Skip to main content

A devotion to her craft

Works ranging from Star Wars fan fiction to fantastical fantasy novels have made bestselling author E.K. Johnston one of Canada’s most celebrated young adult writers

Story by Ben Forrest

E.K. Johnston (BA ’06) had an unspoken agreement with her first-year roommate at Willison Hall residence. If Johnston stayed in bed until 8 a.m. instead of rising before dawn as she preferred, her roommate — a night owl who preferred to stay up late — would turn in around midnight.

It was a necessary compromise. The eight hours between lights out and breakfast provided the peace and quiet both needed for a good night’s sleep.

But Johnston often woke at 6 a.m. anyway and lay quietly in bed, doing the kind of mental calisthenics that still serve her well as one of Canada’s most celebrated young adult (YA) writers.

E.K. Johnston

Laurier alumna E.K. Johnston has found success as one of Canada’s most celebrated young adult writers.

“I would just lie there thinking,” says Johnston, a New York Times No. 1 bestselling author who The Globe and Mail has called the Meryl Streep of YA fiction. “Strangely enough, I still get a lot of work done during that time.”

Johnston grew up in rural southwestern Ontario and was nationally ranked in shot put and discus in high school. Laurier didn’t have a track and field team at the time, so she had to choose between athletics and the chance to study Near Eastern Archaeology.

Queen's Shadow book cover

“It was kind of a tough call, having to pick between two things that I loved," says Johnston. “I picked archaeology.”

As an undergrad, Johnston had unfettered access to her own computer for the first time and was frequently online writing CSI and Lord of the Rings fan fiction. An avid fan herself, Johnston found lively communities of like-minded writers on sites including and Live Journal.

The websites served as creative sandboxes for Johnston, who is perhaps best known as the author of Ahsoka (Lucasfilm Press, 2016), a canonical Star Wars novel about Ahsoka Tano, the central character in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and a forthcoming live-action series starring Rosario Dawson.

“It kind of taught me how to write for a community,” says Johnston. “I was writing for my online friends and other fans of the franchises. Star Wars – it’s not quite the same as fan fiction, but it is kind of the idea of that collaborative universe, building on something that's already there.”

Star Wars has made Johnston a household name in some circles, but her other novels showcase an astonishing range and versatility, prompting the comparison to Streep, a famously skilled and prolific actor, in a 2016 book review.

Johnston’s debut novel, The Story of Owen (Holiday House, 2014), is a drily funny modern fantasy about carbon-eating dragons and a teenage dragon slayer who keeps them at bay in a small Ontario town. It landed with considerable acclaim and was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as the prestigious William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

After a well-received sequel, Prairie Fire (2015), Johnston signed a publishing deal with Hyperion, a larger house that was an imprint of Disney Book Group at the time. Her first book with Hyperion, A Thousand Nights (2016), was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Young People’s Literature.

The same year, Johnston released the novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Dutton, 2016), about a teenage cheerleading captain named Hermione who is drugged and sexually assaulted at a party. Hermione learns she is pregnant, but refuses to let the assault define her. As Quill & Quire noted in a review, “Exit is a story of triumph, not just survival.”

The Story of Owen book cover
Exit book cover

Though parents are often uneasy about exposing teenagers to the kinds of topics Exit explores, Johnston prefers to trust her readers. Questions about consent, assault and abortion are part of the teenage experience and fiction provides a safe space to confront and think about them.

“I think teenagers are very good at knowing what they can handle,” says Johnston. “I feel like denying kids a fictional entry point to deal with their fears isn't helpful. Some kids can deal with terrible things in real life. For me, it's always been easier to conceptualize it through a book.”

Exit was part of a whirlwind year for Johnston that also saw the release of Spindle, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (Hyperion, 2016), and Ahsoka. The latter title fills a gap between the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated television series, which sees Ahsoka as a Jedi Padawan learner (apprentice) of Anakin Skywalker, and the beginning of Star Wars Rebels, another animated series which sees Ahsoka resurface as part of a rebel informant network.

Ahsoka was initially a controversial character – some fans found her annoying – but later became a fan favourite. Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise in 2012 was a major reason Johnston signed with Hyperion in the first place. When they floated the possibility of a YA novel about Ahsoka Tano, she jumped at the chance to write it.

“Ahsoka was so interesting, she was so compelling,” says Johnston. “And she was, so – this is going to sound ridiculous – but she was so nice. She was just so good to other people all the time and that always appeals to me in a character.”

Disney and Lucasfilm provided little direction for the Ahsoka book, which gave Johnston the freedom to incorporate story elements that will be familiar to others who grew up in rural Ontario, or who may have read Johnston’s other books.

Ahsoka is set on an agricultural planet, similar to the farming community where Johnston grew up. And one of the central plot devices is the game of crokin, a thinly disguised stand-in for the game of crokinole, which has been played in southwestern Ontario since its origins in the late 19th century.

“The thing with Star Wars is that the galaxy is so big, they always kind of turn the authors loose in the hopes that they'll create something,” says Johnston. “So they basically said, ‘Go do it. We'll tell you if you can't do something, but do as much as you can.’ It was definitely more freeing than I was expecting.”

Star Wars fans are notoriously impatient with any writer or director who falls short of their expectations, up to and including creator George Lucas. But the consensus seems to be that Johnston hit the right notes in her depiction of Ahsoka. The novel was well received and it became her first book to reach No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

“The thing with Star Wars is that the galaxy is so big, they always kind of turn the authors loose in the hopes that they'll create something.”

E.K. Johnston

“It was definitely nerve racking," she says, noting the pressure she felt as she wrote.

E.K. Johnston book cover

Johnston followed the success of Ahsoka with a trilogy of novels about Padmé Amidala – the Star Wars character played by Natalie Portman – and her handmaidens. The final book in the trilogy, Queen’s Hope, is set for release in April 2021. It follows Queens Shadow (2019) and Queen’s Peril (2020).

“I loved these girls who are super talented, super smart, super loyal and willing to take a bullet if they have to,” says Johnston. “I wanted to write that kind of relationship.”

Between Star Wars projects, Johnston also released That Inevitable Victorian Thing (Dutton, 2017), an alternative history that imagines three Ontario teenagers negotiating sexuality during the reign of a fictional Queen Victoria, who is recast against type as a radically progressive leader.

Two additional novels followed: The Afterward (Dutton, 2019), a fantasy about female knights who return home and struggle with life after fame; and Aetherbound (Dutton, 2021), a sci-fi adventure set on an interstellar freighter and a mysterious remote space station.

Although the comparison to Streep was embarrassing for Johnston at the time, it fits as well now as it did then. Her writing continues to lead readers to startling new places, with a wry sense of humour that meshes well with her deeply serious devotion to readers and her craft.

“At the time… I just felt like it was ridiculously effusive,” says Johnston, who has a habit of peppering earnest answers with light-hearted jokes. “Like, why would anyone say that about another person? That was my imposter syndrome talking. So now I really lean into it. Now, I'm like, 'That's right! Me and Meryl!’

“And I think that's just, you know, me becoming more comfortable with who I am as a writer.”

Visit to read more articles from the Fall-Winter 2021 print edition of Laurier Campus and new alumni stories between print editions.

Share this article: