After months of sheltering in place at home in Shelton due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of a deeply personal loss, Darcie Little Badger has had a whirlwind of a fall. Her first book, Elatsoe, immediately became a bestseller and continues to consistently draw five-star reviews. The Young Adult novel, which Kirkus Reviews called “a brilliant, engaging debut written by a talented author,” taps into the traditions and culture of the Lipan Apache tribe, of which Little Badger is a member.
The fact that the YA fantasy novel, blending ghost-calling, vampires, modern technology, the voices of animals raised from the dead, and the passions and problems of a 17-year-old female Native American protagonist trying to solve a murder mystery, was written by Little Badger, an earth scientist who earned her doctorate after studying gene expression in toxin-producing phytoplankton, just adds to the story behind the story.
Your debut novel is not only getting raves from readers and critics, but Elatsoe is also on the Indiebound Young Adult Bestseller List almost immediately after its late August launch. What’s been your reaction so far to the reaction to your book?
It’s been incredible, really. I was stunned to learn that Elatsoe was a bestseller, and that wonderful sense of joy and huge amount of gratitude from that news has stayed with me, mostly because it means that people are reading my book. And that’s why we write, isn’t it? For people to hear our stories, to read our words. I was driving with my mother to see Elatsoe in a bookstore for the first time, and it was the first time either of us had been out of our house since June. And on the car ride, someone I don’t know posted congratulations to me on Twitter because Elatsoe made the bestseller list. That doesn’t typically happen for someone’s first book, and so I had to double-check it before I actually believed. It’s a great feeling to have a book published, and it took a lot of work and a lot of support from a lot of people to make that happen. Then, to have it get these wonderful reviews, to make the bestseller list, to have so many readers reaching out to me on social media and other ways saying how much they enjoyed Elatsoe — that’s been a really special thing that I didn’t really see coming, mostly because I was focused on the fact that my book was getting published. The response to Elatsoe so far has been magical, and it’s been an unexpected gift I’m so grateful for.
Elatsoe tells the story of a teenage Lipan Apache girl trying to solve her cousin’s murder, but it also highlights the richness of storytelling and other cultural pillars of the Lipan Apache tradition. What do you hope readers take away from your book?
One thing that I really wanted to accomplish in writing this young adult fantasy that takes place in a world similar to ours, but also has some elements like ghosts and monsters, is allowing other Native readers and also just young readers in general to experience a story with a Lipan Apache protagonist that takes place in the present day. So many stories with Apache characters take place in the 1800s. So it was important to me to show that Lipan Apache or other Native people are still here. I think there’s a terrible misconception in the minds of too many people that we didn’t survive, that we’re not around anymore, that we’re some relic of the past. We not only survived, but we’re flourishing. I also just wanted to tell a story that I would have enjoyed reading as a young adult. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I think from the response so far, people are having a lot of fun reading it. Storytelling is such an important part of not only the Lipan Apache culture, but my family’s tradition as well as who I am.
A recent New York Times piece characterizes a movement that you’re part of as “an explosion” of Native American and other Indigenous voices in fiction, particularly in sci-fi, fantasy or emerging blends of the magical and the realistic. What are your thoughts on that?
I love it. I was in a small bookstore recently that featured my book and each of the other writers featured in that New York Times article. I don’t remember ever seeing that before in any of the many, many, many bookstores I’ve been in. I’m grateful for it, but also greatly inspired by it, not only in my own writing, but also in wanting to help and support other Native and Indigenous writers get their stories out, or in the comic book realm, which I also love, get their stories and art in the hands of readers.
I appreciate that this rise in stories and books by Native and Indigenous writers is being called “a movement” and not a trend, because I’d like to see it continue and expand to cover a wide range of diverse voices. We as Native people are not a monolith. There are hundreds of tribes and nations, and they all have different cultures, plus a range of individuals with their own histories, perspectives and ideas within each tribe or nation. I think there’s a real need for that these days, and I’m happy to do my part not only as a writer but as a reader and a supporter of other writers and artists.
You’ve mentioned that you set Elatsoe in “an alternative, magic-filled, contemporary America because so much fiction featuring Native characters is historical and feels outdated.” How did that shape your choices in writing your debut book?
I know that I’ve personally turned to fiction in the past year or few years to escape the more tragic elements of the actual reality we’re living in. So I hope that Elatsoe provides both an escape but also perhaps some insights into the strange times we’re living in.
