Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Neal Shusterman

It’s 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 28, and I had already gotten out of bed. Why such an early start? At 7:30, the doors to the annual Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival would open for its eighteenth year. The festival extended its hours for the first time since I’ve started attending. Instead of ending at 1:30 p.m. after an author luncheon, the last session ran until 4:30 p.m., meaning patrons were able to hear two extra speakers. My choices of authors to hear this year were: Neal Shusterman, Judith Schachner, Kevin Henkes, and Anna Dewdney. I also attended a sessional by fluency expert, Timothy Rabinski, who promoted poetry and songs as a way to build fluency. At the end of the day, I walked away with eleven signed books and ten typed pages of notes.


Neal Shusterman reads from one of his books

Neal Shusterman reads from Ship Out of Luck

When I walked into the crowded room, tabloid-size posters of Shusterman’s books were on display. He’s the author of such trilogies as Skinjacker and Unwind. After formal introductions, Shusterman talked about the history behind his first story, his most influential teacher, and his decision to write for teenagers. After the first thirty minutes, he accepted questions from the audience. Even though I’d already researched into Shusterman’s life, as part of my teasers at Allison’s Book Bag, I loved hearing Shusterman tell them in-person to a captive audience. The last five minutes, Shusterman read an excerpt from his newest publication: Ship Out of Luck.

The first story Shusterman ever wrote was in third grade. The teacher dressed old-school with a tight gray bun and seemed to hate children. One had to raise hands at a right angle to ask questions, but Shusterman wasn’t a right-angle kid. Instead he was bouncy, squirrely, and today would likely get labeled as ADHD. Shusterman knew it would be a tough year. In the fall, his teacher gave the class an assignment to write a Halloween story. He decided to impress her. The assignment was to write two pages. He wrote five, cut it up, illustrated it, and made it ten pages. He even hole-punched it and bound it. She gave him a D-, which he viewed as the worst grade. “It means she wanted to stick it to you.” In all fairness to her, in Shusterman’s story the ground opened up and swallowed his teacher and squirted blood everywhere.

In contrast, Shusterman had a fantastic ninth-grade teacher. Shusterman loved the story of JAWS and wanted to write one like that which would keep people on the edge of the seat. He didn’t do sharks because it had been done, but instead used sandworms and lobsters. He gave the story to his teacher who loved it and gave it to the principal who asked to see him. Shusterman thought the principal would lecture him for an inappropriate story, but the principal wanted permission to enter it into a contest. Shusterman’s entry was the only one from the school. When the list of winners was announced, and Shusterman didn’t received first-second-third or any of the thirty honorable mentions, he was crushed. He didn’t want to ever write again and feel humiliated. His teacher told him to get over it and that this was his first lesson as a writer: Rejection. Shusterman had been handing assignments in late to her class and so she challenged him to write a story per month to make up the grade. However, the stories had to submitted by the first day of month to count. “By the end of the year, I felt like a writer.” A few years ago a student asked Shusterman if he had ever thanked the teacher. Shusterman hadn’t. It had been her first year. Now she was a vice-principal. Shusterman took her out and showed her a stack of books. All due to her!

In college, Shusterman became a teen counselor. Now he was taking care of kids as obnoxious as he used to be. At night, the kids were allowed to have drinks and vending machine food. Naturally, all that junk food resulted in The kids bouncing off the wall. The counselors would yell at them, which didn’t work, and so Shusterman decided to become a storyteller.

Neal Shusterman signs my book

Neal Shusterman signs my book

Not knowing where to start, he decided to make up a story about his cool sunglasses. He loved wish-fulfillment stories and wondered what would happen if whoever wore the glasses could have anything they wanted. In most wish-fulfillment stories, there was always a finite time to the wishes. In his story, Shusterman explored what would happen if the wishes never ended but characters have to deal with the real-life consequences of it.

