By Clover Carroll
Forty-odd book lovers crowded into Over the Moon Bookstore in Crozet May 2 for a release party to celebrate the publication of the new young adult novel Valiant, by local author Sarah McGuire. After hearing the author read one of the more nail-biting passages, guests asked questions and eagerly lined up to have their copies signed. Owner Anne DeVault quickly sold out of all her copies and began taking orders for more. Then guests enjoyed punch and cookies, decorated to look like spools of thread and served from a sewing box. In a town that boasts so many well-known authors—John Grisham, Jan Karon, Rita Mae Brown, and Ann Beattie, to name a few—we all felt some home-town pride to add one of our own to the ranks.
Valiant is a rich, emotionally compelling re-imagining of “The Brave Little Tailor”—an old German folk tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century—featuring a strong female protagonist who protects her kingdom from an army of giants. Soon after moving to the kingdom’s capitol of Reggen, spunky heroine Saville’s tailor father suffers a stroke and is confined to his bed, unable to sew. To support him as well as Will, a homeless waif she befriends soon after their arrival, Saville disguises herself as a boy, represents herself as the tailor’s apprentice, and wins a commission to sew for the king. But when two giant scouts appear at the city’s gates, sent by the “Holder of the Eternal Heart” who intends to lay claim to the kingdom, one of them makes the mistake of picking Will up and dangling him upside down. Determined to save her best friend by any means necessary—even at the risk of her own life—Saville faces down and outwits the giants to become the town’s champion, thereby winning the princess’ hand in marriage (and adding a dose of humor). It’s a sort of Sandra Day O’Connor meets Goliath situation—only instead of slinging rocks, she uses her intellect to win the day. From this engaging beginning, the story builds to a gripping showdown between the weak King Eldin and the giant army, masterfully—or should we say mistressfully?—managed by Saville. Along the way we are treated to verbal sparring between Saville and the giants, hilarious interviews with the king before her gender secret is revealed, secret tunnels to hidden caves in the mountainside castle, and just the right amount of nuanced romance.
Valiant has been well received in the reviewing journals and is included in Follett’s subscription “Great Reads for Girls” package. “McGuire uses familiar European folk-tale motifs as the bare-bones backdrop for a lively adventure story with some surprising twists… [to produce] a charming, satisfying first novel” (Kirkus Reviews 3/15/15). Fairy tale retellings are a current trend in young adult fiction—pioneered by Shannon Hale, Gail Carson Levine, and Marrissa Meyer—but McGuire says that when she started writing seriously in 2006, it never occurred to her to write anything else. “These are the stories that matter to me,” she explains. “And it’s nice to start with the germ of a story to work with and reshape.” After laboring at a different novel for five years, in the spring of 2012 McGuire finally realized it would not sell and signed up for a fantasy writing workshop hosted by Patricia Lee Gauch, children’s author and editor of the classic Redwall fantasy series as well as the 2013 Newbery-nominated Mockingbird: (Mok’ing-burd), by local author Kathryn Erskine. A Highlights Children’s Authors and Illustrators Foundation scholarship made it possible for her to attend.
Early in the workshop, as McGuire was flipping through a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, she came across “The Brave Little Tailor.” While she remembered how much the girls she had nannied enjoyed the cleverness of the tailor in the tale, the way he took advantage of the stupidity of giants also angered her.
A fundamental principle of teaching math, as McGuire has done at Western Albemarle High School for the past five years, is the recognition that no student is stupid; they just may need the material to be presented in a different way so they can understand it. She began to think about how she could re-envision that relationship. What if the giants weren’t brutes? And what if the tailor were a girl! Girl power is, of course, another timely trend. Gauch had offered to mark up any rough draft that was ready by that November—an opportunity McGuire could not pass up. She spent the whole summer writing and made her first deadline. Gauch marked up every page, McGuire remembers, and emphasized that every good story must have an emotional heart or center. It is the “transcendent moments,” scenes that move the reader emotionally, that make a book successful.
McGuire spent the next eight months revising her initial draft. But as soon as she sent out her finished manuscript, it was accepted by an agent, and then accepted for publication by Egmont Publishing on the first round of submissions in August 2012. As an indication of her energy level, to celebrate McGuire spent her advance on a hiking tour of Scotland during the summer of 2013. Over 10 days, she and her 30-year-old ‘little brother’ walked the 96-mile West Highland Way between Glasgow and Fort William, including a stop at Loch Lomond. This was a dream come true for McGuire. All she had to carry was a day pack; the Macs Adventure touring company transported all her other belongings from one small town inn to the next for the overnight stays.
A tall, slender woman with a mop of strawberry-blond curls, McGuire teaches Discrete Math, Launch, and Creative Writing, and sponsors the Myriad literary magazine. At the end of a typical school day, she grades papers and plans lessons until evening, and begins writing between 7 and 9 p.m., often continuing late into the night.
“I love teaching because it gets me out of my head,” she observed. A good writer should be involved in the world and have many varied experiences from which to draw. “Living allows you to write well. I am naturally an introvert, but if I can teach rational polynomials without kids going to sleep, I can do anything!”
The act of explaining something difficult is essentially the act of storytelling. “I love my students and I love explaining things, unpacking them.” A good writer is observant, curious, caring, open-minded, and tolerant—which are also the characteristics of a good teacher.
They say that all first novels are at least partly autobiographical. McGuire has herself demonstrated a great deal of courage and determination to bring this project to life on top of her demanding teaching schedule. Her favorite scenes to write in Valiant were those between Saville and Will—perhaps stemming from her relationship with her brother.
Delighted by her success, McGuire hopes her next novel will be even better. She is already hard at work on a retelling of “The Six Swans,” in which six enchanted brothers are turned into birds, and their sister must remain silent while she weaves them six shirts out of nettles in order to free them from the curse.