In Caitlin Sangster’s Last Star Burning, the Sleeping Sickness (SS) has destroyed the world outside of Sev’s city and the life Sev used to have. Now marked as a criminal as punishment for her mom’s betrayal, Sev just wants to prove that she’s still of value to her city. But when the government blames her for an attack, Sev’s only hope is the Chariman’s son Howl who leads her beyond the walls of everything she’s ever known, including the twisted past she believed was true.
“Writing [Last Star Burning] gave me nightmares!” said Sangster. “I lived in Montana most of the time I was drafting Last Star Burning and there are certain scary things that happen in the book that having to think through made me terrified to walk around outside at night. With the bears. And mountain lions. And WOLVES.”
But the scary things in this novel go much further than wandering creatures. The plague that keeps society at bay is terrifying enough. And in Sangster’s author’s note, she mentions that the real disease encephalitis lethargica inspired the Sleeping Sickness.
“I first heard learned about encephalitis lethargica as I was dragging my darling one-year-old through the library,” said Sangster. She had picked up one of the staff picks titled Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell before rushing back to the picture book section. “It’s a narrative history featuring a group of case studies (and a healthy dose of speculation).”
“Real encephalitis lethargica comes with a sore throat or other flu-like symptoms that then turn into a sleepy state. In some cases it goes to a completely coma-like paralyzed condition like the one described in Last Star Burning,” explained Sangster.
“Right after I finished reading about the disease, I was listening to a radio program about scientists refusing to publicly publish their findings on the ‘flu, because they felt it was unethical. Now, I don’t remember why the scientists said it was unethical, but it sparked me thinking about what would happen if ‘flu studies to formulate pathogens for biological warfare. And what if that already terrifying influenza virus was deliberately manufactured trigger encephalitis lethargica . . . it just seemed like a very scary, very YA-ish, very, very fun idea to write.”
And so SS in Last Star Burning was born.
But while the Sleeping Sickness is a very important part of Last Star Burning, so is Sev’s culture and society. The entire book is inspired by China and elements of Chinese history.
While Sangster is not Chinese, she majored in Asian Studies in college and has also lived in China and Taiwan.
“There’s a lot that went into this book,” said Sangster, talking about how her own experiences – like being an awkward teenager herself – has shaped this novel. “Some of it was wanting my three adopted sisters to have a book with someone who looked like them on the cover.” Her sisters, who she practices Mandarin with from time to time, were adopted from China as teenagers.
Sangster also worked with a sensitivity reader, someone who reads through a piece of work and looks for representation and bias issues, for her novel.
“Shenwei Zhang read for me,” said Sangster. “I knew there were bound to be things in my book that weren’t quite right because no matter how much I read about or talk to Chinese people, I can’t magically become one. As the Own Voices movement has pointed out, when you try to write outside your lane, there are all sorts of ways you can get something wrong, and it can be hurtful and perpetuate stereotypes.”
“Working with Shenwei made me look a lot harder at everything that I was writing. Language is a tricky thing sometimes, and, as an author, I’ve learned that it’s my responsibility to set a good example,” said Sangster.
In early drafts, Zhang pointed out slang uses of the word psychotic.
“When I first looked at those notes, I thought ‘Well, that’s what the character would have said. They don’t know the proper clinical definition of psychosis any more than most teenagers (or adults!) do. It’s slang.’ But that’s exactly what problem is.
“Even if a slang term is in common usage, that doesn’t mean it’s responsible to use it. Using it in a book reinforces the idea that it’s okay to talk that way, and it isn’t.”
Zhang’s notes bought Sangster to do more research to further her understanding.
“I was really grateful for Shenwei’s nudges in the right direction,” said Sangster. “They were great to work with.”