Shusterman had about forty kids to watch, but now he also had a story and his sunglasses prop. In the first cabin, kids were having a pillow fight. He started telling the story: Eyes of Kid Midas. The first cabin was rowdy and so Shusterman told them he was leaving and would share with the next group. Because the kids wanted to hear, they snuck after him. He did this for the next two cabins. At the fourth cabin, he walked slowly and then waited, until all the kids went into the fourth, snuck in, made everyone quiet. The next night, he informed the kids he would tell the story only to the QUIETEST cabin. A director walking by asked, “Where are the kids?” Shusterman loved the power!

One night, outdoor movies were planned but it rained. The kids got rowdy and the camp director asked Shusterman to tell a story. He had ninety minutes to fill. Shusterman started telling Eyes of Kid Midas again. The kids started giving suggestions, asking questions, and helping him stretch the story. And so Shusterman developed an audience of teens.

When asked about what’s next, Shusterman shared that he’s co-writing the first book called Telsa’s Attic, that is part of a middle-grade series. Some local kids discover objects with extraordinary powers in an attic that’s part of a magnetic vortex. He’s also working on a novel called Challenger Deep, which is about teen mental illness. His editor told Shusterman it was his best work to date. Shusterman hopes it’ll make a positive difference.


Judith Schachner talks about her writing career

Judith Schachner talks about her picture books

Picture book authors are still more of an unknown quality to me and so I struggled to pick among all the ones at the festival. Author of the Skippyjon Jones series, Schachner intrigued me because of her proposed topic: How to Write about Your Pets. While she didn’t really end up covering that topic, audiences loved her. She was funny, gregarious, and shared many interesting aspects of her life.

First off, Schachner told us that she had been diagnosed at age fifty-five by a little boy as having ADHD. Because was already seeing a psychiatrist about her difficulties with talking in front of people, Schachner asked her psychiatrist about this comment. The psychiatrist tested her and off the charts. Schachner compared herself to an Etch-N-sketch, saying that if she bumps into one thing it might give her an another idea and she’ll talk about it. To help her organize her thoughts for this presentation, she brought samples of letters from kids which she receives on a daily basis.

Are you still alive?
Were you ever a child?
Were you a good student?

Yes, she’s still alive! Of course, she was a child! As a student, she was shy! A third-grade teacher knew that Schachner needed to draw and allowed. She called her “a little artist”. On report cards, she wrote, “A good little grader”. Other teachers were less accepting of her. In fourth grade, she received a D. This changed her life. She never wanted to volunteer again. On report cards, her teacher wrote, “Judith needs to improve.” In fifth-grade, the story repeats herself. Report cards read, “Judith needs to work faster.” Everyone criticized her lack of math skills. No one recognized her art talent.

Yet, Schachner feels drawing and imagination saved her. Life for her was full of suffering, with her mom being diagnosed with breast cancer, her grandfather being an alcoholic and often living with them, and Schachner herself developing astigmatism, which made her sick when she read. Schachner drew herself into stories, ones with positive endings, because she needed them. At schools, she tell students that they can make their way out of a dark place. She did it herself through art.

Are you married?
Do you have kids?

Schachner has been happily married for thirty-two years. Her husband was the first person in her life to let her put together an art portfolio.

Judith Schachner poses with me after signing a copy of her book

Judith Schachner poses with me after signing a copy of her book, Yo, Vikings!

Her oldest Emma took an interest in Vikings, to the point she wanted a Viking ship. An ad appeared in the Philadelphia paper of a Viking ship for sale: “BUY OR BURN. Longship of 29 long feet. $7000 or best offer.” Emma broke open her piggy bank, counted her money, and wrote a letter. Two weeks later, her parents received a letter agreeing for the family to take the Viking ship. Emma was interviewed about the purchase. At the time, Schachner wrote “Yo Vikings” in her notebook, because she knew that she’d write this story. It’s actually her favorite of all her published books. It teaches that dreams can happen. Today, Emma is a paleontologist.

