Oh, happy-happy-joy-joy! I HAVE A NEW BOOK COMING OUT, and I finally get to show y'all the cover!
Isn't it gorgeous? What I love is how moody-melancholy-slightly-spine-shivery it is, while evoking beauty and magic and hope at the same time, and in equal measure. Or, so I think. How about you?
If the cover makes you want to read the book (and that's the goal!), here's a short excerpt. I would love to hear your thoughts!
The Wishing Day
I wish to have daughters, and for my daughters to have daughters, and their daughters to have daughters, and their daughters to have daughters.
—Nadia Slovensky, age thirteen
It was the third night of the third month after Natasha’s thirteenth birthday. The moon was full. The winter air was clear and cold. Natasha stood before the ancient willow tree, which towered above her. She was almost close enough to touch its ice-covered branches, but she had yet to take the few remaining steps.
She hadn’t yet decided.
Her aunts watched from the edge of the clearing, three or four yards back. They’d hiked up Willow Hill with her, not that she’d asked them to. Not that she’d wanted them to. But when they arrived at the top, they let Natasha approach the willow alone. Also, they stopped bickering. They stopped talking altogether. The silence was a relief, but unnerving now that the moment was here.
Do or don’t.
Do or don’t.
Do . . . or don’t?
Natasha heard the thrum of her pulse. She sensed the rise and fall of her chest. She felt acutely self-conscious. It was like the time in sixth grade when she was changing for PE, and titters broke out, and when she lifted her head, everyone made a show of looking away. Later she learned she was wearing the wrong kind of bra. A “baby” bra.
She was a seventh grader now, and she’d deciphered the rules of being a girl well enough to blend in. But the rules were different when it came to a girl’s Wishing Day. Or rather, there were no rules. A girl’s Wishing Day might involve a cake, a party, or a special night out at a fancy restaurant. Or a girl might not celebrate her Wishing Day at all. Or she might claim she didn’t when really she did, or vice versa.
Most of the girls in Natasha’s class did something to honor their Wishing Days, Natasha suspected. Even if they didn’t come to the willow tree. She imagined candles and ribbons, hopes and dreams scrawled in tiny, cramped letters.
Natasha’s best friend, Molly, scoffed at all of it. She was one of the few girls Natasha knew of who absolutely, positively rejected the notion of Wishing Day altogether. To make her point, she’d spent her Wishing Day, which fell in the beginning of December, organizing her sock drawer.
She’d rolled each pair into a tube and set them upright in the drawer. “It makes them happy,” she’d told Natasha.
“Ah,” Natasha had teased. “So socks can be happy. Socks. But the idea of wishes is loony potatoes?”
“Yes,” Molly had firmly replied. “Other than Willow Hill, is there any place in the world where girls have Wishing Days? No, because Wishing Days are dumb, no offense to your great-great-whatever-great grandmother.”
“Her name was Nadia,” Natasha had murmured.
“No offense to Nadia, then. But she made the whole thing up!”
Molly had paused. She’d taken several calming breaths (quite obvious calming breaths, as Molly enjoyed being dramatic). Then she’d smiled. “But I know your own Wishing Day is coming up, so guess what?”
“I hereby give you permission to do, on said Wishing Day, whatever you want.” She’d swirled her hand through the air. “As it is spoken, so shall it be done!”
“Gee,” Natasha had said. “Thanks?”
Molly had given her an oh, poop on you scowl. Then she’d laughed and dumped Pixie Dust on Natasha’s head, from one of those oversized plastic Pixie Dust tubes. Natasha had tasted sugar in her hair for the rest of the day.
Tonight, Natasha’s long hair hung in a braid, which she’d tucked inside her coat. She wore a fuzzy hat, but her ears were still cold. So were her fingers and toes and the tip of her nose. She gazed at the willow tree. Moonlight shone through its branches, cloaking them in a silver swash. Natasha shivered.
“Natasha, make up your mind,” Aunt Vera called. “It’s freezing out here.”
“Vera, shh,” chided Aunt Elena. In a louder voice, she said, “Take all the time you need, Natasha. It’s your Wishing Day, not ours.”
Aunt Vera clucked, and, from the sound of it, Aunt Elena gave her an indignant shove, the sort that sisters never lose the knack for. Aunt Vera and Aunt Elena had very different opinions about the Wishing Day tradition, and they had yet to agree to disagree.
Aunt Elena honestly believed in magic, the way certain children believed in magic. The way Natasha’s youngest sister believed. Only Ava was eleven. Aunt Elena was a grown-up.
Natasha’s middle sister, Darya, was twelve, but Natasha doubted Darya had ever believed in magic. Like Molly, she thought the idea of Wishing Days was ridiculous. But Molly found humor in it, especially the tales of “. . . and it did come true! She wished for a kitten on her Wishing Day, and she got one the very next day! Except it was a dog, if you’re going to be all picky about it, and the girl was just dog-sitting it, and she ended up getting about a zillion nasty flea bites. But still!”
