NEA Big Read
Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters

by Kelly Link

Whether or not this story has a happy ending depends, of course, on who is reading it. Whether you are a wolf or a girl.

Kelly Link (Sharona Jacobs Photography LLC)

  1. The narrator of “The Wrong Grave” says things like “a boy I once knew,” and “from my experience,” and “You're not interested in my views on poetry. I know you better than that, even if you don't know me.” And yet, he/she remains anonymous. Whom do you think the narrator could be? How might the story be different if Miles was telling it? Why do you think Link chose to tell the story this way?
  2. As the narrator tells us in “The Wrong Grave,” the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried some of his unpublished poetry with his dead wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Later, he dug up her grave so that he could get the poems (his only copies) back. Is there anything that you can imagine digging up a grave to retrieve? What lasts longer, poetry or grief?
  3. Though both teach magic, the school in “The Wizards of Perfil” has a curriculum that's a little more alternative than Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. Can you imagine a world in which there are lots of magic schools, all with different philosophies of teaching? A Waldorf magic school versus a Montessori-style magic school? Would you want to go to one of these, or send your children to one of these schools? Do you think there should be magic taught in public schools? Why, in fiction, is magic so often something that only some children are good at?
  4. “Magic for Beginners” was written in 2002. The idea for the story grew, in part, out of Link's desire to write about a television show (and its fandom) which was acted, produced, written, and distributed in ways that no actual television show of the time was. How has television and the experience of watching it and being a part of a fandom changed since 2002?
  5. The characters in “The Faery Handbag” like to frequent thrift stores. They have a theory that “things had life cycles, the way that people do.” Do you ever wonder what stories surround your previously-owned possessions? The faery handbag, in fact, is a family heirloom over 200 years old. Do you have any mysterious family heirlooms? Does your family tell stories of your ancestors that don't quite seem to add up?
  6. “The Specialist's Hat” is one of the first stories that Link ever published. It was her first attempt at a traditional ghost story in the style of classic ghost story writers like M. R. James and E. F. Benson. It also draws on true stories about ghosts and childhood that her own family and friends told her. What's the scariest true story/ghost story that you know?
  7. “Monster” fits into a tradition of scary stories about terrible things that happen during camping trips. Much like monster stories and ghost stories, stories about other people's disastrous camping trips (or road trips or travel in general) can be just as enticing—or more—than stories about good camping trips or fabulous vacations where everything went right. What's the worst camping trip or vacation you ever went on? And what do you remember better: the best trip you ever took, or the worst?
  8. There is an alien invasion at the end of “The Surfer.” There's also a pandemic. In post-apocalyptic stories, these are two of the most common ways in which the world ends. But does the end of the story feel like an apocalypse? Dorn's father loves science fiction. He hopes that the aliens are there to save mankind. Does the ending feel hopeful to you? If you wrote your own alien invasion story, how do you imagine things would go?
  9. We only get to see a little of the world that Zilla and Ozma live in in “The Constable of Abal.” What can you picture of it? How is it different from our world? How is it similar to other fantasy settings? Ozma shares a name with Princess Ozma, a character in all but the first of Frank L. Baum's “Wizard of Oz” books. If you've read those books, can you guess why Link chose that name?
  10. There are at least two overlapping stories in “Pretty Monsters”: Clementine's story, and Parci and Czigany's story. Does one of them seem more “real” to you, and one more “story like?” If so, why?
  11. What's scary about being an adolescent? Why would someone want to be a monster?
  12. There are no overtly fantastical events in “The Cinderella Game,” but there are references to a handful of well-known fairytales, starting with the title of the story. Which ones can you pick out? Is this story itself a fairytale?
  13. What kind of relationships do the teenage characters in this collection of stories have with their parents? Do the relationships feel realistic? How is the portrayal of these relationships affected by fantastic settings, or the intrusion of monsters or ghosts?
  14. Link has said that a young adult story is a story about someone experiencing something for the first time: falling in love, betraying a friend or being betrayed, experiencing profound loss or finding a community of people with the same interests, discovering an ability or a talent, coming of age. You can list any number of adult novels or stories that work as cross-over narratives because they fit this theme. Do these stories work differently for adult readers than for young adult readers? Is there any kind of meaningful line between young adult literature and adult literature?
  15. Can you imagine the characters in these stories as adults? Would they be very different? Do you think that people stay the same as they grow up, or do they become almost entirely different people?
  16. Link has been commended by critics for, among other things, her humor. Did you find some of these stories—or parts of the stories—funny? Why? How would you describe her particular type of humor?
  17. Every story in the collection begins with a drawing by the distinguished Australian author and illustrator Shaun Tan, who chose a line from each story to inspire his drawings. Did these drawings affect how you approached the stories? What lines or phrases from each story resonated with you?
  18. If you could ask the author one question about these stories, or about writing them, what would you ask her?
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