Interview with Diane Magras about SECRET OF THE SHADOW BEASTS

Kathie: Hi Diane, thank you for joining me today at MG Book Village. I’m so glad we can talk about your upcoming book, SECRET OF THE SHADOW BEASTS, which comes out on June 14th from Dial Books. I recently read an eARC and loved it! Can you tell our readers a bit about it, please?

Diane: Thank you so much for your kind words, Kathie! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed Secret of the Shadow Beasts. And thank you for hosting me.

Here’s the official publisher’s description:

In Brannland, terrifying shadow beasts called Umbrae roam freely once the sun sets, so venomous that a single bite will kill a full-grown adult. 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 train at a steampunk 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 fight.

At Noye’s Hill, Nora’s new companions draw her into a sweeping world of round-the-clock battle training, fierce loyalty to one another, and sworn allegiance to defeat the Umbrae above all else. But despite slaying so many beasts night after night, the Umbrae’s population is quickly growing. And the government is keeping secrets about the source of the Umbrae, secrets that may tie back to Nora herself . . . and lead Brannland’s downfall.

Kathie: I love Nora is such a fully-developed character who is eager for battle yet vulnerable and true to herself. What draws you to write such female protagonists?

Diane: I saw this kind of person in kids I’ve met when I volunteered at my son’s elementary school library, or in his friends, or kids I’ve connected with during my author talks. There’s still a lot of gender bias in our world (definitely for girls, but for boys and non-binary kids too), dictating to kids who and what they should be. Girls especially are told to be strong and tough—or be gentle and nurturing. I wanted to depict a girl who was a bit of both—because truly, that’s who we are: not just one stereotype of our gender identity.

Also, ever since I wrote the Mad Wolf’s Daughter books (which feature a girl with immense confidence), I wanted to write a protagonist who was more like the kid I was when I was 12: I liked who I was, but I wasn’t so sure if the world would like me. And Nora has something else she’s dealing with: At age seven, she’s been told that she’s immune to the shadow beasts’ venom. She’s an incredible person, one of these special kids who can save the world. But then her father won’t let her do it. That had a huge psychological impact on her. She loves and trusts her dad, but starts to doubt herself (and her worth) at that point.

That’s one of the roots of her vulnerability. It parallels the period of life where kids start to really look at themselves and question their worth. That can feel shattering, and is always hard to get through. I wanted to honor that time in kids’ lives.

Kathie: The influence of video games plays an important role in this story. Can you tell us a bit about that inspiration?

Diane: During the start of the pandemic (right when I was working on the second draft of this book), my teenage son, an avid gamer, introduced me to two of the many games he plays: Minecraft and Wynncraft (an MMORPG, a massive multiplayer online game). I saw and experienced how gaming could provide an essential respite to people who were feeling crushed under the immense stress of the time. The more I saw and the more I learned (from conversations with my son, as well as gaming videos I watched), I also realized that gaming is a place where kids can be themselves, be powerful, and achieve something important. When I developed the character of Wilfred, Nora’s best friend and gaming companion, I realized that gaming could also be a profound bond between them, the crux of a deep friendship. Of course, the world that Nora enters—in which she’s a warrior in real life (as she reminds Wilfred at one point)—would strain that relationship. Gaming also gave me an opportunity to keep Nora connected to her home life through the chat function of the game, which she sneaks in with her to Noye’s Hill.

I couldn’t have done any of this without a solid model of a game in front of me, and I owe that to my son: The game that Nora and Wilfred play, Warriors of the Frozen Bog, is his own creation. Early on, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind coming up with a quick description of a video game that I could feature in this book. I was expecting a paragraph or two. He came back with a full concept—lore, classes and builds, a progression system, map, the whole thing. It was beautiful, inspiring, fun, and a game that I very muchwanted to play. Having that detailed outline helped me easily envision how this game would be a big part of Nora’s life—and parallel the action of the story too.

Kathie: I noticed in the acknowledgement that you mention the young readers’ input that helped shape this book. What’s one thing a middle-grade reader pointed out to you that you may have missed as an adult?

Diane: I have two things, actually, that I’d like to share. One: I am so grateful to my son for his creation of Warriors of the Frozen Bog, as mentioned above. If I’d created my own video game for this book, it wouldn’t have been so vivid, and I wouldn’t have been able to imagine Nora and Wilfred being so devoted to it, or had the parallels with the story that it now has. Warriors of the Frozen Bog feels utterly real, all thanks to him. (And I love that this huge element of this book is his creation.)

I’m also grateful to two elementary school classes in a small town here in Maine who helped me pick my cover artist. I’d presented to Mrs. Braun’s and Mrs. Snell’s classes before, and I asked them if they could ask their students to rate five ideas I had for the art that would serve as this book’s face. Using the cover samples I provided, they and their students did more than just rate: They provided an analysis of cover art and what it conveyed. They sent back detailed notes. It was easy for me to request Vivenne To (who’d been my favorite for this book all along!), but it incredibly helpful to know why students had chosen her.

Kathie: There are several types of Umbrae with different characteristics. Why did you choose to create more than one variety, and which would you prefer to face in a battle?

Diane: When I first came up with the concept, I knew I wanted different kinds of monsters to challenge the characters in different ways. I also wanted to represent different aspects of fear. I know a lot of people who are terrified of spiders (hence the Aranea umbrae, which are spider-like), others who are scared of snakes (leading me to the Cochlea umbrae, which are snake/slug combos), and some who have serious dog phobias (hence the Lupus umbrae, which are wolf-like silver dogs). I wanted these monsters to be scary, and rooted in the real world.

Here’s a secret about me, though: I’m not afraid of any of those creatures! I used to be afraid of spiders, but I love them now, and I talk to them as I rescue them. I’ve always loved snakes, felt sorry for slugs, and I grew up with shaggy dogs that may have some things in common with the Lupus umbrae. So…if I met any of these on a battlefield, I’d probably start talking to them and tell them they were beautiful!

But if I had to fight one, I’d pick the Lupus umbrae; like Nora, I know dogs and can do serious voice commands.

Kathie: What’s something you’d like readers to know about your story?

Diane: I want young readers to know that this book, with all its action and adventure and monsters, is also a warm read about friendship and family, and that the young characters feel important, respected, and cared for. That last part was really important to me as I was writing this. The kids who go to battle are shouldering a huge load and are in great danger. They bond with each other—some of those scenes when they first begin to connect were the most rewarding for me to write—but they also always know that the people in charge are going to do everything they can to help. This is a world where kids can be themselves, and be loved and respected for it. I hope that young readers will feel my own respect and care for them as they read my words.

Kathie: Where can we go to find out more about you and your writing?

Diane: You can check out my website, and find me also on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads. You can also find out more about all my work at Penguin Random House’s page for me.

Kathie: Thanks for chatting with me today, Diane, and I wish you all the best with your book’s release.

Diane: Thanks so much for having me, Kathie! It’s always a pleasure to join MG Book Village. And thank you as well for your incredible support of middle authors and our books.

Diane Magras (she/her) is the award-winning author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, as well as its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is her 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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