As for her other daughter, Sarah, she’s not a verbal kid but expresses herself through art. She makes board games, thinking caps, and little books. Teachers often couldn’t decide if Sarah was intelligent or if she headed for academic difficulties. Sarah’s experiences inspired Schachner’s book about a girl who creates thinking caps and asks people to pay for her thoughts. One of Sarah’s dream was to become a ballerina. She even tried out for the School of American Ballet. She Knew she probably wouldn’t make it, and she didn’t, but she wanted to try. Schachner encouraged Sarah to become a performance major, to learn to conduct and to compose. Sarah served as a ghost writer for music in movies such as Iron Man.

Where do you get your ideas?
Do you live in a house or a pet store?
Hey, what’s with all the cats?

Schachner lives in a house. She writes about cats, because she loves them. By the way, the inspiration for Skippyjon Jones died young, but has been replaced with a new cat. As for where she gets ideas, well, from all sorts of places! For example, after watching a video about a raccoon who loved a cat, she wrote a book about it. While in Nebraska, she read a story about a man who bought a truck, sucked up prairie dogs, and saved his marriage. Guess what? She wrote a book about it! All of her tangible ideas for stories, she collects in hat boxes and in briefcases, which she shows off to students at schools.


Kevin Henkes speaks

Kevin Henkes speaks at the festival luncheon

A quiet and somewhat private author, Henkes spoke twice at the festival–once at a sessional and once at the luncheon. At the latter, I gulped down my croissant sandwich and miniature desserts, anxious to be prepared to type notes the moment he began to speak. Henkes first shared from his life, one absent of much of the modern technology we take for granted, and one which requires a juggle between two passions. Henkes is both an artist and an author. To end his presentation, Henkes read from one of his newer novels, The Year of Billy Miller. With it, he wanted for a change to write about a boy, as well as to return to his Wisconsin roots, and to write about finding the ordinary in the extraordinary.

Born in 1960 in Racine, Wisconsin, Henkes was a happy child. He was the youngest for six years, but then was dethroned. Because of being both the youngest and an older sibling, Henkes understands the different types of sibling relationships.

When did he first aspire to become an artist? He doesn’t believe he ever really decided, but has always thought of himself as one. As a child, he often drew people’s faces, from one side and the other. He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but he was practicing for his future job.

Henkes has a studio, but before he can work he has to come up with an idea. Creativity he thinks is difficult to explain. Wemberly Worried came from his being a worrier. Sheila Rae The Brave came from an actual child in our neighborhood. Lily is a conglomeration of people. was not. His nieces liked to dress up and so does Lily. One particular story, Lily’s Purse, came to him while in an airport. Hankes was working on Lily in Love, saw a girl with a plastic purse that made music when opened, found it amusing, and so pulled out his notebook. Julius came from out of his experience of getting a younger sibling. A photo of his niece with him serves as inspiration. As for Crystantheum, it comes from his love of writing about school and about teachers. With an idea in mind, he can work.

Kevin Henkes signs his book

Kevin Henkes signs his book

After thinking for a long time, Henkes starts to take notes. His stories usually grow from characters. He likes to know everything about them before he writes. Once Henkes has finished this prewriting, he types up his stories on a typewriter. Surprisingly, Henkes doesn’t know how to use a computer, doesn’t have email, or even use a cell phone. Henkes doesn’t know if it’s because he’s an artist first. Or maybe it’s simply that if something works, he keep doing it. His kids laugh at him all time.

After Henkes has written the story, he turns to drawing it. He does rough pencil sketches, then refines them, and then refines further. He likes to use ink and to test the colors. When he finishes the sketches, he transfers them using a Walt Disney light box that Henkes got when he was twelve. He also has a cup from his childhood. Obviously, he likes to keep using whatever he’s comfortable with.

