We are thrilled to share the cover for This Poison Heart, a new novel from Kalynn Bayron that reimagines The Secret Garden with dark magic! This Poison Heart will be available on July 6, 2021 in the US and July 15, 2021 in the UK from Bloomsbury YA. Check out a larger view of the cover art below, and read an excerpt from the novel!
Briseis has a gift: she can grow plants from tiny seeds to rich blooms with a single touch. When Briseis’s aunt dies and wills her a dilapidated estate in rural New York, Briseis and her parents decide to leave Brooklyn behind, seeking a quieter existence. But their new home is more sinister than they could have imagined—it comes with a walled garden filled with the deadliest botanicals in the world, one that can only be safely entered by those who share their bloodline.
Haggard strangers begin to arrive on their doorstep, asking for tinctures and elixirs that Briseis has a surprising knack for creating. But when a nefarious witch comes after her in search of a rare and dangerous immortality elixir, Breisis must protect herself and her family. She’s up against centuries-old secrets that may threaten their lives—but can love be more powerful than darkness? From the author of Cinderella Is Dead comes another inspiring and deeply compelling fairy tale twist about a young woman with the power to conquer the dark forces descending around her.
Author Kalynn Bayron weaves a plot about deadly plants, long-held family secrets, systemic oppression, and the occult, featuring Black and queer characters, perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Dhonielle Clayton, and Justina Ireland.
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Kalynn Bayron is the bestselling author of Cinderella Is Dead. She is a classically trained vocalist and when she’s not writing you can find her listening to Ella Fitzgerald on loop, attending the theater, watching scary movies, and spending time with her kids. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with her family. Find out more at her website.
White roses. Genus Rosa. Family Rosaceae. Common name “Evening Star.”
Mr. Hughes took a dozen of them to his wife’s grave every weekend, rain or shine. He had for the past year. He didn’t care about the genus or the species, only that there were twelve of them waiting for him every Saturday, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. My mom was going to have to tell him that the delivery truck hadn’t arrived last night like it was supposed to—it flipped over on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The driver was okay, but our shipment of Evening Star was scattered across six lanes of traffic.
“I’m so sorry, Robert,” Mom said as Mr. Hughes, dressed in his Sunday best, came into the shop. “There was an accident, and we didn’t get our regular shipment. We should have a new delivery in the next few days.”
He gripped the lapels of his freshly pressed navy blazer, his bottom lip quivering as he ran his hand over his mouth and sighed. He looked like he might fold in on himself. Grief was heavy. It could do that to a person.
“We’ve got some beautiful peonies,” Mom said. “The Ann Cousins variety. They’re gorgeous, Robert. I could put them together for you right now.”
I pushed my glasses up and peered around the arrangement I was working on.
Mr. Hughes’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know, Thandie. The white roses, they were her favorite.”
My mom closed her hand over Mr. Hughes’s as he pulled out a tissue to dab at his eyes. We had a single white rose in a vase on the back counter, a remnant of a wedding bouquet I’d put together the day before. I looked down at my hands, opening and closing them. I wanted to help. But I couldn’t. It was too dangerous.
“I miss her so much, Thandie,” Mr. Hughes said, his voice choked with sadness.
“The people we love are never really gone from us,” Mom said. “Try to remember that. I know it’s hard. It feels like the whole world should just stop spinnin’, but it doesn’t. And we’ve gotta find a way to pick up the pieces.”
Mom always knew exactly what to say. Mr. Hughes and his wife used to come into the shop together. Now, it was just him, and it made me so sad I could hardly stand it. The arrangement on the table in front of me began to wilt.
“Hang on, Mr. Hughes,” I said.
He looked at me quizzically. I glanced at my mom for a second longer than I needed to. Her face grew tight with concern.
I plucked the single rose from the vase, rushed down the short hallway and out the back door. The eight-by-ten square of dirt our landlord had the nerve to call a garden was where we kept the bigger plants that couldn’t fit in the shop. Our recent shipment of chaste tree sat crowded in the space, their spiky violet blooms just beginning to open in the damp heat of summer.
