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Ashley Herring Blake on Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea

More than eighty percent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. To me, that’s a staggering number, almost overwhelming, to think of all those deeps no human has touched, all the possibilities we haven’t even thought of yet.

All those mysteries.

When I sat down to write my next middle grade novel, I knew I wanted to tell a story about loss, about life after the unthinkable happens. What do you do? How do you actually move on, as it seemed so easy for others to do? For me, a woman whose own parents were both dead by her early thirties, those questions had always been a mystery. I wanted my character, Hazel, to grapple with these same questions, and I could think of no better setting for her than the deep blue sea—the most beautiful, dangerous, and mysterious element on our planet.

In the book, Hazel has lost a parent to an accident, but she’s lost much more than that—she’s lost herself, she’s lost the ability to see possibility, to hope. I knew what that felt like and I knew there were many kids out there who did too. The task of coming back from the loss of a loved one seems insurmountable, impossibly even, until you realize the truth.

It is insurmountable.

It is impossible.

Grief isn’t a phase you simply walk through and come out the other side. It’s a circle and you travel its endless path forever. Loss changes people, changes their hearts, their minds. I’m not the same person I was before my mother died suddenly in 2012, and I’ll never be that person again. As I sat down to write Hazel’s story, I knew the loss of her mother wasn’t something she needed to get over or move past. It was something she had to embrace as forever a part of who she was, and learn how to see beauty, to love, to let people love her, through that loss. Not despite it.

It’s a mysterious process. A scary process, full of unknown emotions and fear that you’ll never quite find yourself again. The deep, dark ocean felt like the perfect place for Hazel to discover herself—it’s mysterious and terrifying, but there’s something achingly beautiful about it too, something that pulls you in and wraps around your heart.

For me, that something is the mystery. My own heart often feels cavernous, unknowable in its relentless hunger, questions, and needs. The ocean seems to mirror what was going on inside me, inside all of us, an endless swirl of emotions we can never quite get a tight hold on.

But with those mysteries come amazing discoveries too. In the book, Hazel meets a girl named Lemon, a girl with her own grief-stricken past, and she just so happens to be obsessed with a local myth about a mermaid in the waters off their town’s shore. Skeptical at first, Hazel soon finds herself intrigued by the possibility of magic, of something bigger than herself.

There are times in life we all need a little bit of magic, when we need that bigger thing, that reminder that the world is big enough for our hungry hearts, that there are people who will love us, whom we can love. Particularly after such a harrowing year, magic is even more crucial. We’re worn and weary. We’re grief-stricken. We maybe even be a bit lost, just like Hazel was at the start of her story. So many times, I simply wanted the hurt to end. I wanted to go back to time before. I think that’s an emotion many of us can relate to these days.

But just like Hazel, we can’t. What we can do is face the mystery. Embrace the story we’ve been given. That is why I wrote Hazel Bly and Deep Blue Sea. To look pain and loss and the unknown future and find a way to open my arms.

To live. Not just survive.