In the beginning, he thought that sending the book to a publisher meant it was done. He discovered that it’s really just the start, because there are teachers, students, and others readers around the world who embrace the book. One of his favorite pieces of mail is a drawing of Lily by a young student, where her arms became one with the drum sticks. “That sums up Lily, who becomes whatever she’s doing.”


Anna Dewdney talks

Anna Dewdney talks about her popular series Llama Llama

The final author on my list was Anna Dewdney. My reason for picking her? She’s the author of the popular Lhama Lhama books and my mother-in-law likes lhamas. Dewdney’s reason for writing about lhamas? When her kids were little, they would sit in the back of her car, and she’d drive around Vermont with them. She’d point out the cows to them and make the MOO sound. She would do that for each different animal. One day, they saw a different animal. She called, “Hey, look girls, there’s a lhama.” Not knowing that sound they made, she just said, “Lhama, lhama.” This became a story. At first, Dewdney felt weird when she realized that she’s probably going to be called the Lhama Lhama lady for her life. Seeing children clutching their lhamas made her okay with it.

Long before Dewdney became an author, she was the shy kid who sat in the back of the classroom. But she was also rebellious, always drawing on her paper.

Growing up in New York, Dewdney would spend time in her yard imagining she was a lady of 1800s. She wanted to be Tasha Tutor. Who is this? A famous children’s book artist who wore old-fashioned clothes. When Dewdney was a young adult, she actually got to meet her.

After graduating from an art school in Connecticut, Dewdney spent twenty years trying to get published. Every evening after she returned home from her job and took care of her children, she worked at being a picture book author. She worked late hours and every couple of weeks submitted manuscripts. Throughout her years at college and her jobs in furniture sales and teaching, she received rejections.

Anna Dewdney signs her book

Anna Dewdney signs her book

One job was at a boarding school for eight-year-old kids. She taught them reading and writing, but also served as their mom. During that time, she pulled out a manuscript she’d written when her kids were little. It was a lhama story. She sent it to an agent AND to an editor. This miraculous thing happened. She got a call at her job from her agent telling her that her book had been sold. She screamed. Later, she received a second message. Her editor also wanted to buy the lama book. She screamed again. Her co-workers thought she was being attacked. It was a weird experience.

Dewdney works until two or three o’clock in the morning and then retires. In the morning, she rises about ten o’clock for a walk. These walks make a huge difference to how she functions. She talks to herself and figures out stuff. She also loves looking at colors and studying objects. She enjoys time outside, because it’s close to nature and quiet.

When asked about how she makes her books, she talks about making sketches upon sketches. To everyone else, they probably just look like wiry lines. She refines and refines. When she bought a Wacom, which is like a really fancy IPad, it changed her life. She can draw pictures, scan it into the computer, and make quick revisions. Then she’s ready to paint.

At various interludes, Dewdney shares slides from her personal life. For example, she lives in a small town, where everyone knows one another. During Hurricane Irene, the water rose in Vermont, because the area is hilly. Water rose sixteen feet in one hour and the bridge to her house washed out. For several weeks, it was just a small group of people in town with no access. Dewdney describes it as being kind of cool, because everyone all got to know one another. There are three sections to her house, built at different times. She has a woodchuck living in her house! Oh, and bats! She owns wire-haired pointing Griffons. In trying to decide on the right dogs for her, she wanted quiet and intelligent dog who would get along with people, as well as like to run and to swim. However, when she called breeders, they would hang up on her because Griffons are hunting dogs. Finally, she got two duds. Radish and Brussels are too fluffy to be hunting dogs. Also, Brussels failed his training classes.

Dewdney tries to answer every note she receives. When artist Tasha Tudor wrote her, it changed her life. Pictures and letters from kids inspire book ideas. Expressions can also add to a book. When her daughters and her took a trip to Paris, they weren’t happy. Their faces became pictures in her books. And of course Dewdney’s own personal interests can impact a book. For example, she enjoy pangolins, animals that curl up when scared. In China, people really like their scales and so these critters are going extinct. In Vietnam, they are being preserved, and she observed them for a book.

