December 16, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Cynthia Hand On Retelling “A Christmas Carol” for Teens

 Courtesy of Cynthia Hand

Charles Dickens’s holiday classic has been adapted for the stage and big and small screens multiple times. The author of the “Unearthly” series has reimagined the well-known tale of Scrooge the miser for a modern audience. In her The Afterlife of Holly Chase (HarperCollins), Hand gives readers a prickly heroine who gets another chance at redemption when she fails to change her mean ways after visits from ghosts on Christmas Eve. The author talked to SLJ about what inspired her to revisit the beloved story and why we all deserve second chances.

What inspired you to write this reimagining of A Christmas Carol?

I’ve been a fan of A Christmas Carol since I was a kid. The Muppet version is my favorite, although I also used to listen over and over to a record of Mickey’s Christmas Carol when I was really little. But my real connection to this story actually came when I was in my high school’s production of A Christmas Carol. I played Fan, Scrooge’s little sister who dies. So that’s really when I came to love this story. I actually started thinking about retelling it as a play years ago, before I wrote books. I thought it might be nice for there to be a more updated, more teen-centric version of the classic that could be performed by high schools and community theaters. But my career went off in a different direction (I became a novelist, not a playwright) and I shelved the idea for a decade. Then a time came when I thought it might be nice to write a holiday-themed YA novel, since there aren’t a lot of those, and that old idea instantly came roaring back to life.

For most of the book, Holly isn’t the most likable of protagonists—she was a Scrooge, after all. But she still manages to be relatable. Why did you choose to characterize her in that way?

I’ve always been super interested in characters who are initially very selfish, and then have to overcome their selfishness and learn how to love people (which you can’t really do if you’re only thinking about yourself). You can see that at work, I think, in all of my novels, from Clara in the “Unearthly” series to Edward in My Lady Jane. I’m drawn to writing about selfish people, largely because I relate to that inner struggle. I think we all do, to an extent. We all have ugliness inside of us, and selfishness, and meanness, and it’s important to have stories that show characters overcoming those things and growing as people.

I also knew going into writing Holly that she would need to be unlikable from the beginning. She’s the modern-day equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge. She has to be bad. But I also knew that, as a society, we often don’t allow female protagonists be unlikable the way we let male protagonists. You don’t see people throwing down A Christmas Carol after reading a few pages because Scrooge is a jerk. Or complaining that they hate The Grinch Who Stole Christmas because the Grinch is just too unlikable. But there’s a very real danger of them throwing down Holly Chase because she’s not very nice. We expect girls to be nice.

Which is all the more reason, I think, that I wanted to write about her.

How did you come up with “Project Scrooge” and the detailed world behind it?

That was a lot of fun. Part of it was inspired by the movie Cabin In the Woods. This is a very gory, very strange horror movie that came out a few years ago, where every year this company has to orchestrate a sacrifice to the ancient gods in order to save the world. It’s not a film that I’d recommend to everybody, but what I really liked about it was the fact that these people worked in an office and had office wagers and conversations about the wife and kids and company picnics (in other words, normal office life)—all the while doing this bizarre, supernatural job. I loved that. I also appreciate the same kind of thing about the movie Monsters, Inc.

Somehow that concept merged with the idea of the teenage girl Scrooge in my brain, and I was writing. Again, it was just a blast to make up the rules of this world—the ways that Project Scrooge resembled a regular office, and the ways that it was also a bit like Homeland—like a company who was doing pretty intense surveillance on a different person every year—and the ways it was also like a supernatural experience with “ghosts” and mind-reading and a touch of time-manipulation. So fun.

I love how much the importance of second chances resonates throughout this novel. Why do you think teens (and adults) reading this would appreciate that message?

I love this quote that’s sometimes attributed to George Eliot (which appears in a well-timed fortune cookie in my book):

“It is never too late to become what you might have been.”

I think we make choices about who we want to be, and we especially do this when we’re teenagers and we’re figuring ourselves out. But sometimes we mess up. We make the wrong choices. We go down the wrong path, and we think we can’t ever go back or make it right again. And yeah, sometimes we can’t. But we can still choose who we want to be going forward. We can wake up every day and choose to be better than we were the day before. We can grow. That idea is incredibly encouraging.

I was totally surprised by that ending! Did you have it planned from the beginning? Or was this a conclusion that made itself clear to you as you finished the book?

I knew part of the ending from the start (the part that I think is fairly obvious, in a retelling of A Christmas Carol). But about halfway into the writing of the book I was hit by another facet of the ending that I hadn’t considered before, and it was like a thunderclap in my mind—it felt like the perfect ending on top of the expected ending. And I loved it. I cried while writing it.

Who was your favorite character to write? Which one did you most identify with?

I enjoyed so many of the characters: Blackpool, for instance, because he was so mysterious and grumpy and I love grumpy characters, and Boz, because it was like I got to make Charles Dickens into a modern character. But my favorite character to write was probably Stephanie, Holly’s dorky, clueless-seeming assistant. There were just so many layers to Stephanie, and so much heart to her.

I probably identified most with Holly, though. Because I, too, struggle with selfishness sometimes, and I, too, have to decide to be better than that.

Are you a big Dickens fan?

Huge. What I love about Dickens is that he really seemed to understand people and what motivates them, and of course that meant that he could write these amazing, insightful novels, but he also used that ability to try to change what he saw as the injustices of the world. He wrote A Christmas Carol in part to get people thinking about their prejudices about the poor and unfortunate around them, and to contemplate their own relationship with money and greed.

So, yes, I’m a Dickens fangirl. There are Dickens Easter eggs all over the book and quotes from other Dickens novels. Jodi Meadows and Brodi Ashton and I spent a couple weeks in London together while we were working on My Lady Jane a couple years ago, and I forced them both to drag their suitcases over some pretty bumpy cobblestone streets to visit the Charles Dickens Museum, which is actually the home that Dickens lived and worked in for most of his life. I was like a kid in the candy store in there, just gobbling up the little details of that place, and those details often found their way into the book. For instance: the green sofa in Boz’s office in the first chapter of the book is the green sofa from Charles Dickens’ own living room.

Do you have a favorite holiday tradition?

I always make a Christmas package for my kids, which has a new snuggly pair of pajamas inside, a package of popcorn and hot chocolate, and a Christmas movie. So on Christmas Eve they open the package and we cuddle up and watch the movie together. It’s awesome. I also always read them The Night Before Christmas, which my parents read to me every Christmas when I was a kid.

What are you working on now?

I am working on the galleys for the next Jane book that I wrote with the Lady Janies, which is called My Plain Jane and will be out this June. This is our last chance to make changes on the book, and I’m enjoying reading it so much—it’s a retelling of Jane Eyre and a chance to save Charlotte Bronte from her sad fate and a little bit Ghostbusters, all in one. It makes me laugh—I love it.

And I am working on my next solo book, which doesn’t officially have a title yet, but will be out sometime in 2019. It’s a story that’s been on my heart to tell for a while (I’ve been working on it off and on for the last five years, in fact) about a 16-year-old girl living in a home for pregnant teens, writing letters to her unborn baby, and the 18-year-old girl that baby grows up to be, years later, trying to figure out who she is.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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