Behind the Book: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Editor’s Note from Kristen Beverly, HPB Buyer:

I was on a phone call with booksellers from across the country when someone said, “Have any of you read The Astonishing Color of After? I just read the first 50 pages and it’s phenomenal. You haaave to read it!” So, I went home that night, picked it up and thus began my love affair with this book. I was so enraptured by Emily X.R. Pan’s writing that I read the entire thing in two mind-blowing days. The story starts out with the main character’s mother appearing to her as a red bird. I had the opportunity to meet Emily earlier this year at a bookseller’s conference. The first thing I asked her was, “Where exactly did the inspiration for that red bird come from?” Apparently, I’m not the only one who wondered. Here’s the scoop from Emily herself – the story behind the book.

astonishing-cover-debut-novelPeople like to ask me why the mother in my story turns into a bird. “Why this giant red bird, of all things?”

It’s a tricky question for me to answer, because I’m not totally certain of it myself. But I’ll try to make my best guess. To do that, I first need to tell you a bit about my story development process:

It’s like I’m sitting in a boat, out in the middle of the ocean, scanning the surface of the sea for pieces of wreckage that drift past. Those pieces might be characters, concepts, settings, plot twists — any tiny component of a story that has flitted into my consciousness at some point and then decided to stay.

That ocean is my brain. And sometimes it takes years for me to realize that a few specific pieces that have been floating around totally separately could actually come together in the most perfect and interesting way — and that’s when I finally sit down and begin writing the story.

So back to that bird. I’d always known that I wanted to write a story of a person transforming into a bird. I wasn’t sure of the circumstances. I just knew: At some point a human being was going to become a bird.

I started writing The Astonishing Color of After back in 2010. It had a different title, and a different cast of characters, and it definitely had no bird. I tried rewriting that story many different ways, in many different voices and even in different age categories. And it was literally years later that it occurred to me that instead of having the mother die by pneumonia and just be plain old dead…she could turn into a bird.

Not long after I started toying with that idea in my head, I lost my aunt to suicide. I couldn’t stop thinking about her death and its impact on my family. I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily that could’ve been my own mother, who struggles with many of the same things my aunt battled.

A long time after that, I sat down to rewrite the novel from scratch yet again, and the opening pages poured out. I knew that this was the story I had been trying to puzzle together all along.

At first, I couldn’t figure out the importance of the red bird. But later I realized why she was so crucial in this story. My Buddhist family taught me that after death comes a transition—whether that’s reincarnation, or a journey to a different place, or something else. That transition might take up to 49 days, and the spirit of the person might stay near us before the transition occurs. So the bird, I realized, was my way of clearly visualizing a spirit being stuck in that limbo.

When the book begins, the bird is still here in our human world, still tangible. She seems like she’s free. But she’s not. She’s waiting. The bird’s freedom comes only when the main character, her daughter Leigh, has figured out some very important things.



Emily X.R. Pan is a debut young adult author who currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @exrpan. Her debut YA novel The Astonishing Color of After is available in Half Price Books stores and online at while supplies last.


11 Writers the Beatles Thought Were Fab

This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important rock albums ever made, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As every rock snob knows, Sgt. Pepper is widely hailed as one of the first concept albums (although, as some critics have pointed out, the songs don’t have all that much to do with each other). For the Fab Four and producer George Martin, the record represented new heights of creativity and experimentation in the studio.


Then there’s the iconic cover, which features the band members along with dozens of celebrities and public figures chosen by the Beatles and represented in cardboard cutouts and wax figures. There are actors, comedians, musicians, artists and philosophers, but here at HPB we couldn’t help but notice that authors make up one of the largest contingents. Here’s a look at the literary types on the most famous album cover in history.

huxleyAldous Huxley
The British author famous for Brave New World relocated to California in 1937 and became involved with mysticism and other spiritual subjects. His 1954 book Doors of Perception, which detailed his experiences with psychedelic drugs, was influenced on Timothy Leary and others in the hippie generation. Some have suggested a connection between this book and the Beatles song “Help,” in which John Lennon sings, “Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors.”

thomasDylan Thomas
The Welsh writer behind poems like “Do not go gentle into that good night” had a reputation that rock stars would appreciate—that of an erratic, drunken poet. Paul McCartney said: “I’m sure that the main influence on both [Bob] Dylan and John [Lennon] was Dylan Thomas. We all used to like Dylan Thomas. I read him a lot. I think that John started writing because of him.”

carrollLewis Carroll
Carroll’s surreal literary nonsense and wordplay was a big influence on John Lennon. The Beatles song, “I Am the Walrus,” written the same year as Sgt. Pepper, was a reference to “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a poem by Carroll that appeared in Through the Looking-Glass. In a 1965 interview, Lennon said he read that book and Alice in Wonderland “about once a year.” Continue reading

Books Authors Read with Martha Hall Kelly


Editor’s Note: Not only are we excited to read Martha’s book, Lilac Girls, as part of the HPB Book Club, we are thrilled to host her at our Dallas Flagship store for a talk and signing on Monday, March 13 at 7 p.m. Can’t make it that night for the discussion? Have no fear! We’ll broadcast the talk on Facebook Live. (So if you haven’t yet liked our Facebook page, now is the time to do so!)