At the start of her presentation, Dewdney said that she feels sad for the festival to end. It served as a chance to hang out with other authors. I understand her sentiment, because being around so many others who loves children’s books always psyches me. Only one year to go and the festival will start-up all over again!

Picture a futuristic world, where a war has occurred between the pro-life and pro-choice groups. In the end neither group really won; the representatives merely reached a compromise that suited both sides. Abortion was made illegal, but parents were given the option to “unwind” their teenagers and sell their bodies for parts. You have just entered the horrifying world of Neal Shusterman’s dystopian quartet. Today I’m reviewing the second book in the set, Unwholly, about which my reaction is mixed.

At first, my feelings slid more towards the negative. Of course I was eager to reconnect with the characters of Unwind. How would Connor fare as the leader of the Graveyard, a safe haven for teens marked to be unwound? How will Risa handle being paralyzed from the waist down after the attack on Happy Jack Harvest Camp? How will Lev deal with his newfound hero status, which he received when he refused to become a “clapper” (suicide bomber)? But instead of these familiar characters, Unwholly introduces me to Starkey, Miracolina, and Cam–a whole new cast of characters! Of course this is okay, but it’s just not what I was hoping for.

Not that these new characters don’t have potential. Miracolina, like Lev, is a tither–one who has been predestined since birth to be unwound.  And Cam, is a composite of several unwound teenagers, who is intended to represent the perfect human being. These new faces, plus many more I haven’t mentioned, make for a huge cast. This is nothing new for Shusterman, who played the same juggling game in Unwind. The problem is that I didn’t initially care for any of the new characters. Yes, being slated to be unwound would probably make anyone a tad bitter; but Starkey, with his power-obsessed “corporate” soul, is simply not likable. I couldn’t wait for Shusterman to switch to the viewpoint of another character, but Miracolina and Cam weren’t particularly better.

My last complaint is that the first half of Unwholly felt weighted down with politics. Fans of The Hunger Games Trilogy might compare the moments when Katniss is with family or in the arena to those when she’s in the capitol. Indeed, at times, especially when Risa is being forced to work for an organization called Proactive Citizenry, it felt as if I were reading the more nauseating parts of The Hunger Games Trilogy again.

Now that I have seemingly trashed Unwholly, let me step back and tell you that ultimately I enjoyed it. Eventually, Connor is reintroduced and is portrayed as sympathetically as a teenager who, having been prematurely saddled with the responsibility of leadership, wishes more than anything to live a normal life. For The Hunger Games Trilogy fans who were disappointed when Katniss became semi-comatose in Mockingjay, you’ll be happy to know that Connor remains very much at the forefront of the plot. Risa also returns and faces tough choices, when she’s forced to choose between violating her ethics and saving her friends. She’s also the reason that we see a different side to Cam, who at first she was inclined to hate. And Lev struggles with his conscience when he rescues a tither, who turns out to believe much more strongly in that position than him.

As for the rest of the cast, you already know I didn’t initially care for many of the newcomers. As the story progressed, most of them grew on me. Through Miracolina, Shusterman helps us remember that some people really do have the strength of their convictions, even to the point of being willing to die for their faith, and he raises the question of whether we have the right to interfere. Through Cam, Shusterman points out that sometimes we can’t do anything about our background, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to make the world a better place.

But not every character has a warm and fuzzy side. Shusterman gives his readers one character who they will love to hate–a “parts-pirate” (one who deals illegally in human body parts) who approaches the level of the best horror movie villains. There is no third dimension to this character. There’s no sob story that explains why he is the way he is. He’s evil, and we are free to loathe him with wild abandon.

As the characters of Unwholly started to pull me into, I also began to better enjoy immersing myself into their world and so, although Unwholly doesn’t completely live up to my expectations, I like it well enough to be happy that I own it. I’m also still eagerly awaiting the sequels, one of which will be released in October and the other next summer.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Because ultimately, a lot of these issues that are dividing the nation are less and less about what the actual issue is and more and more about how the two sides hate each other. And one of the points that I wanted to make in Unwind was, that’s where the problem is.

