Author Christyne Morrell is giving away a copy of her new adventure-fantasy middle grade book, Kingdom of Secrets. You can enter at the end of this post. But first, read what inspired her — an attorney — to write a middle grade novel about hot air balloons.
The Problem with Hot Air Balloons: A Guest Post by Christyne Morrell
The problem with hot air balloons is that they can’t be steered. They float prettily in the sky, but their course is determined largely by the wind, which makes them a poor choice for travel when you have a specific destination in mind.
Unless, of course, you’re writing a novel. In fiction, hot air balloons will go where you tell them to go.
When I started writing KINGDOM OF SECRETS back in 2016, I was sparked by a single image. I learned that the Union Army used hot air balloons to conduct surveillance during the Civil War, and that juxtaposition of colorful, floating bubbles against a landscape of war stuck with me for some reason. I knew there was a story there, but I didn’t know what it was. So, in an effort to find out, I started writing. Much like a hot air balloon, I bobbed around aimlessly.
Not that I was entirely without moorings. I knew I wanted to rip my main character, Prismena, out of her ordinary life and thrust her into an epic adventure. I knew there’d be a walled city, deceitful rulers, and a rebellion. I knew she’d discover truths at once disheartening, eye-opening, and emboldening. And yes, I knew there’d be hot air balloons. But for two years, I couldn’t maneuver these elements into a cohesive story. Twice I set the manuscript aside in frustration – the second time, for an entire year. I was circling something, hovering around it, but I couldn’t quite stick the landing.
Oh, and some other stuff was happening in the world while I was struggling with my manuscript: People at rallies were chanting “Build the Wall.” People fleeing from persecution were not only turned away from our borders, but torn away from their families and herded into cages. The leaders of our country were espousing a chilling “us vs. them” mentality. I’m not political by nature, but these events made it all but impossible for me to avoid it. I suddenly found myself going to marches, sending postcards to politicians, and struggling to understand how people could be so divided.
Nobody writes in a vacuum, but the parallels between my story and the events unfolding on the news were unmistakable. I didn’t set out to write a book addressing a particular political moment, but the anger and helplessness I felt in those days (and, let’s face it, still feel) seeped out onto the page, whether I wanted it there or not. And as they did, the story began to find its direction. It zeroed in on one question, the same question I was grappling with at the time – that most of us, I think, were grappling with. What do we owe each other?
When Prismena’s father is arrested, he gives her precise instructions to go inside, lock the doors, and close the curtains, and at first, she obeys him. But then, in a split-second decision that will determine her fate, she sets out to save him instead. Her decision is significant, but it isn’t radical. After all, she’s the one who got her father arrested in the first place, and he’s her family – the only family she has left. It’s only natural she’d feel obligated to help him.
But as Prismena journeys on, she’s faced with the same question over and over – what do I owe this person? – and each time, her connection to that person is more tenuous. First, it’s a parentless child, helpless and sympathetic. Then a band of orphans, far from helpless and sometimes downright mean. Eventually, it’s an entire group of people – foreign and nameless – and a cause. As the circle widens, Prismena must ask herself repeatedly how much she’s willing to sacrifice for these others. Food? Money? Her relationship with her father? Her safety? Possibly her life?
I don’t presume to know the answers to these questions, nor does Prismena develop a formula to calculate with precision whether or not she should help someone else. But it’s fair to say that her first decision – to step out the door and engage with such issues in the first place – is the most necessary. And she learns that she can’t rely on the choices made by the people around her – neither her father nor the rebels she meets along the way. She has to answer the tough questions on her own, like we all do.
It turns out, a writer can tell a hot air balloon exactly where to go, but sometimes that’s the only thing she can control.
The problem with hot air balloons is that they can’t be steered. Then again, maybe that’s the beauty of them, too.
Enter to win a copy of Kingdom of Secrets. US Only, closes next Monday September 27.a Rafflecopter giveaway
Meet Christyne Morrell
Christyne Morrell is a children’s book author and attorney. She lives in Decatur, Georgia with her husband, daughter, and hyperactive beagle. Christyne has been writing poems and stories since she could hold a pencil, but KINGDOM OF SECRETS (Delacorte 2021) is her debut middle-grade novel.
Christyne is also the author of the picture book Abra, Cadabra & Bob (Clear Fork Publishing 2019), and her work has appeared in Highlights, Spider, and The School Magazine. She can be found online at christynewrites.com and on Twitter and Instagram. Christyne is represented by Danielle Chiotti at Upstart Crow Literary.