My hands trembled as I knelt and stripped the rose of its velvety petals, down to the pistil, the seedy heart of the flower. Any part of the plant would have been enough to make another like it, but having the pistil made it easier. A familiar tingling sensation crept down my arm. It started in my shoulder and trickled toward my elbow, then into my forearm. I glanced at the newly installed wooden pickets of the rear fence. They reminded me of what could happen if I lost control, even for a second.
I scooped a little hole in the ground and set the pistil inside. Covering it with loose earth, I placed my hands over it, sinking my fingers into the dirt, and closed my eyes.
The tingling spread into my fingertips, warm and oddly comforting. A swell of anticipation crashed through me as a stout evergreen stalk broke through the dirt and immediately sprouted several small offshoots. They pushed their way up between my outstretched fingers. Sweat dampened my back and forehead. I clenched my teeth until the muscles in my temples ached. The new stalks reached toward the sun, their stems thickening, thorns sprouting, but never close enough to prick my fingers. Buds bloomed white as snow between new leaflets green as emeralds. Right before their petals unfurled, I pulled my hands back, clutching them against my chest. Dizziness washed over me. Orbs of light danced around the edges of my vision as I sucked in a breath, filled my chest with the sticky summertime air, then pushed it out. My heartbeat slowed to a normal rhythm.
Six white roses dotted the newly formed branches. I took stock of the rest of the garden. The chaste tree had all sprouted new roots like tentacles, cracking open their plastic planters. Their bright lavender blooms craned toward me. I couldn’t chance growing another set of roses to give Mr. Hughes the dozen he wanted. These would have to work.
Taking a pair of pruning shears from my apron pocket, I clipped the roses and hurried back inside. As I handed them to my mom, Mr. Hughes’s face lit up.
“First you tell me you don’t have any, then Briseis goes and finds the best-looking flowers I’ve ever seen,” he said happily.
“I was keeping them special, just for you,” I said. “I only have six. I hope that’s okay.” The smile on his face made the little white lie worth it.
“They’re perfect,” he said.
Mom flashed me a tight smile. “I’ll wrap them up.”
She tucked the roses inside a layer of ivory tissue and brown paper, then pulled a length of white jute from the big spool on the counter and tied a knot in three turns.
“Angie and I are here if you need anything,” she said, handing him the flowers. “Don’t hesitate to call us.”
“I don’t want to bother you,” he said.
“Don’t,” my mom said firmly. “Don’t do that. It’s not a bother and neither are you, understand?”
He nodded, dabbing at his eyes. “Tell Mo I said thanks for dinner the other night. I owe you.”
“I’ll tell her,” my mom said. “And you don’t owe us anything—except maybe some of your world-famous peach cobbler.”
Mr. Hughes laughed, his eyes still damp with tears. “I got you covered. I make it from scratch—my grandmama’s recipe. Nothing like it in the whole world.”
He beamed. My mom went around the counter and gave him a hug.
I ducked back behind my flower arrangement and took a deep breath. I’d been able to help this time, but it couldn’t be a habit. The last time I’d pushed my abilities to their limit was after an argument I’d had with my mom. I didn’t even remember what it was about, but my overdramatic ass was upset and decided to sit in the garden and grow some chamomile as a distraction. I took a handful of loose-leaf tea and scattered it in the dirt.
And then, I’d pushed too hard. I grew dozens of the daisy-like chamomile plants, but I also brought the roots of our neighbor’s Norway maple tree up through the ground, tearing apart the landscaping and busting a hole in the fence. Mo told the guy next door that sometimes trees go through a growth spurt, like kids when they hit puberty, and for some reason that was beyond me, his dumbass believed her.
I helped Mo patch the fence, but every time I looked at the new, pale pickets, a stab of shame coursed through me.
The flowers in my arrangement craned their soft petals toward me. Any time I was sad or scared or happy, they took notice, reacted in kind. Grief and sadness made them shrivel; happiness made them perk up; and fear and anger made them lash out.
I’d been growing plants in recycled plastic milk cartons and empty glass jars since I was a kid. Mom said I had the greenest thumb she’d ever seen, even as a toddler. She found out exactly how green when she left me in the sunroom of my grandma’s house when I was three. She went to grab her purse, and when she came back, I was tangled in the vibrant green vines of a velvet-leaved philodendron—a plant that had been dead and withered when she’d stepped out.
From that point on, Mom and Mo gave me little tests. They’d put me near a dead plant, and it would turn green and grow new sprouts if I paid attention to it. When I was older, they gave me seeds that I would plant and bring to bloom in minutes. They didn’t know how or why I could do the things I did, but they accepted it, nurtured it, and let it grow, just like the plants—until I was about twelve.
Everything changed after that. I had a harder time keeping my power in check. Everywhere I went, if there was something green and growing, it was like an alarm went off, alerting it to my presence. The flora wanted my attention, and if I was being honest, I wanted to give it to them.
The bell on the door clanged as Mr. Hughes left the shop, and I went back to work on an arrangement that was scheduled for pickup in less than an hour. I clipped a few sprigs of baby’s breath and stuck them alongside bundles of fuchsia, crape myrtles, St. John’s wort, and blush-colored roses in a tall vase. I ran my fingers over the roses and they plumped up.
Mom flipped on the Bluetooth speaker and Faith Evans’s voice rang out as she bobbed her head to the beat.
“Lookin’ good,” she said, eyeing the arrangement in front of me. “I love the colors.”
“Thanks. I’ve been working on it since yesterday. I should be done soon.”
She came over and put her arm around my shoulder. “Thank you for doing that for Mr. Hughes. It means a lot to him to have those flowers, but . . .” She looked down the hall toward the back door. “You have to be really careful.”
“I know,” I said, reading the worry in her eyes. “I was. I got all six from a single pistil.”
“Really?” Mom lowered her voice and leaned in close, even though we were the only two people in the shop. “That’s some kind of record, right?”
I nodded. She had always been fascinated with what I could do, but her curiosity was tempered with concern. I couldn’t blame her.
She looked me over. “How you feeling? Dizzy?”
I nodded. A shadow of unease crossed her face.
“Anything else you need me to do today?” I asked, avoiding her eyes.
“No, but there’s something you can do after you finish this arrangement.” She rested her hand on my cheek. “Try relaxing a little. School’s out for the summer, baby. I know this year was tough.”
I raised my eyebrows in mock surprise.
Mom narrowed her eyes at me. “Okay. ‘Tough’ is the understatement of the century.”
This past school year had put my acting skills to the test. Not because I wanted to be on stage, but because the row of potted plants my English teacher kept on her windowsill grew roots as long as I was tall; the trees in the courtyard arched toward the window next to my assigned seat in science—and everybody noticed. I had to pretend like I was shocked, like I thought it was weird. I had to speculate loudly about the cause. It could’ve been chemicals seeping into the ground from toxic runoff. Maybe all the hormones the government put in our food were leaking out of the lunchroom trash and into the ground, making the trees grow in strange and unusual ways. It made zero sense, but some people latched on to the idea, and now I had to show up at protests demanding the soil around our school be tested, like I didn’t make up the whole thing to keep from being found out. If anybody had been paying close enough attention, they would have seen that every school I’d ever attended had a similar “contamination.”
“I love having you in the shop,” Mom said. “I really do. But don’t feel like you have to be.”
“I love working here,” I said. “You know that.”
“I want you to have some fun this summer. We can manage.”
“But I can help. You know what I mean.”
Mom shook her head. My parents liked to pretend they were fine with me slacking off for the summer, but the truth was, they needed the extra help. Orders were coming in and walk-ins happened all the time, but even though business was steady, gentrification rent was erasing our gains. They couldn’t afford to hire any more people, so I took on the responsibility.
The bell clanged again, and Mo came in balancing a plastic container full of croissants on top of a flimsy cardboard tray with three cups of coffee. I ran over to grab the coffees before they toppled over.
“Good save,” Mo said. She kissed me on the forehead and set the food on the counter.
