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A teenage girl finds an ally on her life journey when 'A Snake Falls to Earth'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In the new young adult novel "A Snake Falls To Earth," we meet teenager Nina, who lives in our world. She's a Lipan Apache girl trying to unravel the mystery of who she is and how her great-great-grandmother lived to be more than 150 years old. Then there's a young cottonmouth snake named Oli who lives in a reflecting world, a land of spirits and monsters. And he's on his own for the first time, trying to find a home. A snake falls to Earth tells their intersecting stories. It's Darcie Little Badger's second novel, and she joins us now. Hi.

DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: Hello. I'm so happy to be here.

FADEL: I want to start a little bit with the plot with Nina. She hears a story from her great-great-grandmother, Rosita, right before Rosita dies. But it's in Lipan, an Indigenous language that Nina can't understand. But she has a feeling it's really important, so she goes on a journey to try to translate this story. What does she discover on that journey?

LITTLE BADGER: So this plot point was actually inspired by some very real issues that Lipan people, including Lipan young adults, are dealing with today in terms of our language. So the Lipan language has a lot of holes in it right now, but we're attempting to revitalize it. But the problem is that we don't really speak it fluently.

So for Nina, at first it's just a mystery to her. But the more that she learns about the actual content of the story, the more she realizes that it is significant to the history of her family and the way her family is going to survive. And it's actually pretty magical.

FADEL: She starts to suspect that her family has some connection to the reflecting world and the animal people who live in this connected reflecting world. Will you tell us about that other world?

LITTLE BADGER: Yes. This was an interesting challenge for me because I was really writing this book from two perspectives, one of them really grounded into, you know, the near-future Earth. But the other one was in a total secondary world that I did invent, you know, because it's fantasy.

But on the other hand, it was inspired by stories that I heard growing up, especially stories about animal people. But I used to hear - especially the adventures of Coyote, was something that my mom would like to tell me. So as you see, there's a couple of coyote sisters who make their way into the book. But I really just wanted to create this world where readers and these characters can explore just all these really cool and beautiful, fantastic elements that are strongly influenced by my cultural stories.

FADEL: You talked about how this is based in a real situation for so many Lipan people trying to fill the holes of their language. How much is Nina based on you and your family and your storytelling tradition in your family?

LITTLE BADGER: So I have to say that the name Nina actually was a nickname for my mother when she was young. But beyond that, her struggles with trying to cope at her homeland with the pressures of climate change, as well as the story itself, was based on a lot of things that my family are going through.

In fact, my great-great-grandfather used to say this prayer in the morning. And for the longest time, even though it was passed down orally, we didn't quite understand everything that he was saying. But we were recently able to fill in the gaps, and now we know exactly what this prayer that he was saying means.

FADEL: Can I ask what the meaning of the prayer is?

LITTLE BADGER: I can tell you that it was towards the sun because the sun really does have a lot of importance, culturally and spiritually, to our people.

FADEL: So the other main character in the book is Oli, the cottonmouth snake. And he's been forced to leave his home and live on his own, as all cottonmouths must eventually do. But he's having this really hard time. His blanket gets stolen. Can you tell us a little bit about him and his journey?

LITTLE BADGER: Yes. And I say that of the two characters, Nina and Oli, surprisingly, I relate to Oli the most. It's that cusp of your - you have one foot in childhood, but on the other hand, you're taking a step into adulthood and all the responsibilities and these new experiences that entails. And sometimes it really is a learning process that's not always easy.

A lot of the early chapters in Oli's world - it's almost like he's going on these little self-contained adventures and meeting different people. And that was inspired by these strings of stories that I would hear growing up that involve the same character or group of characters. They weren't always - (laughter) sometimes they didn't always have, like, a tight resolution, but they would be growing as people. And they would encounter almost sometimes inexplicable, strange things and monsters and experiences. So I did want to put that in the book. And that's what all these early chapters, which do have titles like, you know, Oli Meets The Coyote Twins, that type of thing - end up being.

FADEL: Now, your book is set sometime in the near future in Texas, where Nina and her family live. They're constantly living through hurricanes and now tornadoes. What was the importance of having climate change as the backdrop of these coming-of-age stories?

LITTLE BADGER: Yeah. And there was a couple of reasons why I did decide to make climate change play such a pivotal role in this book. In fact, the hurricane ends up being one of the main threats to Nina's family, which - you learn pretty early on that hurricanes are increasing in strength there. And I do have a background in sciences. I have a Ph.D. in oceanography and a bachelor's in geoscience. And I studied things like ocean acidification. And now, even though I write full time, I still - I'm an adviser for my tribe.

I wanted this to be in my book, though, because climate anxiety is something that a lot of young people are feeling, you know, intensely. Now, we don't know how serious it will get because we still have the power to impact the future. But there will be change. That much is certain, and it's already happening.

But as a geoscientist, oftentimes I get questions that are almost hopeless. Like, people feel like maybe we don't have a future to look forward to. And, you know, it's just so important to fight for the best possible future that the next generations can experience. So I don't want readers to feel hopeless.

FADEL: That really struck me about the book because you were dealing with such heavy topics - deadly hurricanes, extinction of species, extinction of language - and yet there was such a hopefulness from both Nina and Oli. We can do something about it. We can do something about these things.

LITTLE BADGER: Yeah, and that's really my life's philosophy. But also if my ancestors, you know, 50, 100 years ago had decided just to give up, that this was the end of things - and things were very bad back then - then I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't have the prayer. My people wouldn't be here today without just - that will to survive, and not just to survive, but to make the world a better place for future generations. And that's something that I want to carry forward and feel like I really owe that to not just the next generation, but to many generations hopefully after me. And for me, I don't see hopelessness playing a role in that. You know, I intend to continue fighting until I can't fight anymore.

FADEL: That was author, oceanographer and Earth scientist Darcie Little Badger. Her book is called "A Snake Falls To Earth." Thank you so much.

LITTLE BADGER: Thank you so much. It was great speaking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.