Fifteen-year-old Mahlorie Moore didn’t even want to go to the party at the beginning of Metal Mouth, but she lets her best friend, Shai, drag her along. She isn’t really a party girl anyway, and after getting her braces tightened, she’s not remotely in the mood to be social. Overwhelmed, she takes a break in an empty guest room only to have a boy find her there and kiss her against her will. She gives him a good knee to the crotch and storms out of the party into, well, a thunderstorm:
I scream as lightning splits the air, so close the static raises my hair, thunder so instantaneous it’s hard to separate the two. The sky lights up in a brilliant white that bleaches the world around me. I gasp, breathless, as my body goes limp and I roll into the retention ditch and out of sight from the main road. I can’t move my muscles. Am I dead? Unable to catch my breath, water pricks my skin and puddles around me. My heart thunders in my ears. The storm continues its relentless assault as my senses shut down and I begin to lose consciousness.
Mahlorie is lucky to be alive after her brush with lightning, but she soon learns that the strike left her with a strange, psychic connection to a boy named Dyson. According to Kirkus Reviews, prolific author Jaimie Engle’s latest “presents troubled adolescence and romance through the eyes of a remarkable teen protagonist.” It is currently under consideration for the Sunshine State Young Readers Awards Book List, an annual compilation by librarians in Florida.
Engle, like Mahlorie, lives in Melbourne, Florida, where she somehow finds time to run writers conferences, advocate for young and inexperienced authors trying to break into publishing, work against bullying in schools, and speak to kids about her stories while also writing acclaimed books for kids ranging from middle grade to YA. Many of Engle’s books are fantasy thrillers because she “[doesn’t] like real life as much as [she] likes pretend.” Engle describes her writing as “entertaining fiction that questions reality” and where “everyday kids become heroes.” All her books have some kind of educational component, and while psychic powers may be a bit of fictional fun, Engle’s depiction of a lightning strike and how Mahlorie might get caught in one is all fact.
But the fantastical element in this book, Mahlorie’s telepathic connection with Dyson, doesn’t make her feel like a superhero; it just makes her feel seen. Mahlorie is something of an introvert, and when she starts hearing Dyson’s voice in her head, it takes some getting used to. Once they win each other’s trust, their relationship develops into something even more special than psychic powers. But when they try to find each other in real life, Mahlorie learns that as much as Dyson means to her, finding her own voice is even more important.
“Why does the universe bring people into your life?” asks Engle, who says that what Dyson does for Mahlorie is help her face her flaws. Mahlorie is really based on Engle when she was in high school, and the story is full of all the things Engle needed help with when she was young. “Life is not a video game; you get one chance. Most of my audience is 9- [to] 12-year-old kids. I have kids of my own, and they have so many things going on. I want to be able to leave [them] with a message, and in Mahlorie’s case it’s that there are consequences to your actions. I really hope the lesson is to find your voice, which is really hard to do when you’re young.”
Even a seasoned author like Engle found an opportunity for some firsts while writing Metal Mouth: her first time writing from a girl’s perspective, her first time writing in the first person, and her first story in present tense. It was a change of pace that worked out for Engle; her readers loved Metal Mouth so much that she’s now working on a sequel. Metal Head will be from Dyson’s point of view, exploring how his relationship with Mahlorie challenged and changed him.
As if another book in the Metal Mouth series plus all her outreach to kids and fellow authors plus raising her own kids weren’t enough, Engle has two more works in progress on her plate. Pets of Elsewhere: Haunted St. Augustine is about a 12-year-old boy who realizes he’s being haunted by the ghosts of animals and races to help them move on before they hurt his family. Engle says it’s more of a spooky story than a dark one, perfect for young readers not ready for truly scary stuff.
Her second work in progress, Exposure: Secrets of Woodbridge, is a touch darker and perfect for fans of Stranger Things, the graphic novel by Jody Houser. Exposure is about a group of kids trapped in an alternate dimension who have to solve a mystery to escape a time loop.
If it seems like Engle is bursting with ideas and creativity, that’s because she embraces her childlike curiosity and love of adventure. “I like to create stories that take readers out of this world and into new places,” she says. “When you’re dealing with children, their problems are more raw and instinctive.” Engle was inspired by the works of C.S. Lewis and Shel Silverstein as well as classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As an adult, she still loves fantasy stories about and for kids, books like those of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series. “There’s something beautiful about being at an age where the world still holds hope that you can do anything and become anything. I just want to live in magic!”
Whether you’re looking for stories your kids or students will love, hoping to learn the secrets of storytelling from a professional, or searching for a little magic in your own reading life, Engle is here to help. She hosts a podcast for aspiring authors called Write a Book That Doesn’t Suck, which corresponds to her book of the same title, and speaks at schools and writers conferences online and across the country. Her backlist of fantasy novels, including Metal Mouth, is available now.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.