The Names We Take

New YA novel tackles identity and community during a plague

How do you survive and thrive when your entire world falls apart? The Names We Take by Trace Kerr, an apocalyptic young-adult novel published by Ooligan Press, tackles this question. 


Set in Spokane, Washington, the novel’s protagonist is 17-year-old Pip, who accidentally takes 12-year-old Iris under her wing. In this post-apocalyptic version of Spokane, the entire country has been ravaged by a virus nicknamed the “one mile cough,” killing off 95% of the city’s population in a month. Pip and Iris must survive in a world where violent gangs roam the streets, human trafficking is rampant and finding adaquate food and water is an everyday struggle. They meet Fly, a stubborn, free-spirited girl who joins them on their journey to find a home in this unpredictable new world.


When Kerr began writing her novel in 2015, she had no idea that its subject matter would be so prescient. While she noted that the impact of the virus “colors the whole story,” Kerr pointed out the novel picks up a full year after the pandemic hits. Readers who seek an escape from the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t be deterred; the impact of the “one mile cough” only serves as a backdrop for Pip, Iris and Fly’s reckoning with identity, community and survival. 


The cover of the book, featuring the black and orange wing of a monarch butterfly, has meaning for Pip and for the author herself. Kerr credits her husband’s love of monarch butterflies to her initial interest in including them in the book. The power that comes from transformation, reflected in a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly, was Kerr’s ultimate impetus for positioning monarchs as central to the story’s theme. 


“Research is my first love,” Kerr said. This passion helped her to piece together a realistic depiction of the detrimental effects of a virus. Among the more challenging aspects of writing The Names We Take was adding dimension to “evil” characters. In a world where surviving often requires violence, Pip, Iris and Fly must confront characters that are unlikeable or even dangerous. Kerr explained she had to challenge herself to give all of her characters, even ones that seem like “monsters,” a personality that transcends the classic bad-guy “trope[s].” 


As someone who grew up in Seattle and has called Spokane home for 14 years, Kerr infuses a distinct Pacific Northwest feeling to her setting. “Spokane is kind of a character in the book,” she said, adding that writing about the town she lives in made the writing process more natural. The first chapter features one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, when Pip meets Iris while making a daring escape across the Monroe Street Bridge. The Spokane Public Library provides an excellent view of the bridge, and this served as one of Kerr’s inspirations for the novel. “I’ve spent hours just standing there, looking out over that view of the river and the town,” she said. “There’s something about that old bridge and the construction and the design over the river” that made Kerr realize that Spokane had to be the setting of her novel. 


The LGBTQ+ representation in The Names We Take makes it stand out among other post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. Pip, the protagonist, is intersex and bisexual, and her love interest, Fly, is lesbian. In her author’s note, Kerr writes her youngest child helped inspire her to write the book: “As they explored their own identity, I thought that this story might help them understand that I could accept, love, and celebrate them.” 


While Pip’s queer identity is an important aspect of The Names We Take, it isn’t the entire story. “I really wanted Pip to be someone who…knows who she is,” Kerr said. Pip doesn’t spend the story grappling with her identity; instead, her biggest challenge is facing a world that is often hostile towards this identity. “Never let anyone tell you who you are,” Kerr said when asked about the most important message of the novel. “I stripped away the entire world for these characters to be able to go: ‘this is who I am, and that’s just fine’.”