In Amy Ewing’s wildly original fantasy novel The Cerulean, out today, Sera lives among the Cerulean people in the City Above the Sky. Sera is a curious, questioning girl who doesn’t fit into their Sapphic world order. She’s chosen as the sacrifice needed to break the bond between her aerial home and the planet it’s tethered to—but instead of dying, she’s marooned in the country she has fallen to, where she encounters the mythical humans she has long been taught to fear.
Ewing sat down with author Jess Verdi, most recently of timely coming of age tale And She Was, to talk Cerulean worldbuilding, inter-book friendships, and artistic weirdness.
Jess Verdi: Hi, Amy! I’m so excited to be having this conversation with you! It’s no secret you and I are friends, but it’s rare that we sit down and discuss our WNLIPs (that’s my made-up lingo for “works no longer in progress,” haha). But now that we’ve been given this assignment, I have so many questions for you! Beginning with: how do you describe the premise of The Cerulean to people who may not already be familiar with it? It’s such a complex, rich, unique world you’ve created—which is both incredibly cool, AND, I’m guessing, a challenge to whittle down to “elevator pitch” size.
Amy Ewing: You know I adore your work, so I’m so excited to be chatting with you! Of course you start it off with such a challenge—there really is no succinct elevator pitch for The Cerulean the way there was for my first book, The Jewel, though I have at least managed to pare down the explanation somewhat. It’s about a city in space populated by a race of magical women called the Cerulean. They’re all gay and they fall in love in threes, so a family unit consists of three mothers and one daughter. The city is tethered to a planet, and in order to break the tether, they have to sacrifice one of their own. A girl, Sera, is chosen, but the sacrifice goes wrong and she falls onto the planet, where she’s kidnapped by a set of twins whose father runs a series of religious propaganda theaters in a city similar to Victorian-era New York. So Sera is put into one of his plays and has to figure out how to escape and hopefully return to her home. Whew! How was that?
Verdi: I hope it’s a long elevator ride. <winky face> Just kidding—that was amazing! I love that this book has so many universal themes (gender and sexuality, love and romance, belonging and exclusion, the exploration of what “home” really means), but at the same time this story truly is unlike anything else out there right now! What was the first nugget of inspiration for The Cerulean and how did it expand from there?
Ewing: This is something I feel like our books in common, even though they are NOTHING alike! I loved the way you explored themes of home and family in And She Was, alongside Mellie’s own story of identity. One of my favorite parts of The Cerulean was writing the Cerulean family structure. I adore Sera’s three mothers and their relationships with each other and with her. It was really important to me to show that family does not have to look a certain way, that there are all kinds of families that deserve to be seen and represented and valued. As far as inspiration goes, this story actually started as a short story I wrote for a panel I was on for the NYC Teen Author Festival. We had to pick a silly question, like “Who let the dogs out?” or “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and then write a 2-3 page YA story answering it. I chose the question “Why is the sky blue?” And because I have an insanely dark imagination, I wrote about a city in space populated by a race of magical women with blue blood. And once a year they had to sacrifice a bunch of their children to color the sky blue with said blood. Just a fun lighthearted romp! The room was dead silent after I finished and at first I was like, oh, dear god, I have terrified everyone. But then so many people came up to me after and said I want to read that book! So I thought hey, maybe I should make this a book. Without the killing of children, of course—it wouldn’t have been a very good start to kill off the main character right away ;). And so Sera’s story and her fall came out of that, and then Leo and Agnes came out of the question, okay, if Sera falls to the planet, who finds her?
Verdi: That’s one of my favorite things about writing—seeing what can come out of our imaginations. I swear, half the times I sit down at the computer I have no idea what I’m about to write, but then, miraculously, a scene comes out! Thanks, brain! I also love what you said about families not having to look a certain way. That concept is so important to me, too, and you see variations of that idea in all my books. And you’re so right—even though The Cerulean and And She Was are different in many, many ways (fantasy vs. contemporary, for starters!), they do have so many themes in common: family, identity, belonging, acceptance, gender, love. For those who don’t know, my novel And She Was is a dual narrative shared between eighteen-year-old Dara and her mother, Mellie. Dara is cisgender, Mellie is trans. As Dara embarks on a literal and figurative journey to find where she belongs in the world, Mellie recounts her own story to Dara via a series of emails. In the beginning of the book, Dara is a bit too naive and self-centered for her own good—I’d love for Sera to have a little chat with her and tell her what real problems look like. What do you think they’d have to say to each other? Do you think they’d be friends?
