When Abby saves her sister from bullies, her magic accidentally opens a portal into another realm that unleashes troublesome bunnies into the quaint supernatural torn of North Haven. Written by Stephanie Cooke and illustrated by Mari Costa, ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse is a warm-hearted middle-grade adventure about friendship, facing the challenges of growing up, responsibility, and having fun. Here, Cooke introduces us to the world of ParaNorthern.
Tell us about Abby and her friends and your inspirations for their unique designs.
These characters have been in my head for so long, and originally as I was trying to think up the characters to this story, I knew I wanted to do things a bit differently and really play in that magical sandbox. They stemmed from a love of all things Halloween, along with a love for mythology, folklore, legends, and of course the supernatural. If we have this world where all this magic exists, why would all the beings just be humans that happen to have magic? Playing around with that and the cast was something that was really important to me, and I had a ton of fun imagining the possibilities of who and what could exist in their world.
Hannah in particular is a different take on the concept of ghosts that we’re used to. Where does this idea stem from?
When I think of the supernatural, I also always think of ghosts. I think a lot of people’s minds go there and to vampires. Having a character that was a ghost felt a bit morbid to me. I wanted someone that was still alive but didn’t know how to necessarily incorporate that and so the idea for Hannah came together along with the storyline that portals that existed in this world. If places like space and deep underwater do weird things to our bodies, I wanted to imagine what a whole new world filled with magic might do to someone. And thus Hannah and her family lose their corporeal forms when they move to the world and require charms to help tether them and allow them interaction with physical objects.
I think that “ghostly” feeling is something that a lot of young people can relate to, too. When you feel different or alone or whatever, it’s easy to feel invisible and like the world doesn’t see who you really are. So having a ghost in the mix (that wasn’t dead) felt like another way to really illustrate some big emotions we sometimes experience.
I love the relationship dynamic between Abby and her mother. Why is it important to you to depict their relationship in this way?
Gosh, this is such a great question—thank you for asking it! I think it kind of represents the ideal to me; a parent that is there for love and support while also giving you the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them, and allowing those experiences to help you grow. And more than that, I think just having a parent/child relationship where young people are treated with the respect that they’ve earned was really important to depict. In ParaNorthern, Abby happily takes on responsibilities with their café and her little sister. In turn, her mother knows that Abby (and all kids) are going to mess up and make mistakes along the way but she knows that Abby has a good head on her shoulders and will make the best decisions for her.
Dangerous and/or chaotic bunnies have shown up in our entertainment often over the years. Are there any particular bunnies that inspired the ones hopping around North Haven?
Ha, yes! There’s a bunch of little bits of inspiration for these chaotic fluff balls. My parents weren’t big on letting me watch a lot of TV shows or movies when I was growing up. But one of the movies that my dad did introduce me to was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You can probably tell where this is going but the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog was a creature that I was delighted by. I loved the idea of this tiny cute fluff pile being an actual menace so I wanted to bring that to ParaNorthern.
But how I think I describe the bunnies to most people is this (and also one of my other big inspirations): if you’ve seen Lilo & Stitch, you’ll know that Stitch isn’t inherently evil per se. He’s just a creature of ultimate chaos and mischief and will do everything possible to achieve that. And that’s the bunnies, too; they’re not evil but it is in their nature to destroy everything in their path! They’re ravenous, curious, and fearless so the world you see them come from is decimated from the bunnies multiplying like, well, bunnies…and then just roaming free.
So those are definitely two of the big inspirations for the Chaos Bunnies in the story! One a more direct reference while the other is more spiritual. Kindred chaos spirits.
Did you draw upon real witchcraft to help shape your lore and Abby’s background?
Yes, a bit! I didn’t want much of our idea of witchcraft and magic to shape their world too heavily but I wanted to use bits of it for inspiration. To me, their world is an alternate world where magic exists but some things from our world as we know it has bled into theirs. So I’d research spells for certain things and then try to make it my own to fit into what I see their world as.
Things like Abby’s connection to Morrigan, an ancient powerful witch, was inspired by Irish mythology, but it’s different because it’s not our version of her. I love the concept that everything that we deem a myth or legend or whatever came from some kernel of truth. And I really wanted to see how I could interpret that here.
How did you and Mari Costa team up for this book and what was your creative process like?
Realistically, Mari and I didn’t work together that much on the story. For Oh My Gods! we were a fully-formed team when we sold the book; a package deal. Insha, Juliana, and I sold the book together to HMH Kids. When I sold ParaNorthern, it was as a writer. So my wonderful and amazing editor Lily consulted me several times and we had talks about what we envisioned for the story and dream artists to work with. With that information, HMH Kids found and brought Mari on board to the book.
We chatted a bit early on about the character concepts to really nail the looks down and then we really didn’t talk after that. We had an amazing book designer, Mary-Claire Cruz, who worked closely with Mari on the art and then overseeing everything was Lily who I really trusted to bring the book to life. She just got it and I knew ParaNorthern was a story that she loved too and was in good hands.
You touch on a lot of topics that are quite significant in real life. Why is it important for you to incorporate these elements into a story for young readers?
I think sometimes as we grow into adults, we can idolize the “carefree existence” that young people have. They don’t have bills, jobs, debt, responsibilities, etc. and it’s easy to have that sort of reverse-Peter Pan syndrome where we want to go back to easier times. We forget that kids can really struggle with very real feelings where they’re not always taken seriously and it’s hard to put words to those things when they don’t know how to fully explain what they’re experiencing. Like how Raina Telgemeier incorporates things like dealing with death or learning about anxiety into her stories. Kids need ways to understand what they’re going through and to not feel alone. Having a fun story to keep kids moving through the book is great, but then sprinkling things in there that helps them feel not so alone? We can all use that in our lives. Empathy and kindness go a long way.