Meet Crissa-Jean Chappell, Author of Sun Don’t Shine

Crissa-Jean Chappell‘s new YA novel, Sun Don’t Shine, is at once a lyrical coming of age story and mesmerizing thriller that will leave you breathless as it follows Reece, a resilient sixteen-year-old girl who’s been on the run with her volatile father ever since he abducted her ten years ago. Full of the poetry and magic of lost childhood and the pain of hard realizations, this beautifully written YA for all ages will grab your heart and not let go as you race to turn the pages.

Jennifer Salvato Doktorski, author of AUGUST AND EVERYTHING AFTER says, “Beautiful, raw, and achingly honest, SUN DON’T SHINE illuminates the precarious existence and morally complex choices of sixteen-year-old Reece, her volatile father, and those living on the dark fringes of the Sunshine state.”

I was delighted to speak with Crissa-Jean Chappell about her gorgeously written and unforgettable novel set in a dark version of Florida that is “not the stereotypical settings of palm trees and neon and pink flamingos.”

Sun Don’t Shine is at once a riveting thriller about a teen girl trying to solve the mystery of why her father abducted her and a lyrical coming of age story. How did you go about balancing those two facets of your novel?

Time and memory were an important part of shaping this book. The tension in the story grows from Reece’s father—the lies he tells his daughter and the truth she’s trying to discover for herself. I wrote this book during a very difficult time in my life. My mom was slipping away to Alzheimer’s. We were very close and her loss was devastating to me. This disease is incredibly cruel. It was like losing her over and over again in a thousand different ways. When she was gone, I took comfort in retelling family stories with my four siblings. I was fascinated by the way our perspectives of the same event were often very different.

Your main character, Reece, lives with her father in a cheap Florida motel, hustling, dumpster diving, and sometimes stealing to survive. Something as simple as a trip to the gas station convenience store—with its “familiar stench of microwave burritos and Pine Sol” and “hot dogs sweating under glass”—feels like an adventure to her. This world, invisible to most of us, reminds me of the movie, The Florida Project. Why did you choose to set you novel here?

 I was born and raised in Miami. All of my novels (so far!) take place in Florida—but not the stereotypical settings of palm trees and neon and pink flamingos. For example, my previous novel, Snowbirds, is about a girl from the Beachy Amish community in Sarasota. Lucy’s family is different from what many people might expect because she’s allowed to use electricity. When her Old Order friend from up north comes to visit, it’s Lucy who is now the outsider. I’m interested in people who are on the outside…and looking in. Florida is filled with these “invisible” characters.

Reese’s father can be controlling, volatile, and frightening, but he also has a tender poetic side that makes their relationship even more heartbreaking. How did you come up with this character, who is not your typical kidnapper?

In YA novels, the protagonist is often breaking away from the parent’s view of the world—the rules they’ve been taught and the questions they’re trying to answer. Again, it goes back to the idea of truth and subjectivity. Each time I work on a book, I think of different ways to explore these ideas. In this case, the kidnapper is Reece’s father. She loves him, but she can’t stay trapped in his reality anymore. At the same time, she doesn’t want to see him get hurt. So she’s confronting a huge dilemma. He’s kept her isolated from the outside world. All this time, he’s been her only friend. And she desperately longs to be a “regular” teen, building friendships and exploring her own individuality. I think it’s something that’s very relatable.

What inspired you to write a novel about a teen living in poverty?

 So many YA novels are about escapism. And that’s totally okay. But I really wanted to write about a character who is facing real problems. I haven’t seen enough books about the struggles of teens who go to school every day and sit down at their desks just like everybody else, but they’re hiding a big secret. And just like Reece, they might be living a double life—trying to keep up with their classes while working to help their families. As a teacher, I know that this is a reality in 2023 and we need to keep talking about it.

 On a lighter note, do you have any quirky writing rituals you’d like to share? 

I’ve never had my own office. Instead, I have a “writing hutch” that my parents bought for me after we lost our home in Hurricane Andrew. When I moved to Brooklyn, I dragged it all the way from Miami to my new apartment (up six flights of stairs!). It’s been with me since I was eighteen. Laptops and keyboards and all that stuff will come and go. My hutch stays the same.

Music is an important part of my writing process. I love to make playlists for specific chapters and characters. When I’m away from my hutch, I’ll plug myself into my headphones and daydream about the next scene I’m going to write.

What are you reading now?

I’m a big fan of Benjamin Percy and the way he blends his literary voice into a big environmentalist / cautionary tale with monsters and mayhem. His book on the craft of writing—Thrill Me—is a lot of fun and worth rereading over and over again. My students love it, too.

What’s next for you?

More darkness in the Sunshine State.

Crissa-Jean Chappell was born in Miami and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her debut young adult novel, TOTAL CONSTANT ORDER (HarperTeen) is a NYPL Book For The Teen Age and a VOYA Perfect Ten. Chappell’s second novel, NARC (Flux Books) is currently optioned for film. MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH (Flux Books) is a Florida Book Awards medalist, which Kirkus calls, “compelling and emotionally nuanced.” SNOWBIRDS (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). “…will keep readers on their toes…an engrossing mystery,” School Library Journal. Chappell’s newest novel is SUN DON’T SHINE (Fitzroy Books, spring 2024) “An exceptional novel with an original perspective on memory and trauma,” Foreword Reviews. She holds a PhD and MFA from the University of Miami and is a professor of creative writing at Lehman College. When she misses South Florida, she talks to the parrots in Green-Wood Cemetery.



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