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Lesley Livingston

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Giving new life to old tales

Lesley Livingston brings some welcome levity to a moody genre

Once Every Never (Penguin Canada), Lesley Livingston’s fourth novel, is actually the second manuscript the self-­professed history and mythology nerd finished writing. After working for 10 years on a retelling of the King Arthur legend for adults that proved to be a non-starter, Livingston tried her hand at a YA novel about an obscure figure in British history: the Iceni queen Boudicca, who rebelled against the Romans around 60 AD. “I wanted to approach it from the point of view of [a young adult] who knew nothing about that period of history and couldn’t care less,” she says.

The story follows every-teen Clare Reid as she travels in time between contemporary London and first-century Britain, contemplates hooking up with a dreamy Druid, befriends Boudicca’s daughter, and may or may not change the course of history, all while fighting a greedy modern-day wannabe Druid and maintaining relationships with her best pal, her London love interest, and her aunt. Sounds like a lot? It is. But Livingston makes it work by weaving the action and drama together with a distinctly teenage sense of humour.

“I really wanted it to be funny, kinda sharp, and kinda snarky, because the subject matter is fairly dark – it really does involve the massacre of a people, once you get right down to it,” she explains. “If everything is too angsty, too soaked in the badness of what’s going on, too focused on the horrible consequences and the heartbreak, you get numb to it. Moments of lightness and humour … draw out all that nervous, anxious energy.”

Bringing new life to topics that might otherwise seem intimidating, irrelevant, or just plain boring to young readers is Living­ston’s specialty, as the success of her first novel, Wondrous Strange (which won the 2010 Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Canadian Book Award), would seem to suggest. In this book – the first in a series published by HarperCollins Canada that includes Darklight (2010) and Tempestuous (2011) – Livingston tells an “urban Faerie” story about a Shakespearean teen actor who learns she’s the kidnapped heir to a fairy realm. The series highlights the fairy myth’s Celtic roots, and Livingston says she made a point of emphasizing the important role Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream played in popularizing fairy lore.

Livingston would know a thing or two about that. She specialized in Shakespearean literature at the University of Toronto and later co-founded and performed with the Tempest Theatre Group, a Shakespearean theatre company. Studying the Bard and performing his plays for teenage audiences taught her how to use humour as both a “lightning rod and punctuation,” and it’s where she first discovered their passion for fleshed-out characters and resonant stories. She’s reminded of this lesson when she meets her readers now. “There’s nothing so strong out there as the love of a 16-year-old girl for a book,” she says. “They’re a force of nature. They’re evangelists, and they will go out and tell their friends about it, they will blog about it, they will go to bookstores.”

Livingston’s focus on ancient history and folklore hasn’t presented a barrier for young readers, but it has turned off some publishers. Despite her success with the Wondrous Strange series, she had a hard time shopping around Once Every Never. “[Publishers] were like, ‘Druids? Like Dumbledore?’ And I thought, ‘What part of ‘hot Druid prince’ screams Dumbledore to you?’” Her editors at HarperCollins in Canada and the U.S. eventually passed.

Penguin Canada has since signed on to publish Once Every Never as part of a new trilogy. The next two books, tentatively titled Every Never After and Now and for Never, will appear beginning in 2013 under a new YA imprint, Razorbill Canada, that will launch next spring. The imprint will be overseen by recently installed children’s publishing director Lynne Missen, who jumped ship in January from HarperCollins Canada, where she had been Livingston’s editor for Wondrous Strange.

The series deal with Penguin, coupled with another deal with HarperCollins Canada for a Wondrous Strange spinoff series, means Livingston will have five new books out between now and the end of 2014. To her, it all seems like a stroke of luck. “I feel like I won the freaking lottery!” she says. Hopefully her readers – those passionate 16-year-olds who long for a good historical romance, if not a hot Druid prince – will be the true winners.