YA Author Sabaa Tahir Talks to Her Biggest Fans - Kids

by Charles Monroe Kane


Sabaa Tahir’s new YA novel, “An Ember in the Ashes,” came across my desk like a YA freight train. It was in a box shaped like a castle, the box was filled with confetti, the box contained either an oversized letter-opener or small dagger, depending on how you looked at it. It was an outsized package that matched the blockbuster press the book was already getting. The Hollywood Reporter said it “mixes The Hunger Games with Game of Thrones and adds a dash of Romeo and Juliet,” a recipe landed the book a seven figure deal with Paramount for the movie rights. The plot is a fantasy set in a dystopic future, where the lead characters Laia and Elias fight against a brutal military regime. 

This isn’t normally the kind of book I would read—but of course, this book wasn’t for me.

I brought the whole package home to my 10-year-old son, Odin. He didn’t just read it, he devoured it. So we passed it on two of his friends in the neighborhood, Sofia and Lydia. They also ate it up. As a parent, I looked into Tahir’s background to find that she had worked for years at the foreign desk of the Washington Post. Now I was interested. But rather than turn this into a strictly “adult” story, I had another idea: why not let the kids ask the questions?

So I took them out for ice cream, turned on my recorder and asked them what they thought of “Ember in the Ashes.”

Sofia: So I liked the way she described all the characters and the personalities and all the sequences that happened. It’s really cool. She’s a really good author.

Odin: I liked how she explained every little detail. “An Ember in the Ashes” was really good because she really described everything, so you could really get the good picture in your mind of what the characters were doing at the time.

Lydia: I’ve never read a book like this because it’s different. So it’s different to me. That’s another reason I really liked it a lot, because I got a chance to explore new, different kinds of books.

I played those responses to Tahir at the start of our interview.

Sabaa Tahir: That was the best thing I’ve ever heard. I am, like, struggling not to tear up right now. That was so great to listen to.

Well, let’s hear some of their questions. I’m going to start with Lydia. She said “Where did the idea for this book come from?”

“Ember” was inspired by two things. The first was I grew up in this isolated town in the Mojave Desert where I really didn’t feel like I fit in. I was picked on, I watched my parents and my family deal with a lot of racism, so I felt voiceless and, you know, very isolated as a kid, and I turned to books to deal with that feeling, so you know, as I grew, I sort of realized that I could find a voice and I could find my own power through writing, and in 2007 I decided, you know, I want to write a book, and I didn’t know what it was going to be about; I just knew that it would be about people who, like me as a kid, felt like outcasts and who feel powerless. You know, just people who feel like they have no voice and that they’re very stifled. And at the same time, I was working at the Washington Post at a copyeditor, and I was reading about some truly voiceless and powerless people ““ the Sudanese genocide, extrajudicial jailing in Kashmir, child soldiers in Colombia and the DRC, and you know, all of that sort of combined to plant the seed for “Ember”.

I have a question from Sofia. She says, “As the author, who did you want to love each other more, and is that what happened in the book?”

This is where I can sort of talk about how much these characters, how real they are to me. It’s almost like they act on their own volition and I just sort of record it. They’re like family members to me. I’ve had them in my head for years now, so I wasn’t like “Oh, I really, really hope that Laia ends up with Elias or Laia ends up with Keanan or Helene ends up with Elias.” I was sort of thinking more like I hope that they achieve their goals and I hope that they find happiness.

Lydia wanted to know, “With so much violence and war and stuff, why do you have your characters love each other at all?

Because I think that that’s an accurate representation of our world, and that’s what’s wonderful about our world, and that’s what should give us hope, is that even in the darkest times and the darkest situations, we can still have the capacity to both love and hope, and that’s a really wonderful thing that I think we should celebrate.

Now of course, love is not the only theme in your book. There’s also a lot of violence and war that plays a heavy role. My son, Odin, he wanted to know, “How in the world did you come up with the mask design?” And I guess you should explain the mask to listeners first.

Sure. So students at Black Cliff Academy, which is the scary, scary academy where Elias is training, are given a mask at the age of 14, and they put that mask on and it is made of living metal, so it ends up margining with their face over time so that their skin is silver and it’s like a part of them, you know, you can see their features underneath it. I decided to write about the mask because I saw something on television. I think it was a report about, like, rioters in Eastern Europe somewhere and there was a line of rioters and a line of police, and the police had shields and masks over their face, and the expressions on the faces of the rioters were so open and angry, sometimes scared, and the riot police were sort of this wall with no feeling. There was no emotion there, and that image really stuck with me. That is also a part of our world and something that I thought was worth exploring.

And Odin has a follow up here. “What does it mean that the mask is permanent?”

They don’t come off because I think that with every action that these young soldiers take that is really violent or oppressive, it becomes more a part of them. As their training continues and they become more committed to the empire, their chances of ever turning back are diminished, and so the mask sinks in with them and it becomes a part of them in the same way that your actions and your history become a part of you.

Wow. The kids really got into the mask last night and it was quite the discussion. Once the mask is permanently a part of your face, they argued, does that mean you’re a human being beyond hope?

No, it does not.

My son and his friends are reading teenage stuff like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze. These are all dystopias. They’re bleak, they’re dark, and I worry sometimes. I’m like “Are we teaching them that humanity’s bad?” As a young adult writer, do you feel like you have some responsibility with the idea of hope for these young readers?

I personally feel like I have that responsibility because hope has played such a big role in my life, and it is something that I think is so important for young readers all readers, but young readers in particular, to take with them into adulthood, which is not to become embittered and not to lose hope, even in really bad situations, so a lot of the darkness in “Ember” is reflective of the darkness in our world, and I think that it’s important for young people to know that it exists because at some point we will all come up against it, and then that way they might be a little more prepared, but at the same time, I think it’s important for readers to know that hope is just as powerful. It’s not nothing in the face of darkness. It’s a very powerful force.

Well thank you very, very much. It’s a great book. The kids in the neighborhood loved it.

I think that is so wonderful. Please, please tell them I say thank you for all their thoughtful questions. That’s awesome.

'The Hunger Games' Meets Ancient Rome in 'An Ember in the Ashes'

This week we're thinking about the much anticipated debut novel by Sabaa Tahir. Called "An Ember in the Ashes," it's an epic fantasy set in a world reminiscent of ancient Rome. Sabaa Tahir tells Charles Monroe-Kane how her background as a newpaper editor influenced the book.

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