Until then, to continue our Books Authors Read series, we asked Martha to share some of her favorite books. Enjoy!

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney  I still go back and soak in Stef Penney’s descriptions for sheer pleasure. Her depiction of Scottish woman Mrs. Ross and her discovery of Laurent Jammett is terrifying and perfect.

Good Times, Bad Times by James Kirkwood I read this in high school and go back and reread it often. James Kirkwood was such a talented writer and, sadly, died too young. This story of a boarding school student, his best friend and their creepy headmaster still feels fresh and relevant. Continue reading

Books Authors Read with Tim Dorsey


Editor’s Note: We are pleased to welcome New York Times -bestselling author Tim Dorsey to our Dallas Flagship store Saturday, March 4 at 5 p.m. to discuss the latest edition of the Serge A. Storm series, Clownfish Blues. Before he stops by, we asked Tim to share some of the books he’s reading these days. (More books to add to our constantly-growing “to be read” list) Enjoy!

The Deep Blue Good-by – The Godfather of Florida crime fiction, John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Good-by introduces the world to knight-errant Travis McGee. Continue reading

Books Authors Read with Amy Poeppel

Editor’s Note: Author Amy Poeppel will stop by our Dallas Flagship store on Thursday, March 2 at 7 p.m. to sign and discuss her debut novel Small Admissions. Amy is a native of Dallas, so we’re glad to hear she hasn’t forgotten her roots now that she’s hit the big time! J She’ll be joined by KERA’s Lee Cullum, so the evening is sure to be a treat for booklovers!

To gear you up for the event, we asked Amy to share some of the books she’s reading as we continue our “Books Authors Read” series. Thanks for sharing, Amy!

As a young woman, I spent many years reading novels by mostly dead authors, and I developed a great affection for the classics. As a writer, however, I find that I spend most of my time reading books by authors I have actually had the pleasure of meeting in real life… or hope to in the very near future. Here are some recent favorites by women authors who are alive and well! Continue reading

Q&A w/ Allison Amend: Inside Enchanted Islands

In Enchanted Islands, we have the immense pleasure of meeting Frances Conway, a smart, independent and endearing woman. Frances tells her story from many stages of life – like when she was a child to when she was a teenager on the run with her best friend, Rosalie. All of that leads up to the most fascinating time of her life, when she is in her 50s and moves to the Galápagos Islands for a very unique reason. It’s so interesting to read about her life on the islands and how she survived with very little. Throughout the story, it begins to feel like Frances is your best friend telling you the story of her life. It’s charming and funny at times, while still resonating the seriousness of the situation – a world on the brink of World War II. I highly recommend this book for fellow lovers of historical fiction.

Can’t wait to read Enchanted Islands? Pick up a copy at your local HPB. Plus, enter to win our Chatterbox giveaway featuring Enchanted Islands, sweet summer swag and a $25 HPB Gift Card over on Twitter.

Allison Amend, author of Enchanted Islands, shared her thoughts and experiences while writing her new novel.


What brought you to Frances Conway’s voice, and how did you discover her?
I was doing some reading on the Galápagos Islands with the idea of possibly setting a book there (mostly because I wanted to visit the islands), and I came across Frances’ memoirs in a list of first-person historical accounts. They’re out of print; I had to order them off the Internet. I immediately fell in love with Fanny’s voice. She’s funny and self-deprecating, witty and an excellent writer. But she also left a lot out of her memoirs, such as any convincing explanation of why she came to the islands, or what her life was like before this journey, which had me wondering what she was hiding. Of course the gaps that history leaves is fertile ground for fiction. From there, my imagination took over, and her voice was imprinted on my mind so that she simply continued speaking on the page. Continue reading

10 Interesting Facts to Celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s 200th Birthday

Jane Eyre is, hands down, my favorite of all the Brontë sisters’ works, and as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth on April 21, I thought I would share some interesting facts about Charlotte and her first book, Jane Eyre. I may mention her other works as well.

10 Interesting Facts about Charlotte Brontë

1. Charlotte and her sisters were enrolled in a strict boarding school called the Clergy Daughter’s School. During their time at the school, a outbreak killed several students. Though Charlotte and her sister were removed from the school, two of her sister, Maria and Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis shortly afterwards. Charlotte blamed the school for their death, and her sister Maria is said to be the inspiration for Helen Burns, Jane’s friend who dies at school in Jane Eyre.