“It’s busy today,” said Mom. “I got a call about the basic wedding package. They wanted to know if we can do it by Friday?”
“We can do it by Friday.” Mo clapped her hands together and turned to me. “You workin’ today, love?”
“Nope,” Mo said. She took my hand and pulled me out from behind the counter, scooting me toward the door. She untied my apron and took it off, tossing it to Mom. “I love you, but you need to get out of here and go do some teenager stuff.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She turned to Mom. “What do kids do these days?”
“Don’t ask me that like I’m old,” said Mom. “They like to Netflix and chill, right?”
“I’m leaving.” I grabbed one of the coffees and two croissants. “Please never say ‘Netflix and chill’ ever again.”
“Oh, they also like to make dance videos on TikTok,” said Mo. “What’s that one called? The Renegade?” She did some weird move with her arm, then grabbed her shoulder, wincing in pain. “I can do it, but the way my ligaments are set up—”
“I’ll never be able to unsee that, Mo,” I said. “Thanks.”
“You welcome, love.” She grinned.
While Mom and Mo laughed themselves to tears, I closed the door to the shop and took the stairs to the third floor of our building.
Mom bought almost every piece of furniture in our apartment from IKEA. Mo hated it because even though the products were solid, putting them together sometimes required a level of patience neither of them actually possessed. Still, Mom was obsessed with making the space feel more open, which was hard to do in less than eight hundred square feet.
I straightened the mismatched pillows on the couch and organized the unopened mail into a pile on the table before heading to my room. As I opened the door, the warm, damp air hit me in the face, fogging my glasses. Air conditioning was on an as-needed basis, and Mom had a sticky note taped to the switch that said, “You got A/C money?” I didn’t, so it stayed a balmy seventy-nine degrees. My posters and playbills that I’d tacked to the walls were curled at the edges. Everything was perpetually damp. The only plus was that my plants loved the tropical conditions.
The plants under my window turned toward me. The bluebells opened like tiny gramophones, and the bush of baby’s breath that had taken over an entire corner of my room looked like it was breathing. The marigolds and snapdragons all shifted toward me. These plants were quiet. Quiet plants might perk up around me, but they didn’t uproot themselves or destroy a fence to get close to me. They didn’t turn obscene shades of their natural colors when I was around.
I plopped down on my bed. The ivy I’d grown by the window snaked toward me, slithering across the floor and up the bedpost, sprouting new leaves and curled tendrils as it reached for me. Ivy wasn’t a quiet plant. It was reactive and loud. The only place I could keep it was in my room, where no one would see it but me and my parents.
Being wound up all the time, constantly watching my every move, and being careful not to provoke a response from a red oak or potted fern was exhausting. Ignoring them was the only thing that worked—and sometimes, that didn’t even help as much I wanted it to. The worst part was that it felt wrong to ignore them, like I was denying something that was as much a part of me as anything else. But in the confines of my cramped bedroom, I could let go, and the relief that came with that was something I looked forward to more than anything else.
The sun slanted through my window, shining a large, sallow rectangle onto the wooden floor. The gauzy light saturated my room. I let the creeping vines encircle my fingertips, then wind their way up my arm. I always wondered why the plants preferred me to the sunlight when it was in a plant’s nature to reach for it. Mo told me once it was because I was the light. She was sentimental like that and I loved her for it, but I thought it might be something else, something I didn’t have an explanation for yet, which was the reason I’d applied to take a college-level botany course at City College over the summer.
Mom gave me a book on botany when I got into middle school. She thought if I became a scientist, I could figure out where my power came from and what exactly it was for. It seemed like a good idea when she first brought it up, but as I got older, the “how” became less important than the “why.” I wasn’t sure the answers I needed could be found in a textbook but I didn’t know where else to start.
I opened my laptop and logged into my school portal to check my email. A new message from my advisor sat in my inbox. During the regular school year, her messages were always one of two things: a reminder that I needed to work on getting my grades up if I wanted to graduate on time, or telling me I was excelling in environmental science and suggesting I apply that same energy to my other classes. But since school was out for the summer, this had to be about the botany class. My heart ticked up.
