Fran Wilde is a celebrated author of science fiction and fantasy for adults, but much of her work also speaks to younger readers—witness her book Updraft, winner of the 2015 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. It seems perfectly natural that her next book, Riverland, coming in 2019, is written for the middle grade crowd.
Today, we’re excited to reveal the cover for the novel, as well as an excerpt. But first, a note from the author:
“Sometimes, magic is more than it seems to be. Sometimes perfect families aren’t so perfect at all.
Just as drowning doesn’t look like it’s shown on television, kids experiencing violence at home often have their own secrets, their own ways to keep safe. Sometimes these don’t look at all like rescue-narratives the media has shown—the stories aren’t that simple, nor are they easily solved.
Eleanor and Mike are sisters who—instead of being rescued—have to learn how to help each other. I wrote Riverland so that, maybe, a young reader who needs to see it most will find it on a shelf, and maybe they’ll feel less alone. Maybe others would see and understand a different kind of narrative. I wrote it hoping that someday, they get to tell their story too.”
Below the cover reveal, find an excerpt from Riverland, by Fran Wilde, coming from Amulet Books in April 2019.
“Once upon a time,” I whispered, hunched beneath the bed frame, “two girls lived in a lighthouse where the old lighthouse keeper was sick. They kept the light going so no one would know.”
“Scarier,” Mike murmured into the heaviest of quiets… She curled on her side and pulled her knees up to her chest. Wrapped her arms around them.
“Okay. Give me a minute.” I peeked out from beneath the bed skirt carefully, holding the bells to keep them from chiming. No one was in my room.
I rolled over, careful not to catch my hair on the frame, and lay on my stomach on the carpet.
Pendra was right, I was getting too big to fit under here. Mike snuggled hard against my side. “Tell a story, El.”
“Once upon a time, there were two girls who weren’t very good at rules,” I began.
“I’m sorry about the magic.” Mike pulled her sleeves over her hands and began to twist the fabric. “I didn’t think it would matter.”
I closed my eyes. I’d been trying for funny, but what I’d said was so mean. “We both broke rules.” I would be nicer. I would.
A door slammed. A car started. “We’re not good at family either,” Mike added solemnly. “Or that.” I thought of Momma and Gran. How they rarely spoke, and Gran didn’t visit. “I’m not going anywhere, though.”
Mike nodded. “Okay.”
I tried again. “Once upon a time, two sisters set out to rescue their real parents, who’d been kidnapped by a troll.”
Mike shivered at that and I reached for the toggle that turned on a string of Halloween lights beneath the bed. The bed skirt was thick enough they couldn’t be seen from the outside. I’d made sure.
At once, the space beneath the bed sparkled. Small bits of purple edged the shadows. I’d done what I could to make it nice under here, once I’d started getting Mike in the middle of the night. I’d tied back the thin box-spring cover where it was torn. I’d put unmatched socks over the exposed springs so they couldn’t grab Mike’s hair, or mine.
But now the lights glittered purple on the carpet. No. They gleamed across a skim of water where the carpet had been.
“Did you spill something?” I looked at Mike suspiciously.
Mike shook her head and stared at the water, which had formed a stream. A slice of light swung over the water and then moved away.
After a long time—and we didn’t take our eyes off of it— the light swung back across the darkness again. Yellow, like fireflies.
“Ooooh,” Mike whispered.
A blue-gray feather rested on the water’s surface and turned, like a low gray boat, adrift in the breeze.
I rubbed my eyes and reached out to touch the water. Lifting the feather, the small breaks and whorls coming off the quill caught the light. So delicate, like it was made of glass. But the feather dripped cold water, real enough. The stream reflected stars and a pale lighthouse, tall against the night sky.
I lifted the bed skirt again and looked out. My room looked just the same.
The pool of water didn’t extend past the bed.
Downstairs, the waiting kind of silence held. The kind that could still get us in trouble.
I let the bed skirt drop again. Mike put her fingertip in the stream. I could smell the bay now, like salt and fresh water, mixed.
“Impossible,” I whispered. “Mike, pinch me.” She pinched hard. That didn’t wake me. The stream was getting bigger and I shivered at the breeze coming off the water.