–Neal Shusterman, Adolescent Literacy

One never knows when the news will inspire a trilogy. Author Neal Shusterman was watching the news and saw a report about transplants and transplant technology. One of the doctors said that within our lifetimes, they will be able to use 100 percent of a person. That made Shusterman wonder…. If one hundred percent of a person was alive, is one alive or is one dead? And he realized that this was a great way of dealing with the whole issue of what does it mean to be alive?

It also allowed Shusterman to take the whole argument about issues like abortion or end of life issues out of the politics and look at it from a whole new perspective. This is what excited Shusterman about the idea because it was a way of dealing with these issues in a completely different way and so make everyone, regardless of what one’s position is, think about the issues again.

The Unwound Trilogy is about this futuristic society where abortion is illegal, but parents can choose to terminate their children between the ages of 13 and 18. And why they can rationalize doing that is that these kids aren’t being killed…. They’re being “unwound” or being used for their body parts.

Does he think it’s possible for a future to be the way he depicts in Unwind? Shusterman told Adolescent Literacy, “I certainly hope not. I think it is a warning of what could happen if things are left to go to extremes. If two sides on this issue or any issue, start fighting so bitterly that it’s no longer about the issue, but it’s about how much one side hates the other….”

When asked by YA Highway why he elected not to write a dystopian novel with flying cars and super computers, Shusterman replied that he had no interest in writing a story that was not grounded in reality. To him, Unwind is about our society and how things operate when things go wrong. “Spaceships and flying cars, that’s fun, but it doesn’t excite me enough to spend a year of my life writing about it.”

Shusterman has already written one trilogy that deals with the issue of life and death. Everlost dealt with the issue about these kids trapped between life and death in a fantastical kind of way. Now he’s writing a second trilogy, one which deals with the issue in a more serious and frightening way.

In case you’re interested in his own theology about heaven and hell, Shusterman reveals that according to the way he was raised, there were really only a few possibilities of what happens to one in the hereafter. “Option one, it turns out you’re less of a miserable person then you thought you were and you go to heaven. Option two, you’re not quite the wonderful person you thought you were and you go to the other place that people these days spell with double hockey sticks. There is a third version called purgatory, which is a kinder, gentler version of the place down under. Purgatory is God’s version of a timeout — temporary flames of woe.”

PS Although I have been calling the Unwind books a trilogy, rumor has it a fourth book will be released in 2014. If that happens, the Unwind books will become a Quartet. For the longest time, the series has also been labeled The Unwind Trilogy but apparently it might become known as The Dystology Quartet.

Tomorrow I’ll post my thoughts about Unwholly the second book in the The Unwind Trilogy. Save the date: September 16!

The Chocolate Ogre, Allie the Outcast, Mary Hightower, and The McGill. These are some of the unusual characters that populate Neal Shusterman’s famed Skinjacker Trilogy.

It’s all about a quest. It’s all about the question. I don’t give answers. I think that the only questions that are worth posing are the ones that don’t have simple answers. If I pretend to know the answers, that would be presumptuous of me—to pretend to know the answers of the grand questions that really can’t be answered. All we can do is try to look at it from different points of view, and pose questions in different and interesting ways.

—Neal Shusterman


The front inside flap of Everlost describes it as an imaginative novel  that explores questions of life, death, and what might lie in between. As such, and especially because this is a book by Neal Shusterman, who likes to pose grand questions, I read Everlost with the afterlife on my mind. Meet Nick and Allie, whose families’ cars crash head-on one fateful day, sending our hero and heroine hurtling down a tunnel towards a light. But instead of reaching that light, Nick and Allie bump into one another and awake in a forest clearing.