Darya was too cool to joke about Willow Hill’s Wishing Day tradition—or maybe too embarrassed, given their family’s history. Darya shared Aunt Vera’s opinion that superstitions were “the folly of feeble minds.” Darya shared other qualities with Aunt Vera as well—good qualities, like being tough when she needed to be.
If Natasha compared the two out loud, however, Darya would take offense. Darya didn’t want to be like Aunt Vera, because Aunt Vera was the boring aunt. Aunt Vera believed in properly loaded dishwashers and twice-a-year dental exams for Natasha, Darya, and Ava, whom Aunt Vera, along with Aunt Elena, was raising.
Natasha supposed that Papa was raising them too, but . . .
Well . . .
Papa was Papa, and Mama was gone, so Aunt Vera and Aunt Elena had stepped in.
They were so different from each other, the aunts. Aunt Elena seemed younger than the other moms in Willow Hill, while Aunt Vera seemed wa-a-a-ay older. If Mama were here, would she be just right, like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears?
A wispy memory fluttered at the edge of her thoughts, and Natasha was hit by a deep, familiar ache. She pushed it down.
A nighthawk screeched its short, harsh call, and Natasha looked up, tracking its course by the white bands that slashed through the darker feathers of its wings.
“Natasha!” Aunt Elena called urgently. Natasha heard her approach, the snow crunching beneath her boots. “Natasha, honey, you can’t take your time after all. A man who sees a nighthawk on the eve of a full moon should immediately make a wish, for it’s sure to come true.”
“But I’m a girl,” Natasha said. “And don’t I get three wishes?”
“But if the nighthawk circles back before the wish has been made, then the man, or girl, should abandon all hope for future happiness,” Aunt Elena finished, her expression full of worry.
Aunt Vera tromped toward them. “Elena, stop being ridiculous. Natasha, don’t listen to a word she says. There’s no shame in not making any wishes, you know.”
“And yet you made three wishes on your Wishing Day,” Aunt Elena said.
“And if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t,” Aunt Vera retorted. “It’s utter nonsense, all of it.” Her voice hitched when she said the “nonsense” part. Her eyes darted back and forth.
“Go,” Aunt Elena urged, pushing Natasha toward the willow.
Natasha stumbled forward, and a sweet taste filled her mouth.
She took a second step. The frosted tip of a branch lightly grazed her temple, and the sweet taste grew stronger, like maple syrup. Or . . . willow syrup? Was there such a thing as willow syrup?
Natasha hugged her ribs. She would never tell Darya—or Aunt Vera—but deep down, she did want to believe in magic. She did want to believe that her family was special, that she was special. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were true?
The wind skimmed the top of the willow tree, and a smattering of icicles clinked. They sounded like tiny bells. Natasha’s heart beat faster, because Mama had worn earrings that jingled like tiny bells. Natasha hadn’t thought of those earrings in ages.
Okay, Natasha thought. Okay, then.
She ducked her head and pushed through the branches, which closed behind her like a curtain. She touched the willow’s great trunk. Her senses tingled, and she heard a faraway tinkling.
(bells, tiny ringing bells)
She caught her breath, because in one great whoosh she knew that magic did exist. She felt it in the tree. Otherworldliness burned off it like a light.
Natasha, rumbled the willow, speaking without words.
The world fell away. Her aunts, her sisters. Papa. The entire town of Willow Hill. Everything faded except Natasha and the willow. No time. No space. Puffs of air floated like small pillows when Natasha breathed; that was all.
She rehearsed the specifics of the tradition:
One impossible wish.
One wish the wisher could make come true herself.
And finally, the deepest wish of her secret heart.
These wishes, if made on a girl’s Wishing Day, would come true.
Natasha felt stuck and more than a little panicky. Should she give in to the pull of the tree, which was strong, or should she walk away now and avoid disappointment?
Disappointment was strong, too. Disappointment hurt.
Keeping her wishes safely contained would be the sensible choice, and Natasha was supposed to be sensible. She was the sensible sister, Darya was the pretty sister, and Ava was the goofy, silly, creative sister.
She’d climbed the hill, though. She was here, the moon was full, and tonight’s confluence of dates would only happen once. Her palm remained pressed to the tree.
Oh, get on with it, Natasha told herself. You know you want to make the wishes. You just don’t know what to wish for.
Her list of “impossibles” was endless. To be as beautiful as Darya. Or to be even more beautiful, but not be snobby about it. To do well in school without having to try. To do well in school and not be teased for it. To have more friends. Less responsibility. To not have to act like a grown-up when she was only in seventh grade. To not be needed so much by her aunts and Papa and her sisters—
She didn’t mean that. Dreadful girl. Of course Natasha wanted to be needed by her family.
I take it back, she thought. She placed her other hand on the willow and touched her forehead to the cold bark. She let herself go to the dark place inside her, a tender and true place, and spoke before she lost her nerve.
“I wish Mama were still alive,” she said, her voice thin and horribly stiff.