Ewing: OMG I love the idea of inter-book friendships! I one hundred percent think Dara and Sera would be friends, because I firmly believe Sera would be friends with almost anyone. She’s a wonderful listener and would only want what’s best for anyone she cares about. I feel like she would have absolutely been there to help Dara sort out her feelings about Mellie and to help guide her back to a place of loving her mother. Cerulean aren’t judgmental, nor do they ever feel as if they know what’s best for someone else. I think Sera would have listened to all of Dara’s confusion and pain and gently guided her back to her love for her mother. Cerulean society is so deeply rooted in love, I think Sera would have been able to help Dara see that while things can shift and the unexpected can happen, love remains. What sort of advice do you think Dara might have given Sera?
Verdi: Awwwww now I’m all teary. We need more people in the world like Sera. I think Dara would tell Sera that it’s okay to be different from the crowd. Sera’s different than the other Cerulean in a lot of ways, and she doesn’t always see the beauty in her uniqueness. Dara, on the other hand, never fit in at school either—she was too busy training for a professional tennis career—but she was ultimately okay with that. She understands that it’s good to go after what you want, to be an individual, to not blend in, and I hope she’d help Sera see that, too! That brings me to another question: are there any books or book characters who reflected your own experiences growing up (or now!) and helped form your identity?
Ewing: And now I’m tearing up! Inter-book friendships are giving me all the feels. I can’t think of any characters that reflected my upbringing, but I will say I was hugely influenced by Roald Dahl as a child. He is so wonderfully weird, and I think he allowed me to explore the dark side of the world in a safe way, often with a healthy dose of his quirky humor. I really gravitated toward Matilda, of course, being such a book lover myself. Though she was much braver than me—I would never have had the guts to pull off all the pranks she did. I was such a scaredy cat growing up, but also fascinated by scary things, and Dahl’s books were a perfect way to satisfy the urge to explore darkness without going too far. Of course, now I’ve read some of his adult books and wow, dude was messed up.
Verdi: Why are so many brilliant creatives also socially problematic??? Sigh.
Ewing: I know, artists can be such weirdos and not always in a fun way. Also when people ask me, after hearing what my books are about, oh, is that really appropriate for teens? It’s frustrating, because I think it misses a fundamental point that young people are not fragile little glass animals. Books are a place to explore and there’s nothing more exciting than something dark or seemingly forbidden, especially when you are figuring out who you are and where you fit in the world. To me, walking that line is one of my favorite parts of writing. How far can I push this society I’ve created, how big can I make the juxtaposition between our world and that world?
Verdi: Oh, man, that happens to me, too. ALL. THE. TIME. And what’s so frustrating, in addition to all the things you mentioned, is that I write contemporary fiction, so the things I write about in my books are things that ARE happening to real teens or people in their lives. I’ve gotten pushback on so many things, from something as small as using curse words in the book, to sexual activity, to teen drinking, to LGBTQIA+ subjects. There are some parents and teachers and librarians out there who, I think, have forgotten what it was like to be a teen. Either that or they aren’t giving the teens in their lives enough credit. Someone I know recently said their seventeen-year-old doesn’t know about gay people. I was speechless. OF COURSE they know about gay people. They know about lots of things! They live in the world! Something I often remind people when this question comes up is that readers (of all ages!) will put down a book they’re not “ready for,” so to speak. Some twelve-year-olds are ready for YA. Some aren’t yet. And that’s okay! The reader will gravitate toward the books they’re interested in, and that’s all that matters. We need to trust them, and trust that they know their own limits.
Ewing: Absolutely! I agree one hundred percent. And I love hearing from readers who have discovered something in my books that spoke to them or informed their worldview in a way they weren’t expecting.
Verdi: YES!! That is one of the BEST parts of this wacky, turbulent career we’ve found ourselves in. 🙂 Totally agree! And I know there are so many readers out there who will connect with Sera, Leela, Agnes, and Leo in The Cerulean. I’m so happy this book is finally out in the world! Congrats, Amy! And thanks for having this conversation with me—it was so much fun!