Soon, Nick and Allie are introduced to the concept of inter-life, or that space between life and death. It isn’t purgatory or Nirvana, but is rather a completely new kind of limbo. As the tale continues to unravel, we learn that God hears prayers in Everlost and that there are also evil spirits.

While Shusterman doesn’t, as I initially expected him to, pose questions about the specifics of heaven or hell or various recognized states of limbo, he does explore the BIG question about what happens after we die.


The front inside flap of Everwild reveals that the limbo world is now at war, accounts of which are certainly engrossing. But there are other aspects of the second book in Shusteman’s series that captivated my heart. For example, because in Everlost “all things that have earned immortality remain forever in glory”, Shusterman puts himself in the enviable position of being able to offer recognition to real tragedies. Perhaps the most notable instance is that of the twin towers, whch are held forever in Everlost “by the memories of a mourning world, and by the dignity of the souls” who died that day.

I’m struck by the number of historical events to which Shusterman pays homage. The most prevalent is that of the Hindenhurg, a German passenger airship that infamously exploded on May 6, 1937, while attempting to dock in New Jersey. Another is that of the space shuttle Challenger, about which Shusterman writes, “Ask anyone who was alive at the time, and they will still remember where they were the moment that the shuttle Challenger blew up just thirty-three seconds after lifting off from Cape Canaveral”. (Indeed I do. On that dreadful day, I stood in the student union at Judson College, unopened mail forgotten in my hand as I stared aghast at the horrifying television images.) Other tributes are less tragic. The Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music concert in Nashville that made country music famous, takes center stage in a few chapters.

One of the quirks of the Everlost world is that its inhabitants soon start to forget who they are. The first memory to go is of one’s name. Most other memories are eventually lost too, which may or may not be so bad except that one becomes whatever memory survives. When Nick wages war against Mary Hightower, his strongest memory is of the chocolate bar which he’d smeared on his face just before the accident, and soon it becomes his dominant memory and thereby endangers his very existence. As it turns out, it’s hard to stay alive when one is slow melting into a pool of chocolate! When another character, Mickey, finds himself sinking into the ground, his anger is what allows him to be successful where others fail. Unfortunately, his anger is what also causes him to develop claws and other monstrous features, until his very nature is corrupted and twisted. While no one can be killed (again) in Everlost, feel pain, or even get injured, one can be tied up, imprisoned, and made to endure other tortures from monsters such as The McGill.


As I finished each book in The Skinjacker Trilogy, my husband would ask me, “Are you planning to buy the set?” To that question, I always responded, “I won’t know until I read the third book.” He suggested it shouldn’t matter given that I liked the first two, but far too many trilogies have let me down with their concluding volume. Thankfully, Everfound did not.

As often happens with the final book, Everfound is the darkest and most complicated in the set. Nick and Mary are both building armies to destroy one another. Allie has not only discovered the ability to skinjack (hijack a body of a living person), but also what that means and how to use it to help or destroy the living. Having been stripped of his monstrous shape by Mary, Mikey McGill falls in love with her and is quickly rejected, which awakens a new power within him. He can use this power for good or for bad—and it’s anyone guess which he will do. There are also new characters introduced, such as a scar wraith who can permanently extinguish the souls in Everlost. And then there are familiar character who take on larger roles, such as Jackin’ Jill, who used to be a love interest of Milos, who himself took a fancy to Allie until she rejected him. Oh, and by the way, the reason Nick wants to destroy Mary is because she wants to destroy our living world.

Did I mention that Everfound is dark and complicated? Indeed, sometimes it felt a little too much like our own world, whereas I read fantasies to escape into a fanciful and imaginative place. Over all, though, I still feel Shusterman has successfully  created a well-written and memorable trilogy.


