By the time Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Alexandra Latos’s debut young adult novel, Under Shifting Stars, it had been thoroughly vetted.
The author had a psychologist friend read her manuscript. Youthful beta readers were chosen to ensure it would fit the 12-and-up demographic. She consulted with friends in the LGBTQ community. The American publisher also hired sensitivity readers, a relatively new and occasionally controversial practice of having experts read manuscripts and offer recommendations on how to avoid pitfalls when it comes to race, gender, sexuality and other sensitive issues. So it’s safe to say that Latos left no stone unturned when it came to the more sensitive areas of her novel.
“I had a few people helping me out,” she says, in an interview with Postmedia from her Calgary home.
Understandably, she would strive for authenticity. After all, we live in an era where even the smallest lapse in sensitivity can have a grave impact on a novel’s success. But even beyond that, Latos’s book is grounded in reality. There are no boy wizards in Under Shifting Stars. It’s a complex, coming-of-age tale told from the point of view of fraternal twins whose growing pains are complicated by issues of sexuality, gender, grief and neurodiversity. It follows a general trend in YA fiction, which has tended to stray to darker, deeper terrain and address issues that modern teens and pre-teens face.
“I remember being a teenager and I felt like the stories that were aimed at my age were really young so I ended up reading up,” says Latos. “In some ways that’s heavier, because you come across even heavier topics. I think I was reading V.C. Andrews books and I shouldn’t have been reading them when I was 15. I liked the idea of writing a young adult (novel) that teens can relate to.”
The book, distributed in Canada by Vancouver’s Raincoast Books, takes place in Calgary circa 2013. By the time we meet 14-year-old fraternal twins Clare and Audrey, their relationship is in tatters. Once inseparable, the girls have drifted apart. This has been exacerbated by the death of their beloved older brother, killed in a car accident. His absence has pushed the two down different paths and away from each other. Clare goes to public school, where she is part of a mean-girl posse of popular kids but at risk of losing her prominence as she struggles to deal with her grief. Audrey is sent to Peak, an alternative school that her parents and doctors feel is better suited to handle her special needs. When the book begins, Audrey is plotting to get back to public school, a prospect that horrifies her sister.
Latos includes some coming-of-age hallmarks but gives them a timely twist. Clare struggles with her sexuality and gender after she finds herself falling for a nonbinary classmate.
Audrey, on the other hand, enters into a relationship with a home-schooled, live-action role-playing enthusiast who is a little older and not aware that she is neurodivergent.
It all builds to a climax set against the chaotic backdrop of the Calgary flood.
The story is told in first-person narrative but through the shifting perspectives of Audrey and Clare. Clare is smart but hostile, a more-or-less typical teen who has fallen into despair and anger after the death of her brother. Audrey, on the other hand, has a more unique voice and one that was at least partially shaped after consulting with the sensitivity readers.
“We decided to go with the neurodivergent term, just because it’s a comorbidity,” Latos says. “She has a little bit of (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and a little bit of (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and she is on the autism spectrum.”
All of which makes her a fascinating narrator. Her first-person narrative seems more insular and highlights some of her obsessions, including a foreshadowing preoccupation with natural disasters.
“One of the reasons I wanted to not use quotations in her chapters was to differentiate between the two sisters and make them feel authentic and two separate people,” Latos says. “But also I wanted Audrey’s chapters to feel a little bit confusing, because of her own internal confusion that she feels every day. I wanted it to be unclear sometimes whether Audrey has thought something or said it out loud.”
Under Shifting Stars was recently recommended by the School Library Journal in the U.S. and the Canadian Review of Materials, which Latos hopes will help get the book into school libraries. While this is her first YA novel, it’s not her first novel. She penned 2016’s Instalove under the name Lexy Baker. It was a college-set romance published as part of the fledgling “new adult” genre that bridges the gap between YA and adult literature. Under Shifting Stars began life as a short story that Latos penned for a creative writing class taught by Calgary novelist Aritha Van Herk more than five years ago. It centred on Audrey’s attempts to get back to the same public school that her twin attends. Over the years, it evolved into a more complex story but the starting point was a tale about twin girls maturing at a different pace.
“They start off at 14 and turn 15 and they are straddling adulthood and childhood as their mom says at one point,” Latos says. “I liked the idea of Clare being more mature than Audrey and Audrey wanting to hold onto her childhood a little bit longer. I thought it was really interesting in a twin relationship how one twin could significantly outgrow the other twin.”
Under Shifting Stars is now available.