Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday, June 19, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Seraphina

Random House Books for Young Readers: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Random House BFYR: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Random House Books for Young Readers: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Random Acts of Reading


by Rachel Hartman

Rachel Harman's captivating debut novel explores the pains 16-year-old Seraphina suffers as an outsider as well as the rewards of excelling in something she loves.

In medieval Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, an uneasy truce exists between dragons and humans. Narrator Seraphina, as readers quickly discover, is the product of a dragon mother and a human father. Dragons know how to disguise themselves as humans, so everyone believes Seraphina to be entirely human--just as Seraphina's father believed her mother to be. Only when Seraphina's mother died in childbirth did he learn her true nature. Although the child never knew her mother, she did leave her daughter a gift of "mind-pearls," memories to be released to Seraphina by specific triggers. For instance, a memory of Seraphina's uncle, Orma, her mother's brother, enveloped her when, as a small child, she saw Orma in dragon form for the first time. Her mother also passed on to Seraphina her gift for music. Dragons are known for their technical skill, but their music is often devoid of emotion. However, with the empathy she gained from her human father coupled with the musical skills inherited by her mother, Seraphina is considered one of the finest musicians in the land. She won a coveted position assisting the court composer, and she also tutors Princess Glisselda, betrothed to Prince Lucian.

After the death of Prince Rufus, heir to the throne, in a manner suspiciously like a dragon's preferred means (decapitation), tensions run high between humans and dragons. Seraphina's father--the architect of the peace treaty that's been observed for 40 years--begs his daughter to stay under the radar. But when two of the court musicians cannot perform at Prince Rufus's memorial, Seraphina must step in, and her stellar performance draws much more attention than she would have wanted--from both the human and dragon realms. Her unique position exposes Seraphina to aspects of both dragon and human societies, and when she decides to trust Prince Lucian with her suspicions about Prince Rufus's killer, they embark on a journey that tests her loyalties and her strength.

Hartman raises provocative questions of forbidden love--that of Seraphina's parents, and Seraphina's developing feelings for Prince Lucian. Her feelings are out of bounds not only because of his humanity but also his royalty. The author also describes the impossibility of repressing Seraphina's passion for music, also portrayed as "forbidden" by her father, at least initially. This leads to Seraphina facing some difficult truths about her father; when he finally consents to let Orma instruct her in music, she realizes "He had never been merely protecting me; he had been protecting his broken heart." And Seraphina must confront even more difficult facts about herself: "If one believes there is truth in art--and I do--then it's troubling how similar the skill of performing is to lying." How much of herself can she reveal to Prince Lucian? Can she ever have a loving relationship with any human, given her complicated heritage? In her emotional pain, she tries to physically remove the scales on her arm, hidden by her clothing ("I felt the freeze again, all through me, and experienced it as relief. I could not hate when my arm hurt this much"). Her form may be unique, but Seraphina's feelings are universal.

In this first of two planned books, Hartman creates a world simultaneously strange and familiar. Her dragons are as magnetic as her human characters, and even minor characters are fully realized. Teens will readily identify with Seraphina's conflicting desires--to please her family or to make her own future. She must decide for herself whom she can trust and which path to take. --Jennifer M. Brown

Random House Books for Young Readers, $17.99, hardcover, 480p., ages 12-up, 9780375866562, July 10, 2012

Random House Books for Young Readers: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Rachel Hartman on Dragons, Comics, Art and Grief

Where did the idea for Seraphina come from?

The first idea I had, back when I first started writing, was about the grief that Seraphina's father has. I used to draw comic books, and I had this world in which dragons could take human form. When I started to do the book, my parents had just split up after 35 years. I didn't know my mother was unhappy. I thought, What if you married a dragon in human form, and you didn't know, and you only found out when they died--and died in childbirth, in this case. You have this conflict, and a dead partner you can't confront and say, "Why did you lie to me all these years?" What kind of dilemma would that be for a person? Seraphina has these maternal memories, which help. But her feelings about her mother are complicated, too. Not least of which are the lies her mother told her father and how that affected Seraphina's growing up.

Tell us about those "maternal memories," or mind-pearls.

I have an amateur fascination with neurology. I love reading books about how the brain works. It's spongy and fallible and sure of itself when it shouldn't be. When the brain gets injured, different parts of the brain can be repurposed to make up for the part that was injured. It's not a perfect system, but different parts can be used in their place.

So the idea is that the mother, because dragon brains are different than ours, can put a copy of the memory in a different place, like a second copy. You can't access it unless you know the way to access it. So she encapsulates these, but does it in such a way that something would trigger the memory. It relates to the idea of guided meditation. You feel like there's stuff in there you can't access, and there are different ways to tap into it.

Was the character of Orma there from the beginning?

Orma showed up very early. He has evolved over time, too. He used to be much more of an antagonist. He felt some betrayal that Claude [Seraphina's father] had lured his sister away. I'm glad that fizzled and he turned into more of a relatable character.  People have warmed to him, the way that one warms to Vulcans and others like them, these unemotional characters who are a little bit baffled in the human sphere.

A recurring theme in the book is the juxtaposition of truth and art.

Those are two preoccupations of mine. When my son was five, he used to pretend that he had a lab. His dad is a physicist, and my son had a lab full of equipment--all in his mind, of course. His dad, who's a literal-minded fellow, was bothered by this. Did Byron understand the difference between truth and lying? He'd tell Byron, "Don't say that, you don't have a lab." Byron was extremely upset. The compromise we came to is that Byron would refer to it as "Mystery Lab." He knew he was making things up, but we respected what happened there. That is the place where art and lying and truth intersect. There's literal truth, and there's emotional truth, and they're both important.

Does that relate to what Seraphina's mother says: "Emotions fly humans toward art"?

I think Seraphina's mother found that component fascinating. I think some dragons are taught to pack away emotions but think, "Why should I if I see benefits to this that my teachers and government aren't seeing?" I think art and emotion go hand in hand. You have these big emotions and where do you put them? You can peel off your scales, that's one way, but maybe not the most constructive. Big emotions are something many of us struggle with.

Let's talk about that scene where Seraphina is in so much emotional pain that she cuts off a scale. She talks about feeling "the freeze" and experiencing a "relief." It's not unlike the act of cutting, or drinking or using drugs in the human world.

That freeze doesn't solve the problem, but you can delude yourself into thinking it does. You've distracted yourself from what the problem is temporarily, but ultimately it hurts you. Sometimes when you're that hurting already, you don't feel the other hurting. They hurt one at a time.

Do you foresee more books set in this detailed world you've created?

I think two will be enough for Seraphina's story, but I aspire to do more books set in this world, like Discworld. Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite writers. I consider him a big influence. I feel like he and I are both preoccupied with the same things. You can really see him behind the books he writes. You have an idea of what that mind is like. That's what I read for. Some people read for plots or characters, but I read for the person behind the words.

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