It’s not unusual for a first-time novelist to receive accolades for their debut, but the superlatives Darcie Little Badger earned for her young-adult fantasy novel, Elatsoe—published last year during the pandemic—surpassed even her wildest dreams. Not only did the book make best-of-the-year lists from BookPage, Buzzfeed, Kirkus, NPR, Publishers Weekly, and Tor, but a panel assembled by Time that included the giants of the genre—Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, N. K. Jemisin, and George R. R. Martin among them—went even further. Elatsoe landed on the magazine’s October 2020 list of the hundred best fantasy books of all time, slotted right in alongside Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Little Badger, now 34, had become a published novelist just two months earlier. 

Elatsoe is a haunting read, an emotional young-adult ghost story about Ellie, a seventeen-year-old girl who, like Little Badger herself, is a member of the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas (which counts about 4,300 registered members). Ellie uses her ability to summon the ghosts of animals to help her investigate the murder of her cousin, who died in the Rio Grande Valley (where the author made countless childhood visits to see her grandmother in McAllen). Now Little Badger, who lives in San Marcos, has published a second novel, A Snake Falls to Earth (Levine Querido). It’s another YA story set in Texas, though its scope is even broader, intertwining two narratives in its exploration of myth, oral storytelling, and the animal people who once lived on earth. Both books engage with grief to an extent that is uncommon in young-adult literature, which makes sense when you learn Little Badger’s story. 

Elatsoe’s success came as Little Badger was experiencing a personal tragedy—one made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The week I learned that I had sold it for publication was also the week my father was diagnosed with mesothelioma,” she says. Her dad had worked in a San Antonio steel mill to pay for college; he later spent time on construction sites. One or both of these jobs, his doctors believe, exposed him to asbestos, leading to a terminal case of stomach cancer. The pandemic meant that Little Badger and her brother weren’t able to attend chemotherapy appointments; once their father entered the ICU, they transferred him to a smaller hospital where one masked, COVID-negative family member was allowed at his bedside at a time. “I was actually more concerned with family issues than I was with the excitement of having a book published,” Little Badger says. 

Still working a day job as a scientific editor at that point, she had cut back to part time in order to take care of her dad, editing the novel around family and work obligations. When the deluge of praise for her book arrived, the timing felt strange: “On the one hand, I had all this work-related success, but on the other hand, I really care the most about my family,” she says. Little Badger’s online community of fantasy and science-fiction writers came together to support her. When she struggled to find the energy to promote her work, her friends helped take on the responsibility by pushing the book on social media, and posting about its awards and reviews. Soon, that support spread, and Elatsoe found its way to librarians, teachers, and young readers, who shared rave reviews. But the reader whose opinion mattered most to Little Badger was her father, who had worked his way from his steel-mill job to serving as the chair of the writing department at Western Connecticut State University. She was able to bring him an early copy in May 2020, not long before his death at age 69.

“It was one of the last times he smiled,” she recalls. “One of the greatest blessings in my life was having somebody like that always being my cheerleader, and he was able to see all of the work he did to support me pay off in my dream coming to fruition.” 

Little Badger knew she wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember. When she was seven, as her dad was getting his doctorate in English, she wrote a mystery book, which he edited and submitted to a publisher on her behalf. “I got a very sweet rejection, which he framed, and told me that someday I’d use it to see how far I’d come,” she says. Rejection became a theme in her career. She followed the mystery with an unpublished three-hundred-page fantasy epic when she was twelve, and after graduating from high school in Texarkana, she went to Princeton to study English. But when she applied to the university’s undergraduate creative writing program, she was rejected—twice. “I always just assumed that my natural path would be going to college and studying writing, and eventually becoming a writer,” she says. Forced to shift gears, she instead took an intro to oceanography class, which opened her eyes to the possibility of studying earth sciences. “I never lived near the ocean before,” she says. “Texarkana isn’t anywhere near the Gulf.” 

Little Badger was captivated by oceanography and stuck with it, eventually earning a PhD in the field from Texas A&M, focusing on plankton. After graduating, she combined her two passions and took a job as a scientific editor, polishing research papers that had been submitted for publication. It’s specialized work that entails helping scientists—whose first languages may not always be English—clearly and accurately present their research. She enjoyed the work, but when she sold Elatsoe, it became impossible to juggle scientific editing with writing fiction. “I love them both, but writing has been my greatest passion all my life,” she says. 

She keeps a foot in the scientific world, though. Little Badger still reads the latest research on plankton, and serves as a science advisor to the Lipan Apache tribe. “They call me the tribal advisor on geology, but because of my background, I’m comfortable advising on things like water issues, and even biology,” she says.

Science is a theme in her new book, too, roughly to the same extent as the Lipan Apache stories she draws from, or the contemporary technology and social media that the book’s target audience is steeped in, or the grief that Little Badger was experiencing throughout the writing process. A Snake Falls to Earth draws on all of these, creating a story that reads as if Darcie Little Badger is the only writer who could have told it. To give a few examples: one of the major threats the characters face is a hurricane; the invasive monster species in the book echoes the invasive plants she studied as an intern; and humanity’s tendency to drive species to extinction is a major part of why the animal people from the Reflecting World start entering the human world. Grief intersects with technology, and the combination deeply informs the story. Protagonist Nina struggles to translate stories told to her by her great-great-grandmother as she was dying, in words garbled by an app on her phone that wasn’t built to recognize the Lipan language she spoke. The book’s episodic opening chapters eventually give way to a rich, thrilling climax in which climate change, technology, family duty, and the animal people of the Reflecting World all descend on South Texas at once. 

For Little Badger, it’s obvious how it all fits together. “I end up incorporating things I learned as a scientist into my work,” she says. “It’s difficult for me to even write fantasy without acknowledging the cool, interesting, and beautiful things about the world we live in.”