From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors welcomes Christina Collins, author of THE TOWN WITH NO MIRRORS (Sourcebooks, Feb 2023). Collins is New England born but currently lives in Northern Ireland. Her debut middle-grade novel, After Zero, was an NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts, and she holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast and an MFA from George Mason University, both in creative writing.
Here, Collins chats with MUF contributor Andrea Pyros about the challenges of writing a dystopian story for middle-grade readers, the magic and comfort of reading as a middle-schooler, and what she’s read – and loved – lately.
Mixed-Up Files: Tell us about THE TOWN WITH NO MIRRORS.
Christina Collins: THE TOWN WITH NO MIRRORS is my second middle-grade novel, set in a modern utopian town called Gladder Hill, where mirrors and cameras are forbidden, words like “beautiful” and “ugly” aren’t in the dictionaries, and twelve-year-old Zailey has grown up knowing every face in town…except her own. There’s no talk of how people look, no body shaming… Sounds good, right? But it might not be as utopian as it seems. And Zailey has questions—as well as a guilty secret that could get her and her grandmother evicted if she were discovered… I’ll stop there so I don’t give too much away!
MUF: What inspired you to write this story?
CC: It all started when I took a fascinating dystopian literature course in grad school a while back. I was a creative writing student, so I had the option to write a short story rather than an essay for my final project. At the time, I was also into fairy-tale reimaginings, so an idea popped into my head regarding Snow White’s “happily ever after”: What if Snow White wanted to ban mirrors from her kingdom as soon as she became queen? After all, she’d almost died at the hands of a mirror-obsessed stepmother.
Then I began to imagine what such a society would be like—one without mirrors or any reliable way of knowing what your face looks like. I wrote it as a short story for the class, but the concept stuck with me. That’s probably because body image was such a personal topic for me (and who hasn’t struggled with body image at some point?). I also read about an interesting trend that had been popular circa 2012, called “mirror fasting.” I eventually scrapped the Snow White angle and started writing about the idea in a way that felt more relevant: as a middle-grade novel with a contemporary setting. This felt right not only because body-image concerns so often emerge in young people around middle-grade age, but also because the modern world presents so many opportunities for physical comparison. The novel grew from there!
MUF: There are some serious themes in this novel, but you’re writing for middle grade readers. Can you talk about how you balance the topics in a way that works for this age group?
CC: Great question. To be honest, it’s not something I thought consciously about while writing the book. As I touched on above, middle school is a time when so many kids (including past me) begin to really compare themselves to others and struggle with body image—for some, it sadly starts even younger—so writing this story for a middle grade readership felt pretty natural.
The key for me was to approach the themes through the eyes of a twelve-year-old; Zailey may not fully understand all of the serious issues pertaining to the mission of Gladder Hill, but she is certainly curious, growing more aware, and asking questions. The topic of eating disorders does come up, but the story didn’t call for explicitly discussing it, only touching on it briefly. While the novel features serious themes, I also wanted to make sure it was an entertaining story with some mystery, adventure, and a sense of hope at the end, which I think helps with balance.
MUF: What makes you enjoy and want to write for MG readers in particular?
CC: I remember the magic and comfort of reading fiction when I was an MG reader myself. It strikes me as a particularly influential and formative time in a reader’s life, and there’s something so special about being a part of that as an author. Plus, I like reflecting on and writing about the age that hovers between childhood and young adulthood—all the excitement and confusion and wonder of it, chock-full of story possibilities.
MUF: You were born in Massachusetts but now live in Ireland. Does the experience of being an immigrant inform your writing, and if so, in what ways?
CC: I drafted my debut novel and got the idea for my second novel all before I moved, so I think the experience hasn’t had too much influence on my first two novels. But now that I’ve been in Northern Ireland for seven years (!), I suspect it will influence my writing more and more.
It’s funny—when I brainstorm new ideas, I often find myself defaulting to a US setting, maybe partly because it keeps me feeling connected to where I’m from, and because writing about home and the familiar can be comforting when you live an ocean away from most of your family and friends. At the same time, I’m finally feeling ready to write about the experience of moving to and living in Northern Ireland; I have some story ideas in that regard and can’t wait to see where they take me.
MUF: What’s your writing process like?
CC: It varies with each project, but I usually like to get to the end of a first draft on my own, without the influence of any outside feedback. I start by writing a sort of story pitch; this helps me figure out if I have enough of a grasp on what I want the story to be about overall and whether there’s a strong enough hook. From there I flesh it out into an outline, and then I tend to write until I have a complete first draft that I’ve read through and lightly revised at least once on my own, before sending it to my agent for her thoughts and suggestions.
MUF: What are your favorite dystopian novels (for any age)?
CC: Ooh, so many! The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is definitely up there for me; that book blew my mind when I first read it in my early twenties, and it’s one I come back to. Other favorites include the YA novel Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill and the MG novels Alone by Megan E. Freeman and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
MUF: What are some other recent middle-grade books that you’ve enjoyed?
CC: Girl (In Real Life) by Tamsin Winter, This Last Adventure by Ryan Dalton, and Bright by Brigit Young are all recent reads that I highly recommend. And I’m currently reading and loving Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone by Tae Keller.
MUF: What are you planning on working on next?
CC: I have several story ideas, so the challenge for me is picking one I feel confident enough to stick with. As I mentioned earlier, I’d love to set a middle-grade novel in Northern Ireland where I live, so I’m hoping to focus on that next.
MUF: Where can people find you online?