I have a fair few monsters in the books I’ve written, and something I’ve noticed about them is that monsters tend to crawl out of places societies have tried to keep hidden. After the Brett Kavanaugh hearings I desperately needed to find something to say to young people about power and patriarchy but I could not find the way in until I found the monster lurking in the shadows of the story. From that emerged the book that would become The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, set in a kingdom where the presence of a monster—a terrifying curse-induced force that moves from village to village at night, stealing lives away–allows the ruling powers to maintain a rigid patriarchal system where girls’ behavior is strictly controlled.
Girls in Illyria are supposed to be demure, genteel, accommodating—and the book’s hero, Marya Lupu, just can’t seem to manage to be any of these things to her status-hungry parents’ satisfaction. There is, she’s convinced, something fundamentally broken about her, because she just can’t be the girl society expects her to be. Marya has her own personal monster: shame.
A funny thing happens when you write about monsters; your own monsters end up crawling out of the shadows. As Marya emerged on the page I quickly realized that I was channeling something deeply personal: as a kid, shame was my monster, too. I felt just as Marya did—as though I was doing it all wrong, that there was something broken about me. As I grew up I chipped away at bits of my personality, tried to warp myself into a different shape. I did not want to take up space.
Shame is a tool used to control, and in the kingdom of Illyria, girls are kept from noticing inequities by being taught to doubt themselves. In the case of the girls of Dragomir Academy, they are labeled as “troubled” as soon as they arrive at the school. Thinking back now, I see how shame kept me from speaking up and speaking out as a kid. And as an adult I see so clearly that when people try to stand up for themselves, or for something bigger than themselves, those in power respond by trying to shame them.
It’s an effective strategy. Shame silences you because the things you say are “wrong.” It tells you that you don’t deserve good treatment, so you’ll never stand up for it. It tells you that your instincts are flawed, so you should never listen to them. It tells you that it is isn’t society that is broken, it is you.
Over the course of the book, Marya learns to confront some of the narratives she’s been taught about her society, to step back from them and examine who does the story serve? And eventually, she learns that maybe this question can apply to the stories she’s been told about herself, too.
I am thinking of the battles kids are fighting right now—the ways adults use their identities, their bodies, their health and safety as an opportunity to enact partisan warfare. For Marya and the other girls of Dragomir Academy, shame is a learned reflex. But it’s one that can be unlearned. What helps is to have someone name what’s happening to them. What helps is to have someone tell them they don’t have to accept the labels other people put on them. And what helps is something the architects of Dragomir Academy work hard to prevent: finding community with each other.
The Troubled Girl of Dragomir Academy is a mystery; it’s a story about a boarding school with secrets at its heart; it’s a story of a monster-ravaged kingdom and the lengths it will go to protect itself. It’s a story of a girl trying to find her place in society that has no room for her. And it is about something deeply personal to me: shame, how it is weaponized, and why.
If there’s one thing I could say to the reader, it is that shame is designed to teach you to make yourself small, because sometimes other people want to make you feel small. But you are not small; you are mighty. You can take up space. Yes, shame is a monster, but you have the ability to slay monsters. Here is your sword. Go.
About The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy:
If no one notices Marya Lupu, it’s likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.
The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in Illyria may possess the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread. For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy — a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.
Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself — things that threaten the precarious balance upon which their country is built.
Anne Ursu is the author of the acclaimed novels The Lost Girl, Breadcrumbs, and The Real Boy, which was longlisted for the National Book Award. The recipient of a McKnight Fellowship Award in Children’s Literature, Anne is also a member of the faculty at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She lives in Minneapolis with her family and an ever-growing number of cats. You can visit her online at www.anneursu.com.
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