Adrenaline made her woozy, and she made her second wish quickly.
“I wish . . . I wish to be kissed,” she said, and immediately despised herself. Because what a waste! She didn’t care about being kissed. She was supposed to care about such things, because she was thirteen and a girl, and there were boys out there who were alarmingly cute. Like Benton Hale. Lately, Natasha had found herself noticing Benton in a new way, different from how she’d thought of him when they were seven and smearing glue on each other.
The pale hairs on the back of his neck, for example. He was on the football team and the wrestling team, and he strode through life with a cocky swagger. Yet those downy strands made him seem vulnerable—and all the more so since surely he didn’t know it.
But she wasn’t here to think about Benton. She was here to make her third wish. The deepest wish of her secret heart. Natasha’s gut clenched. Did she know the deepest wish of her secret heart? How was she supposed to know the deepest wish of her secret heart? If it was a secret, how could she know?
Be still, child, the willow seemed to say.
Natasha bristled. She was not a child. How could she be, given her determination to keep her family from falling apart? She set out the breakfast plates while Aunt Vera cooked eggs and bacon. She helped Ava with her homework. She did the vacuuming before Aunt Elena thought to ask, and she was the one who remembered to buy the vacuum cleaner bags when they ran low. Papa got a rash if his clothes weren’t washed with the right brand of detergent, so remembering to buy special detergent was Natasha’s job too. And for heaven’s sake, Natasha had been the one to replace the furnace filter earlier this winter. The furnace filter! What “child” did that?
The willow hummed. Natasha’s grandmother had played beneath it when she was a child, as had her grandmother’s grandmother, and it was Natasha’s great-grandmother’s great-great-great-grandmother who planted it, or so the story went. Natasha was fuzzy on the details. But all the girls in Natasha’s family had made their Wishing Day wishes here, as far back as anyone could remember.
Natasha kept her hands against the willow’s trunk.
Go back to what matters, said a soft voice inside her. It was her own voice, but not one that rose often to the surface. Not the kiss, which was dumb. But go to the heart of things.
Tears pricked at Natasha’s eyes, and for the briefest moment, she let herself feel sorry for herself. She held things together so well. She worked hard and stayed busy and took care of others. She never complained.
“What would we do without you?” Papa often said, laying his hand on her shoulder and smiling his weary smile.
He wasn’t really asking. He certainly didn’t want an answer. But sometimes Natasha imagined . . . going away. Not disappearing! Well, maybe disappearing, but just for a day, so that her absence would force him to see how much he needed her. The same for her sisters and her aunts.
Except, no. That was close, but that wasn’t quite it, because it wasn’t that they didn’t see how much she helped. They did. The problem was that they saw little else.
Likewise, people in town saw how polite she was. Her teachers saw how hardworking she was. Even Molly saw a version of Natasha that wasn’t fully fleshed out. Molly was a good friend to Natasha. They had fun together. If Natasha were dangling off a bridge about to fall, Molly would try to save her even if it meant putting herself in danger. Probably.
But every so often, Natasha rammed up against something in Molly that she didn’t know what to do with. Like, she wondered how much Molly enjoyed being the best friend of “that poor girl who lost her mother.”
Molly was always fixing her, for example. She’d adjust Natasha’s shirt or tell her to redo her ponytail because there were bumps. She once told Natasha in a loud whisper that she needed to freshen up her deodorant—no offense!
Then, after seeing Natasha’s expression, she’d looked stricken. “It’s just . . . that’s how my mom puts it, when she thinks I smell sweaty. And it totally embarrasses me, but I’d rather know than not know. Wouldn’t you?”
Natasha felt a stab of guilt. She would rather know. She didn’t want to be the smelly kid! Hearing it out loud totally embarrassed Natasha, too. That was all.
But. Natasha wasn’t just “poor Natasha.” She wasn’t just responsible Natasha or polite Natasha or studious Natasha, either. There was more to her than all of that.
The thoughts and feelings she was grappling with came together with sudden clarity.
Natasha didn’t want to disappear. She wanted to be seen.
So. Her third and final wish.
“I wish I were somebody’s favorite,” she whispered to the tree. “Not everyone’s. Just someone’s.” She stopped breathing. She closed her eyes.
Someone who sees all of me, she added silently.
She opened her eyes and pulled her hands away from the willow. Her cheeks were numb, and she wanted to lick her chapped lips, but she didn’t, because she knew it would only make them worse.
“Natasha?” she heard. It was Aunt Elena.
“Natasha!” Aunt Vera called.
Other noises broke into her awareness. Branches rustled. Wood creaked. Somewhere, a dog barked and barked.
Natasha blinked herself back into focus. She studied the trunk of the willow tree, which was lined with infinite cracks and furrows. She tilted her head upward and gazed at the star-slung sky, visible in bits and snatches through the tree’s silver branches.
She felt the magic drain away. The willow was just a willow, and Natasha was just Natasha. She felt idiotic.
She pushed through the willow’s canopy and stepped into the clearing.
It was done.