The stream expanded just as the door slammed and the shouting began again. Poppa’s feet banged on the landing, crunching broken glass. Mike switched the lights off.
“Mike, wait,” I said. But in the dark of the underbed, I heard an enormous splash. “Mike!”
The lighthouse beam slid across the water’s surface again. I saw Mike’s footie pajamas kicking up a splash. Spray struck my face.Then Mike disappeared.
I didn’t stop to think. I dove after my sister.
Cold water pushed my breath from my chest in one quick rush. Bubbles rose around me and my hair wreathed my head, loosed from my braid by the tide. Which way was up? I flailed and kicked, disoriented, until my head broke the surface of a wide, night-dark river laced with moonlight.
Gasping, I struggled onto my back and floated for a moment beneath stars pricked bright into a pitch-black sky. The bed frame was gone. The carpet, too.
Where was Mike?
I nearly sank again looking left and right. Water, cold and fast, sweeping around me. Wind strong enough to drive clouds across the sky. Sky.
We’d been hiding beneath my bed. Now a river pushed and pulled at me, carrying me where it would, dragging at my hair, my clothes.
There was an explanation. There had to be. I sputtered and coughed, forgetting what my body knew already as it kicked and scissored my legs, circled my arms in the water.
Survival came first. Understanding would have to wait.
My one sock grew heavy and my pajamas twisted around my legs as water swelled the fabric. I tried to kick them straight. Long tendrils of bay grass tickled my ankles.
I recoiled, pulling into a knot. If I could have jumped straight out of the water like a fish, I would have.
What had happened? We’d been telling stories, the water had come in over the floor and—
Had we fallen asleep? Both of us? We were no longer in my room. Or the house. I couldn’t even see the house.
I kicked and splashed. My pajamas clung too cold and wet for this to be a dream.
House magic was just a story, I knew. Unless I was wrong about that too? What if we’d been magicked right out of my bedroom?
Where was Mike?
I stopped kicking and sank below the surface of the river. Fought my way back up, my arms aching with the effort. The taste of brackish river water real as anything in my mouth. Sour and salt.
I’d told house magic stories for Mike’s sake, to explain why so many things disappeared when we broke rules. But I’d broken so many rules lately. I’d brought trouble. What if this was a real consequence? There were always consequences.
“Mike!” I yelled. No answer. Had we really been magicked? I deserved this, whatever it was. The river pushed me along, spun me around, and I didn’t fight it. As I floated, I saw lights from a distant bridge far downstream, strung low across the water. The large lighthouse on the other shore loomed closer, its sides pale in the moonlight, the great glass enclosure for its lantern glittering with reflected stars. There was no bridge or lighthouse like this near our house.
My heart pounded fast, but I wouldn’t cry. Not now.
The beam arced above me, passing across me almost painfully, a bright path in the river’s darkness. Then it was gone.
Pockets of air began to fill my pajama top and pants as I fought to stay afloat. The water might try to drag me to the bottom, but I realized I could use my clothes to float me to shore, house magic or not.
Except I couldn’t see much of the shore. An eddy in the river tried to yank me under again. Stay calm, Eleanor. I started to swim across the current, against the rush of water. Mike had fallen in first and I’d followed her. Where was she? Which way took me to her?
Moonlight over the dark pulse of the river revealed little that could help—patches of lily pads, a piece of tree branch, floating. I grabbed that branch and held on. The solid wood against my arms and chest calmed me as it bore me up. I kicked again, searching the river for my sister.
What if Mike drowned? What if I drowned?
If this were a dream, we’d wake up screaming for sure. And that would call Poppa’s attention to our hiding spot under the bed.
But if we weren’t dreaming? If this was a real river, and we’d been magicked away? How could we escape it and find our way home?
I held onto the branch and let the current spin me while I tried to think. Tried to calm my heartbeats. My fears.
I didn’t want to be magicked. I didn’t want to disappear.
A whimper and a splash broke the river’s rush. Another splash, closer. I rolled to my stomach and swam toward the noise, using the branch as a float.
The lighthouse beam returned. It swept across the river, highlighted my pale arms, and revealed Mike struggling in the river’s rush, wavelets building against her shoulders and breaking over her face.
She coughed and sputtered. Yanked at something below the water between strokes. Tried to keep her head up.
She was caught on something.
