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Find more The Booklist Printz Interview
Angeline Boulley really hit the ground running with her debut novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter, which blends a plot-driven thriller with a dynamic character study of Daunis, a biracial teen living with a foot in two cultures, who’s dealing not only with the acute trauma of losing her best friend to partner violence but the long fingers of generational trauma in her Upper Peninsula Ojibwe community. An undercover FBI investigation into a dangerous strain of meth has Daunis feeling protective of her community, but that also means uncovering some hard truths about what some in her community are hiding.
Boulley’s novel is a potent combination of narrative threads and themes that the Printz committee couldn’t help but honor with this year’s medal, and they’re not the only ones: Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, has received numerous other accolades for her debut, appearing on many best-of-the-year lists (including ours), making Time magazine’s Best-YA-Novels-of-all-Time list, winning the William C. Morris award, and being named an American Indian Youth Literature Honor Book selection. We recently corresponded with Boulley over email to talk about her years-long work on the novel, its inspiration, and what a thrill it has been for her first book to be extraordinarily well received.
Hunter: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’ve been working on this book for a decade; how did it change over the course of writing it?
Boulley: My first draft was purely about plot—a thriller about an undercover drug investigation. With each subsequent draft, the story grew layers and I realized it was actually about identity, grief, and justice … dressed up like a thriller. It always had the same beginning and ending, but everything in between was discovered along the way.
Hunter: Among other things, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a thriller; what do you love about the thriller or mystery genres? And were there any classic conventions of those genres that you decided to discard or refresh into something new?
Boulley: Thrillers and mysteries present a scenario and then proceed to deconstruct what you think you know. I love plot twists and the tiny clues that seem random until threaded together. As a young reader, I considered it a challenge to figure out the mystery before Nancy Drew did. Now, as an author, I reverse engineer the mystery to keep the reader off-balance. My reader might figure out one villain or one clue, but I want to surprise and delight them with at least one twist they never saw coming.
Hunter: A theme I see again and again in the book is the experience of navigating in-between places, in geographical, emotional, community, and developmental senses. How has the idea of navigating in-between spaces informed your life and writing?
Boulley: I’ve always felt like an outsider and been acutely aware of the in-between places. I think about how important it is to feel seen and how stories can do that for us. The world is a chaotic place, always changing, but knowing who you are becomes your passport in navigating these spaces.
Hunter: What makes that theme so rich for YA readers in particular?
Boulley: YA readers are on the precipice of adulthood. They begin thinking about the future in a different way from childhood. This transition means leaving the known world for the unknown. Experiencing this journey through story is a safe way of exploring wants and needs, goals and obstacles, and conflicts and resolutions.
Hunter: The story’s setting is so vivid; what do you hope readers come to understand about Northern Michigan?
Boulley: I hope readers fall in love with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s a spectacularly beautiful area. In many ways, my book is like a love letter to the UP. I want readers to see the sunrise over Sugar Island; to feel awe at the sight of Tahquamenon Falls; to hear the ferry horn, the drum beat, and the swish and clink of tin cones on a jingle dress; and to taste maple syrup poured over hot frybread drenched in salty butter.
Hunter: Daunis—and her community—experiences a lot of trauma in the book, but you emphasize how redemptive and healing her community is for her in the end of the novel. Can you talk about why you chose to end the novel focusing on the importance of community for healing from trauma?
Boulley: I sought to write about trauma while not writing a tragedy. Too many narratives focus on the negative aspects of communities like mine. I certainly wanted to tell a truthful story, which included some unpleasant realities. But a truthful story also includes joy, healing, love, and a powerful sense of connection and community. We are so much more than our trauma.
Hunter: Your book has gotten award after award this year; what has that experience been like for you?
Boulley: It’s been an incredible experience! So much of my publishing journey has been beyond anything I could have imagined. Parts of it feel surreal—like, is this actually happening? Other times it sinks in—that Firekeeper’s Daughter is part of YA canon and is impacting people’s understanding about Native Americans and our tribal communities. I am deeply grateful.
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