Spill Zone is about what we’re left with after our family is destroyed.
It’s about two sisters, Addison and Lexa, who’ve lost their parents and hometown in an event called the Spill. The older sister, Addison, is left with the task of raising and providing for Lexa, which is in some ways like trying to keep a culture alive. Every family is its own world, after all. Only the people inside it really understand the rules and customs. So when a family is shattered, the leftover members are like survivors of Atlantis or Krypton.
The problem that Addison faces in preserving what’s left of her family culture is that her younger sister, Lexa, hasn’t said a word since the night of the Spill. (Neither have any of the kids she escaped with, the sole surviving group of the event.) Lexa communicates only in a psychic link she shares with her rag doll, Vespertine, who was changed by the Spill into something more than a doll. Addison doesn’t hear those conversations, so connecting with her little sister is hard.
Sibling relations are a venerable topic of YA. Little sisters can be sweetness and light, pesky and sarcastic, or Bad-Seed-level psychopaths. Brothers can share unbreakable tribal loyalty or have primal Cain-and-Able conflicts. And, of course, these somewhat gendered roles can be switched around in myriad ways.
But Addison has two sisters—both Lexa and her doll Vespertine are part of the family now.
A friend of mine who teaches at a girls’ middle school, grades 6-8, regales me with stories about how transformative that stretch of growing up can be. His sixth graders (mostly) love rainbows and unicorns, while his eighth graders (often) are cynical and swear like truck drivers. Half of his job is helping the parents through this transition.
In Spill Zone, Lexa represents the beginning of that process, and her doll Vespertine the end. Lexa has been frozen since the Spill; though fearful, she’s still full of child-eyed innocence. So her doll has taken on the process of growing into a savvy and insubordinate young teen. Vespertine is acerbic, worldly, and mean.
On top of this, Addison wasn’t exactly a great older sister before the Spill, sneaking out and leaving Lexa alone when she should have been babysitting. She was gone on the night of the Spill, so guilt informs Addison’s protectiveness.
She supports herself and Lexa by sneaking into the Zone at night, taking photographs of the strange manifestations there to sell as outsider art. She’s both reliving the trauma of the Spill and seeking answers. But the answers may not exist—the Spill may be fundamentally unknowable. And she may be trying to rebuild a family that no longer has enough pieces left.
Of course, that’s just the starting point of Spill Zone. Sometimes a stranger comes to town and makes new answers and new families possible.