I hope you are having a wonderful summer. I received your request to enroll in City College’s Introductory Botany class, but unfortunately, the class requires participants have a GPA of 3.0 or better. It’s a college-level course for college credit. Your GPA was 2.70 at the end of the semester, so I’m afraid you don’t qualify. However, you are a wonderful environmental science student, so let’s make a plan to raise your GPA so that you can take this class at a later date. Please don’t give up hope, Briseis. Keep pushing. You’re going to do great your senior year.
Millennium Brooklyn High School
I closed my computer and shoved it across my bed, biting back tears. The baby’s breath puffed up, the snapdragons twisted around, and the ivy gripped the metal frame of my bed so hard it groaned in protest. I took a deep breath and the plants settled.
Nothing went right this past school year. Being really good at environmental science and botany workshops didn’t get me out of PE. I tried to convince Mom and Mo that running laps and playing badminton was a form of torture, but I still had to dress out and be within smelling distance of dudes who thought wearing deodorant was optional. But PE was the least of my issues with school. The fear that I carried around with me that someone would discover what I could do—or worse, that I’d lose control and get someone hurt—was heavy.
I glanced at my desk, which was little more than a wooden shelf propped on top of some plastic crates Mo had found at a thrift shop. My microscope sat there with my research journals and notepads, colorful Post-it notes sticking from between the pages. The botany book Mom had given me lay open, its pages worn and dog-eared, entire passages highlighted and underlined. I didn’t want to make a career out of being a scientist. I just wanted to understand myself better, and something I’d come across in my research struck me in a way nothing else had—raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
Near the back of the botany book was a section labeled Poisonist—a subdiscipline of botany that involved the study of poison plants. It piqued my curiosity and stirred something deep in the pit of my stomach—a mixture of fear and excitement.
When I was eight, a girl named Tabitha Douglass dared me to eat five bright red berries off a low-hanging tree behind our elementary school. The fruit was sour and stained my lips and tongue, but I did it. I ate all five. Tabitha ate six just to one-up me. By the time our teacher came to bring us back to class, Tabitha was curled in a ball, screaming in agony, puking her guts up. We were both rushed to the hospital. Mom burst into the emergency room like somebody told her I was at death’s door, hollering and crying with Mo at her side, but I was fine. No stomach cramps, no headache, no irregular heartbeat. Tabitha had uncontrollable diarrhea for a week and couldn’t eat anything other than soup and Jell-O.
The doctor concluded that I hadn’t ingested as many berries as Tabitha. Technically, that was true. I’d eaten exactly one less than her. But I should have had the same symptoms. I should have felt something.
The incident stuck with me. I thought of it every time I handled anything even slightly toxic—ragweed, poison ivy, jimsonweed. They all made me feel like I’d stuck my hand under a cool tap, and a similar cold feeling had spread from my stomach the day I ate those yewberries in second grade. I hadn’t explored every aspect of this strange gift yet, but that piece was always at the back of my mind—the poison plants.
A burst of excitement rippled through me as the memory swirled in mind. That was the only other thing I had to look forward to this summer—tending to a very specific, very toxic plant. I grabbed my bag, went down to the shop, and stuck my head in the door.
“I’m going to the park for a while,” I said.
Mom’s face grew tight. “The park?”
The fear in her voice was too subtle for anyone but me to recognize. For her, being in a place as green as the park with all its open fields and trees and wildflowers was too much of a temptation, or maybe a threat. She worried that I’d push myself too far and make something happen that couldn’t be ignored or fixed. Mo wasn’t sure I needed to be so careful all the time. She and Mom bumped heads over it. They both wanted me to be safe, but there was always fear—of what might happen, of what the limits of this power might be, of where it came from. They didn’t have answers and neither did I. Not yet.
“Got your phone?” Mo asked as she wrapped a dozen parrot tulips in gold foil paper.
“Yup,” I said.
“See you at dinner then.”
Excerpted from This Poison Heart, copyright © 2021 by Kaylynn Bayron.
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This Poison Heart