I noted that Shusterman doesn’t pose questions about the specifics of heaven and hell. His fantasy limbo world is simply too weird to have any intended connection to any religion’s view of the afterlife. Imagine a place where one never changes appearance or age, yet can lose one’s memory and therefore one’s identity. Or where one can sink through the earth if one stays still for too long, but with special powers can leap into the body of a living creature. Within this world one can become complacent by settling in one location and developing an unwavering routine, but then one will never search out the token needed to head back to the light and one’s final destination. Or one might see relics from history, but not be able to return to one’s actual home without disastrous results. Oh, and if one lands in a vortex, one’s basest nature will multiply in strength. What a strange and fantastical world! Underlying the trilogy though is the notion that if one chooses to leave this semi-safe place, one is choosing to walk into the light and face permanent nothingness—or hell, or heaven. In this way, Shusterman keeps that BIG question in the back of one’s mind.

Later this fall I’ll have the pleasure of meeting Neal Shusterman at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival in Nebraska. The Everlost Trilogy is a strong contender for purchase, with the purpose of getting signed.

Why do I keep writing about death? I don’t know. It’s profound…death is profound, I like writing about profound things! I tried to write on different subjects and I try to address different things in the stories. One of the things that a student recently said to me, which I thought was very insightful, was that I always seem to write about kids who are on the outside and unseen in some way.

–Neal Shusterman, Adolescent Literacy

The initial inspiration for The Skinjacker Trilogy was the simple concept of two kids bumping into each other on their way to the light at the moment they die. Author Neal Shusterman explained to Fiction for Young Adults that from this inspiration, he developed the idea of a “world between life and death.” When within that world he also changed the “rules of existence” so that there were no adults, no fear of dying, and no ability to feel physical pain, he became intrigued as to what he could do within those parameters. Furthermore, when Shusterman realized that The World Trade Center would stand forever in Everlost and nothing would never bring them down, he felt compelled to write it.

When asked about his favorite part of writing The Skinjacker Trilogy, Shusterman said creating the world and making the journey with the characters. About the world building, Shusterman indicated that his biggest challenge was reigning in the rules and remaining aware of their impact on everything. Shusterman offered the example of how the characters can sink into the earth if they stand in the same place and stated that even a rule as simple as that opens up a can of worms: “Your characters have to keep moving. They can’t drop things, or they sink as well. What happens to kids who DO sink? Could other characters push you down? Are there certain places where they won’t sink? Do you sink faster into wood than you would into a steel floor? What would happen if you tried to cross a bridge? If you sink in “solid” ground, how fast would you sink in water? Would the whole idea of sinking be a pivotal issue for one, or more of the characters? With every single rule, you have to deal with dozens of ramifications, you have to make them all work, you have to be consistent, AND you have to make it look easy.”

Discovering the characters as one goes along is one of the most exciting parts of writing for an author and Shusterman’s cast continued to evolve, as he wrote his trilogy. At first Shusterman knew only that he would have a girl and a boy from modern times, a slightly younger boy who was an innocent from a hundred years ago, and a monster. Then he needed a know-it-all, who could help explain the rules of Everlost. This became Mary, who as she came alive for him, Shusterman realized she was the character around which everything else revolved. Actually, one of his favorite characters to write about (and one of his most creepiest creations) was Mary Hightower. Oh, he views her as awful, she was also a fun character to write. After reading the second book, his daughter even told him, “Mary Hightower needs to die. Kill her, Dad!” But, Shusterman thought death is too good for Mary. He wanted her to have an end that was far more satisfying for the reader.

When asked how finishing the trilogy felt, Shusterman responded: Bittersweet. He will miss the characters, but his satisfied with how their stories were resolved. There were times when I loved writing the books, and times when I just wanted to give up and hurl my computer, or notebook against the wall because I was so frustrated. Getting through that frustration is an important part of being a writer. Moreover, because so often the books in trilogies get worse, his goal was to make sure each book was better than the one before it!

Tomorrow I’ll post my thoughts about The Skinjacker Trilogy. As a special bonus, on Monday, I’ll also write a quick review of the second book in The Unwind Trilogy. Save the dates: September 14 and 16!

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other subscribers