Also, justice is an important element that my book deals with, and so many of us are striving, yearning for some sense of justice these days.
Finally, again, it remains very important to me to show that Lipan Apache and other Native people don’t exist only in the past. We are here, today, living through the same things and dealing with basically the same issues as everyone else. Our stories should be being told in all kinds of books, not just history books, in stories about the present and future, not just in the past.
Growing up Lipan Apache, did you have any books that related to your life and your experiences?
I was a voracious reader from a very young age, and I credit my parents for that. They would read to me, or we’d go through picture books together, or they would just tell us stories. So I grew up in a storytelling environment, and that never really went away. Reading for me was my No. 1 pastime as a kid. I was and still am a proud book nerd. So, growing up, I might have read a book about another nerdy kid that was somewhat like me, or with a character who was a girl that did some of the same things I did and liked what I liked. But I never read a book with a Lipan Apache character, much less as the main character. So that was always troubling to me, and discouraging, to see that something so important to who I was, to my family’s identity and culture, was nowhere to be found in all these hundreds of books that I loved. I hope Elatsoe changes that, or helps to. And I got such a special email last week from the mother of a Native child, who told me that her daughter was staying up past her bedtime reading Elatsoe, and talking about it to all her family and friends every day. That young reader finally saw someone like herself in a book, and was just immersed in a modern day story about another Native girl. Getting a message like that makes me so happy that Elatsoe got published, and didn’t just stay a story I told myself in my head. To me, hearing that filled me with the same kind of gratitude and joy as being a bestseller or the wonderful reviews Elatsoe has gotten. I know that there will be other young Native readers just like her.
You recently wrote a blog post about how this time of excitement and celebration about the release and success of Elatsoe comes very soon after a terrible loss in your life.
My father died from mesothelioma the first week of June. My mom and father have always been supportive of me in whatever I do, but my dad was a writer. He was the chair of the Writing Department at Western Connecticut State University up to when he got sick, and words and language and writing and storytelling were such a meaningful part of his life. At one point, he took a turn for the worse, and we knew it did not look good. So I called my publisher and explained the situation going on with my dad and told them how much it would mean to me and to him to have an actual copy of the book in his hands. There wasn’t one in existence at the point — meaning copies of the book hadn’t been printed yet. But somehow, because they knew the story behind it, my publisher got me one, and I was able to hand a published copy of Elatsoe to my dad. Very shortly after, he went into ICU and passed away not long after. But him being able to hold Elatsoe gave my dad one of his last smiles. I’ll always treasure that memory.
How has it been trying to promote your new book since the pandemic has temporarily prohibited in-person bookstore appearances, in-person reading and book signings, and other traditional author events?
It’s certainly strange since my book has gotten to travel to places when like most people, I’ve been stuck in one place during this pandemic. Readers have been posting pictures of my book from everywhere — all over our country, in Paris, in other countries I’ve never been to. But Elatsoe has been all over the world already.
I’ve been doing a lot of virtual events with readers, bookstores and book clubs, and while it’s definitely different than if my book came out at any other time, it’s also very cool because virtually, I can connect with readers from literally all over the world. So doing a virtual author event centered in Texas allows someone from Australia to attend that reading and discussion. There are definitely positives.
Elatsoe is also the first book from my publisher, Levine Querido, and they’ve been as supportive of my book launch as they were in selecting my story to be published in the first place.
We’re getting creative, which includes mailing signed bookplates to affix inside Elatsoe since in-person book signings are such a challenge, and holding giveaways through social media.
So your education and professional background up to this point centers on being an earth scientist. How does that connect with you as a YA novel writer, or does it?
Oh, it does in so many big and little ways. For instance, in Elatsoe, at one point she’s in this ocean of ghosts that’s swirling not only with the ghosts of contemporary sea critters, but also with animals from hundreds of millions of years ago. So my Ph.D. came in handy there. And in the book, there are these invasive monsters that act in very similar ways as the invasive plants I studied as an undergrad. I joke that in a way my background in science has served as an accidental internship for writing science fiction.
What are you working on now?
I can’t get into the details too much right now, but I can say that I’m about two-thirds through writing the next book. I’m also writing a story for Marvel about Moonstar (the Northern Cheyenne comic book superheroine), a member of X-Men. There’s also a graphic novel project in its very early stages that I’m really excited about. So I’m going to be busy for a while, but the reception of Elatsoe energizes my creativity, which I couldn’t be more thankful for.