things unknown. But, the line between help and harm is not necessarily clear or uncomplicated, and what actually happened is that other monsters were created — monsters of shame and doubt and judgment that would live to be fought again and again, far longer than any ghost.
Here's something I've found to be true since then: Fear that is pushed away and bound up and ignored only grows larger and more agile. It leaks out of its bonds in nightmares and anxiety. It grows new heads and take new shapes. Maybe that's why I found something healing about my life in this town with my husband and our community, where the ones we have lost are celebrated and loved and remembered. Where we don't hold fear or grief at a distance, but look them in the eye and say, "welcome." Where we acknowledge the things that haunt us and the ways we give them power. We practice these things and find something true in this season and all that is swirled up inside it — loss, mourning, celebration, disguise, remembrance, and the things we've had to lay down and watch float across the river. About all the ways they can return.
I think that's what each of these books has in common — they aren't afraid of fear. They aren't afraid to hold things that are painful and vulnerable and precious in their hands to be seen and handled with care. They aren't afraid to acknowledge that there are things to battle, that there are monsters, both real and imagined, but we are equipped for the fight. And most importantly, we don't have to fight alone.
Anna Dressed in Blood
"I’ve seen most of what there is to be afraid of in this world, and to tell you the truth, the worst of them are the ones that make you afraid in the light. The things that your eyes see plainly and can’t forget are worse than huddled black figures left to the imagination. Imagination has a poor memory; it slinks away and goes blurry. Eyes remember for much longer."
There are a lot of YA ghost stories out there, but this one is my favorite. Kendare Blake's writing is smooth, graceful and accessible even when it's navigating richly textured ground. I love the way this story has something to say about fear and friendship, about the complexity of vengeance, and about the way people can be both adversaries and allies at the same time.
When the Moon Was Ours
“To the boys who get called girls,
the girls who get called boys,
and those who live outside these words.
To those called names,
and those searching for names of their own.
To those who live on the edges,
and in the spaces in between.
I wish for you every light in the sky.”
When I went into my copy of When the Moon was Ours to find a favorite quote for this post, I paged through and realized I could pull almost any sentence from any page and it would stand easily, fiercely, poetically on its own. When the Moon Was Ours re-imagines the legend of La Llorona, and as per usual with Anna-Marie McLemore, it tells a story that is intimate, intricate and gorgeous, but more than that, it’s a story told with compassion and grace – two things that I value highly in the books I read, and try to cultivate in the stories I write. What I'm saying is, this book is goals. All the goals.
"For a long time, I wanted nothing more than to be ordinary. As we run through the changing paths of this maze, I realize I was never ordinary to begin with. We are built a certain way, and the only thing I regret is that it took me so long to see that.”
Zoraida Cordova's writing is sensory and lovely, and she constructs her story with both boldness and precision, but my favorite thing about it is this: In the books I read when I was younger, the heroes that were broken and beaten down only to rise from ashes were hardly ever girls. Saviors were almost always boys. I used to wish for a book like this. A book with a quest full of danger and obstacles, where mistakes are made and overcome. A book that handled faith and belief as a living, breathing, evolving part of life, not as something ridiculous or disdainful. A book whose hero was a girl.
"But wasn't that what every girl dreamed? That she'd wake and find herself a princess? Or blessed with magical powers and a grand destiny? Maybe there were people who lived those lives. Maybe this girl was one of them. But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren't chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway."
There's a lot to love about this book: Leigh Bardugo's enviable craft, building worlds and characters that feel both fantastic and deeply close, and the way the louder moments of action and the softer, quiet moments feel somehow equally important. But, my favorite thing is how well it draws the inherent paradox of loving — that while love makes us more vulnerable, it also arms us. It gives us more to fear, but also makes us fearless.