2. The mistreatment she and her sisters received at their own school was inspiration for much of Charlotte’s first novel. In fact, the character of the hypocritical director of Lowood was based on the director of her own school, Reverend W. Carus Wilson. She must have created a good likeness, as Wilson not only recognized himself in the character, but threatened to sue, forcing her to write an apology letter. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Beverly Cleary: Celebrating Drop Everything and Read Day

Beverly Cleary turns 99-years-old on Sunday! The beloved author of books like Henry Huggins, The Mouse and the Motorcyle and the Ramona series, was born on April 12, 1916. We would like to celebrate her birthday by telling you a few things you may not know about this author.

  • Yamhill, OR, the town where Mrs. Cleary was raised, did not have a library. So her mother made an arrangement with the State Library to have books sent to her and then created a reading area in a small room above the Yamhill Bank.
  • After moving to Portland in the first grade, Beverly came down with the chicken pox and was out of school for a while. Being behind in her schoolwork when she returned she was placed in the lowest reading circle and quickly became bored with her required reading selection.  Since Mrs. Cleary began writing, she has always kept in mind children who are struggling with reading.
  • Though Mrs. Cleary’s parents had another gentleman in mind for her, Beverly eloped with Clarence Cleary, whom she had met in college.
  • Though Mrs. Cleary was determined to write “the kind of books [she] wanted to read,” she followed her mother’s advice and got a steady job as a librarian.
  • When her husband asked her why she didn’t write a book, Mrs. Cleary said, “Because we never have any sharp pencils,” so the next day Mr. Cleary brought her a pencil sharpener.
  •  Mrs. Cleary’s mother also advised her to write simply and make her books humorous, because “everyone likes to laugh.”
  • Mrs. Cleary’s first book Henry Huggins was published in 1950.

  • Mrs. Cleary’s best-loved character, Ramona, appeared as a minor character in Henry Huggins
  • Mrs. Cleary had a neighbor named Ramona, and one day, as Mrs. Cleary was writing the character of an annoying little sister, she heard someone call out “Ramona!” so that became the name of her character.
  • Mrs. Cleary would bake bread while she wrote.
  • You can see statues of Ramona Quimby and other Cleary characters in Portland’s Grant Park.  Many scenes from several of Cleary’s books take place in Grant Park.
  • Mrs. Cleary is a cat lover and owned one cat who tired of competing with the typewriter for Cleary’s attention, would sit on the keys
  • In 2000, Mrs. Cleary was named a living legend by the Library of Congress.
  • Mrs. Cleary’s last book Two Times the Fun was published in 2005.  It is an omnibus, containing stories like The Growing-Up Feet, Two Dog Biscuits and Janet’s Thingamajigs.
  • In Mrs. Cleary’s  book Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona’s class celebrates Drop  Everything And Read (D.E.A.R.) Day, a day set aside to encourage everyone to take time in their day to read.  As a result, D.E.A.R. Day is now celebrated every April 12 to coincide with Mrs. Cleary’s birthday. What a wonderful way to celebrate someone’s birthday!

So, don’t forget to stop by your local Half Price Books on Sunday, April 12, and take time to read something fun. Perhaps even revisit your childhood by picking up a copy of your favorite Beverly Cleary book.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Cleary!

Julie is Traffic Manager at Half Price Books Corporate.
You may follow her on Twitter at @auntjewey.

Meeting some of my favorite authors at American Booksellers Association Winter Institute conference!

Every year the American Booksellers Association puts on a conference in February called Winter Institute. This year, it was my complete pleasure to be able to attend. Many different things happen at these conference, like seminars and advanced learning sessions, but one of my favorite parts was meeting authors! The second night we were there, Scholastic put on a reception for some of its authors, including Pam Muñoz Ryan, author of my favorite book of this year and in my top 10 list of favorite books of all time, Echo. I was able to give her a giant hug and thank her for signing over a thousand bookplates for Echo which will be for sale in our stores – get yours at your local Half Price Books today before they run out! Seriously, Echo is one of the best books I have ever read. And I read a lot of books!

Photo Source: Publisher’s Weekly

John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, made a surprise appearance at the reception. I had met John at a previous event for The Fault in Our Stars movie in Dallas, but it was a crazy night and I never thought he would remember me. To my complete and utter surprise, he did! He even went so far as to recall the night we met in great detail! We reminisced for a few minutes and then he had to be on his way.

A little while later, I was back at the hotel bar, and I heard someone say, “Kristen, I’d like to introduce you to Erik.” I turned around and to my second great surprise of the night, it was Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, and the upcoming Dead Wake. We sat for a while in the bar and talked about his books and some of his most memorable signing tours.

It was definitely a remarkable night for me – one that I’ll never forget!

Yeah, I have the best job in the world.

