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Q&A: Author Leigh Bardugo talks religion, teens and the message of her popular YA fiction
Leigh Bardugo - photo by Chandra Johnson
Author Leigh Bardugo knows growing up can be tough. Born in Jerusalem and raised in Los Angeles, Bardugo changed homes and schools, as well as adjusting to new family dynamics when her mother remarried.

These days, Bardugo has turned her eclectic life and experience into a best-selling series for teens, the Grisha Trilogy. Modeled on czarist Russia, Bardugos fictional world of Ravka and the young characters that inhabit it are constantly struggling with the realities of faith, love and life in a war-torn, bureaucratic and constantly changing world.

In her new book, Six of Crows, which is set in the same fictional world as her previous series, Bardugo continues to use her work to help teens plumb the uncertainties of growing up and the rewards of doing right.

What was the inspiration or goal behind the Grisha Trilogy and now, Six of Crows?

Leigh Bardugo: My only goal when I began writing Shadow and Bone (the first book in the Grisha Trilogy) was to tell a good story. I think the themes of that story sacrifice, friendship, the lure of power, the things we're willing to give up for the sake of belonging to someone or something were things that snuck up on me as the books came to life.

But the Grisha Trilogy is very much a classic "chosen one" narrative and I knew I wanted to do something different next. The kids in Six of Crows don't have grand destinies. They aren't kings or queens or secret princesses, and they aren't looking to start a revolution. They're just six kids who are desperate enough to attempt the impossible.

In your best-selling series, the Grisha Trilogy, the main character, Alina, goes from being almost invisible to being the center of a religious and cultural phenomenon as a living saint. What do your books say about religion and/or celebrity culture?

LB: A couple of years ago, I was in Italy for a friend's wedding. I'd just finished working on Siege and Storm, (the second book in the Grisha Trilogy) I was working on Ruin and Rising, (the third book in the Grisha Trilogy) so all of the scenes with Alina and her followers were very fresh in my mind. I was worried that maybe they were unrealistic, too over the top did I need to tone them down?

So I'm in my hotel room and I hear this noise, this wave of screaming. I look down to the entrance and Lady Gaga is coming out of her hotel and this big crowd of her fans is waiting. They've been there for hours, and now they're weeping, clutching at each other, trying to get close to her. She waves, gets in her car, and as she pulls away, the crowd surrounds the car and follows it onto a busy street. They are literally running through traffic just to be near her. I thought I was going to see someone killed. I left the Sankta Alina scenes alone.

As for religion, this may just be my perception, but I feel like it's weirdly taboo in a lot of YA that isn't dealing with it as an "issue." It gets ignored or just hinted at ah, the ancient gods of yore or it gets scapegoated. It's an easy "big bad," right? Authority. Conformity. But for me, religion was always a big part of the Grisha world same as geography or magic or government, and I didn't want to present just one view of it. Faith can be scary. It can also be beautiful and sustaining.

Youve said in the past that growing up was tough for you, that junior high was a particular kind of hell. What books helped you cope with challenges when you were a kid and how do you hope your books do the same for your young readers?

LB: Books were such a refuge for me. Dune was huge, The Princess Bride, everything by Stephen King, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman. I don't know that they taught me lessons, but they showed me worlds that were bigger, and more dangerous than my own, places where being smart, and tough, and prepared was more important than being cheerful and cute. I hope I give my readers someplace to go whether they're looking for an adventure or an escape hatch.

Your books are full of strong characters, both male and female, that come from different backgrounds and have different definitions of morality. When youre writing, are you consciously trying to impart good values onto your young readers? Is morality a big consideration when you craft a story?

LB: I think my policy is basically "first do no harm." Don't prop up abusive relationships, don't promote prejudice or slut-shaming, show diversity on the page. Some of my characters are killers. No, I don't go looking to teach moral lessons, but I try to write characters who at least grapple with morality on the page. A world where the heroes are always good and noble and trying to do the right thing gets boring fast. But a world where no one cares about right and wrong isn't much better.

What kinds of values or lessons do you hope young readers take away from your books?

LB: If they come away from my books feeling stronger or braver or more hopeful, I'd be very glad of it. But even if the books just give them someplace to escape for a while, I call that a win.

Would you say theres anything youre trying to communicate on your readers with your writing that you wish someone had told you when you were a teenager?

LB: I do notice that there are a lot of "found families" in my book. Maybe I'm telling kids to find their tribes. I didn't find mine until college, but when you find the people who really see you, who make you laugh, who have your back those people can become your army.

What inspired you to use Russian themes to style your books settings and people and how much research did you do into Russian culture when inventing Ravka?

LB: I read cultural histories and folklore, collected textiles, recipes, prayer books and old photographs. Im Jewish Spanish on one side, Russian and Lithuanian on the other and in my family, Russia was always cast in the role of the glamorous oppressor. Even when I was a kid, it took on a kind of larger than life status, and in a way, it took on the traits of a fantasy world: beautiful but brutal, magical but dangerous.

What are you working on next?

LB: I'm working on the sequel to Six of Crows, and I'll be touring in the U.S., the U.K., Sweden and the Netherlands this fall. I also have a story coming out in Stephanie Perkins' new anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights. It features a witch and a Dairy Queen, and it was so much fun to write.