The other day, I was musing about my pre- and post-pandemic writing styles. As a middle grade author, my books and brand are all about action, adventure, and fun—and that hasn’t changed. But there’s a new layer of seriousness behind the veil of my upcoming book, Secret of the Shadow Beasts. The adventure, mystery, and vivid characters form the fabric of the story, but it was a pandemic book, and that shows.
I came up with the basic primese a couple of months before the pandemic. Yet as I revised during the spring and summer of 2020, I saw clearly how I was now living in a world that strangely paralleled that premise. In my story, people need to follow rules and stay inside (at night), or risk death (by venomous monsters). Some people go outdoors, flaunting the government’s recommendations, determining that their “freedom” is more important—and, in doing so, draw the deadly, near-invincible shadow beasts to their towns.
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We in real life know that in our society, some people will clutch their own entitlements, deny basic truths, and engage in actions that have a deadly impact on their communities and country. As the pandemic continued, I saw that happening in my community and nationwide. While revising, I kept wondering: How do we deal with this?
I answered that a little with my story. The children (immune to the shadow beasts’ venom, thus the only ones who can destroy them) can eliminate some of the danger. And most people in my book understand what it means to be part of a nation facing a deadly threat, and thus do what they need to in order to protect everyone. I realized that I was actually writing speculative fiction: a fantasy adventure that gave my young readers a glimpse at how the world could be.
I kept thinking about those young readers as I wrote my battles scenes and more. (By the way, wouldn’t every one of us like to whack a slimy beast with an ax and turn it into mist? Sounds like a catharsis I could have used on many a bad pandemic day.) I wanted these to be vicarious experiences where readers could poke around, try new things in safety, experience new thoughts. And I wanted my young readers to look at a protagonist like Nora Kemp, the hero of this book, and check their own reactions, asking:
Would I Want to join an Order of kids fighting monsters to save my country? Would I have been proud of being immune, one of the few who could? Would I have worried about missing my family when I went to train? Would I have been sad if I’d never had the chance?
These questions, I hoped, would help kids think, spurring them identify their own moral centers and ask themselves if my protagonist Nora had made wise choices. And to realize how much even small choices matter, and how knowing who you are beforehand helps you make the best choice faced with any kind of risk.
I also wanted my young readers to think about the ethos of the world and the social and emotional rules that anchored it. While the Council for the Research and Destruction of the Umbrae (the governmental agency of my book) sends Nora and other kids out to battle monsters, it also does all it can protect them. While it fills their childhoods with a culture of admiration for the young knights, the Council doesn’t compel children to leave their homes and enter its forces.
And it treats them well: While training children so they’ll have the best chance of success in battle, the Council also provides mental health resources, respect and care for gender identity needs, equipment for disabilities, and gestures throughout each day to show encouragement and appreciation (from hand-written notes, special meals, to doing kids’ laundry and setting out their clothes in the morning). The children in this world never doubt that they’re important, and that people care.
That part came as a direct reaction to what I was seeing during lockdown: kids struggling with virtual learning and a pandemic that restricted so much of their lives. Of national talk that put them as collateral, that rarely put them first. I remember writing in my notebook, “Doesn’t anyone care about kids?” Of course many people did—their parents and teachers, for one—but I saw so much talk that made me ask that. And so my world addresses it head-on: Kids are literally the only ones who can save us.
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While it may have been borne from lockdown despair, it’s a message that I hope my young readers take to heart. Yes, it’s a cliché to say that children will save our world, but it’s true: Today’s children are vocal and certain of their power to effect change. They’re also insightful, eager to learn and to use their knowledge, and they know that their actions could make history.
Kids being brave, creating change, determined to make this world a better one: That’s really what my book is about. I like that all the lockdown despair ended up in such a hopeful place.
Meet the author
Diane Magras (she/her) is the award-winning author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughteras well as its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is her ambitious third book. An unabashed fan of libraries (where she wrote her first novel as a teenager), history (especially from cultures or people who’ve rarely had their story told), and the perfect cup of tea, Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son .
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About Secret of the Shadow Beasts
For fans of Dragon Pearl and the Lockwood & Co. series comes a swift-moving contemporary fantasy about a young girl tasked with destroying deadly shadow creatures.
In Brannland, terrifying beasts called Umbrae roam freely once the sun sets, so venomous that a single bite will kill a full-grown adult—and lately, with each day that passes, their population seems to double. The only people who can destroy them are immune children like Nora, who are recruited at the age of seven to leave their families behind and begin training at a retrofitted castle called Noye’s Hill. But despite her immunity, Nora’s father refused to let her go. Now, years after his death by Umbra attack, Nora is twelve, and sees her mother almost killed by the monsters too. That’s when Nora decides it’s time for her to join the battle. Once she arrives at Noye’s Hill, though, she and her new friends are left with more questions than answers: Where are the Umbrae coming from? Could the government be covering up the true reason their population has whirled out of control? And was Nora’s father, the peaceful, big-hearted man who refused to let Nora fight, in on the treacherous secret?
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 06/14/2022
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post