Read more about the highlights from Winter Institute 10 in the Publisher’s Weekly article.

Kristen B. is Assistant Buyer at Half Price Books Distribution Center.
You can follow her on Twitter at @kbev302.

Books Authors Read with Christina Lauren

We continue our “Books Authors Read” series with Christina Lauren, the combined pen name of long-time writing partners Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. Christina Lauren will stop by our Dallas Flagship store on Sunday, May 11 at noon as part of the Belles on Wheels bus tour. To tide you over until then, here are some of their favorite reads! – Emily

We’re lucky enough that we get to play in multiple sandboxes: erotic romance, contemporary romance, young adult fiction and even free-form stories on Wattpad. As readers, too, we’ve always gravitated toward romance of any form, whether it’s for teens or adults, and our bookshelves definitely reflect that. Our list of favorites seems to grow longer every year. Here are but a few!

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

When this story opened, we worried that it would be heartbreaking (it can be) or difficult (it is, a little), but the voice is so strong and so gorgeous, that it immediately eclipses the early heartbreak. What grows over the pages, really, is a story so wonderfully sweet and uplifting, with prose that is both real and completely absorbing, that it’s one of the few books we both reread at least once a year. By far, our favorite book of all time.

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

In contrast to The Sky Is Everywhere, Forbidden is hands-down the hardest book we’ve ever read. It grabs your heart and squeeze, squeeze, squeezes until the very last page when you want to lie down and cry for a week. But it is so good, and the writing is so wonderful, and the story is so different than anything else out there that it’s the best kind of pain, the most delicious kind of book to read where it makes you feel things no other book makes you feel, and you never want to go back and un-read it.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie

Oh, if you love biographies, this book is for you. Massie makes Catherine real, and accessible and damn—girl gets hers. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, nonfiction trumps so much fiction out there. Most of us know about her awful marriage to Peter, but what we loved here is the story of how she learned to live by her rules, how intelligent she was (far more intelligent and savvy than anyone around her, frankly) in a time when most women weren’t allowed to read, to write, to take power in the form of knowledge. We’re toying with the idea of writing a historical romance with a modern edge based on her life.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Lamb is Lauren’s favorite author by about a mile, and this is a book she’s reread at least a dozen times since college. Dolores Price narrates her story—with humor, heart, and a sometimes shocking level of obliviousness—starting from when she’s a little girl until she’s a grown woman. Her childhood is rife with accumulated small and big traumas. She’s overweight, lonely, abused and eventually broken. But this story is about her rebirth, really, and it’s one of the few books that gives the reader every heart wrenching piece of it: of her setbacks and victories, of her bad decisions and the increasing number of moments that Delores takes charge of her life and sees her own worth. It’s a female voice, in first person, masterfully delivered by a man. Simply adore this book.

Angelfall by Susan Ee

Angelfall is a mile a minute roller coaster. Make sure you’re settled in with snacks and hydration, because once you pick this one up, you won’t be able to put it down. It’s been six weeks since the apocalypse and the angels have descended from the sky. The catch? They aren’t the good guys. It opens on a dark, deserted street and a single feather floating down to the ground, and never stops. Literally. Penryn is a smart, capable heroine and Raffe will tear your heart out. We were lucky enough to discover this gem when author Susan Ee was still self-publishing, so it’s awesome to see it and it’s sequel, Worlds After in bookstores today.

The Curse Worker Series by Holly Black

What we love most about this series—and there is plenty to love—is how seamlessly Black has built a completely different reality in the very world we live in. She’s slipped in Curse Workers into our history, and our political system, and makes the reader believe this might actually be true. Her characters are tough and edgy, but you can’t help but want to take them home and make them dinner anyway, if only to give them a little break from the constant tight corners in which they find themselves.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Talk about badass. Andi is about as badass as you can get. She’s independent, salty, broken—but stronger than she thinks. She’s failing out of school and the only thing that matters to her is her music, her mother, and her dead brother. And that’s just the first chapter! Initially this sounded like something we weren’t sure could be done. Time shifts in books are often clunky, disorienting or so overdone you feel like you’ve been clobbered when you finish the book. Also, history as a rule scares one of us (Lauren): as a scientist, she works by rules and structure, and history is so easily remade with each iteration. But, in the end, that’s the point of this one. The story is so complex, but it never lets go of the reader’s hand. It is triumphant and heartbreaking—a truly fascinating read.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This is a newer read for us—one we both devoured over the holidays—and a totally delightful one. It has unique voice coming out of its ears:  a different sort of narrator that we found irresistible. Of course there are a few savant-like stereotypes in there, but it’s nearly impossible to not completely fall in love with Don.

Romance author duo, Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, are New York Times bestselling authors of Beautiful Bastard and Beautiful Stranger.

You can visit them online or follow them on twitter at @seeCwrite and @lolashoes