“I’m coming!” I called. She couldn’t hear me above the river.
A bird flew overhead, its long shadow and broad wings blocking the moonlight.
Calm down, calm down. Each stroke, each kick, I made myself think only of how to get out of here. How to survive.
When I thought past that, the fear of having been disappeared threatened to push me under.
When I reached Mike’s side, my head cleared. Taking care of my sister was something I knew how to do.
“I’ve got you,” I said, as calmly as I could. I helped her grab the branch. Watched as she caught her breath.
I treaded water, working to stay beside her. Carefully, I felt below the surface for whatever had caught my sister’s feet.
Last summer, Pendra’s mother insisted on junior lifesaving at the local pool since they lived near the water now. Momma had agreed I could go too, as long as Mike took lessons also. We’d all piled into the Sartis’ car, and sometimes into Momma’s. Practiced drills until we knew how to help without thinking.
“You’re okay. Tell me what’s happening.”
“Foot’s stuck,” Mike said. She shivered and struggled more. Nearly slipped off the branch.
“Stop kicking.” I tried to keep my voice level. She was making it worse, whatever it was. “Can you float?”
I treaded the dark water, keeping my own feet away from the tickling grass, while Mike leaned back against my arm. Her eyes reflected the stars, then focused on me. Trusting, hoping I knew things she didn’t.
How could I? I didn’t even know where we were. “You’re okay. It’s going to be okay.”
“I can’t float. There’s grass wrapped around my ankle.” Panic in her voice.
“Shhh. It will loosen if you relax.” I hoped that was true. Small solutions could build into bigger ones. I used the same tone I’d used to get Mike back to sleep after a bad night. But I was tiring too.
Kicking against the current to stay even with Mike was hard.
Don’t think about the other hard things—the strange river, the strange sky.
Mike calmed. Eventually, the grass around her ankle loosened. I threaded my fingers through the tangled grass and began to pull it away.
“Bicycle your legs higher instead,” I said as Mike began to swim in earnest.
As another tendril grazed the bare skin between my sock and my pajama bottom, I did the same. We were both tiring now. Rescuing someone was hard work, magicked or no.
I turned to let Mike lean on my shoulder so we could both hold onto the branch and rest. The wood was growing waterlogged, sinking low in the water and starting to come to pieces. How long could we float on our own?
As long as we had to.
A pale ribbon of sandbar loomed ahead. “Do you think you can make it?” I asked Mike.
“Okay,” Mike said. She said okay when she wasn’t sure, but was willing to try. She rolled to her stomach and kicked, pushing the branch in front of her.
I was close enough that I got a face full of water from the splash. Choking and coughing, I struggled forward, one arm, then the next. Kicking. Finally, Mike did what I did. Slowly we swam diagonally across the current.
When my knees ground against the rocky shore, my pajama leg tore. I hissed as skin scraped off my exposed knee, my bare foot. The sand was sharp.
Too tired to walk, I crawled up the beach, pulling Mike with me.
“So cold!” Mike complained through chattering teeth.
I lay on the wet, pebbled shore, grateful we were no longer moving downstream.
Mike shivered next to me. “Where are we, El? Where’s your bed?”
“We’re somewhere on the bay.” I tried to sound certain. The grasses, the smell of the water, the gritty shore. All of it felt so familiar, but still not the same. The sky was a deep purple, the stars unfamiliar from the sky at home.
I’d wished myself away, hadn’t I. Was that how we’d come here? I’d made a spell of it. Swept Mike up in it. Maybe the house had heard me and sent us both for good measure. Or one of the stories I’d told. Maybe the house had heard that. The lighthouse. I’d told a story about a lighthouse. But then there would be an ocean. And an ill lighthouse keeper. I shivered.
The river licked at the shoreline. From the reeds and cattails edging the sand, something croaked.
“How do we get back?” Mike’s words rolled like a river. She didn’t think we were dreaming, any more than I did. Dreaming meant you could wake up.
The moon slid behind a silver-dark cloud. The stars dimmed as a fog rose from the water.
As my sister and I recovered on the beach, everything around us turned to shadow and shade. …
[from Riverland, by Fran Wilde, Amulet Books, Spring 2019]
Riverland will be on B&N bookshelves in April 2019.