Interview with Polly Holyoke about SKYRIDERS

Shari: Hi Polly! Welcome to MG Book Village! I’m thrilled to chat with you today about your new fantasy novel, Skyriders!  I absolutely love this exciting story and its fantastic characters!  What were some of your inspirations for this book?

Polly: Thank you so much, Shari! I’ve always been fascinated by the Pegasus Myth, in part because when I was little, my parents gave me a picture book of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s re-telling of the myth which included gorgeous illustrations of Pegasus. Bellerophon tamed this fierce winged horse, and the two went on to slay the chimera, a terrible three-headed monster laying waste to Lycea. I’ve also been intrigued by the American Pony Express. During the short time it was in operation, brave young riders raced across the West to deliver the mail and connect the far reaches of our huge country. The two ideas came together in my mind, and I imagined a brave young courier on a flying horse delivering the mail across a vast empire. But then the dreaded chimerae return, and my heroine Kiesandra Torsun is one of the very few who knows effective ways to fight these monsters. But will people in power believe her? 

Shari: Let’s talk about this cover!  It is so dramatic and stunning – very eye-catching! Can you tell us about the artist, and your favorite details in the art?

Polly: Brandon Dorman created the cover, and he is such a talented artist! He also created the cover art for The Land of Stories and the Fablehaven books. I love the way he depicted the chimera. It’s even scarier-looking than I imagined. I’m also thrilled with his depiction of a triwire, the weapon my heroine Kie whirls over her head as she charges the huge monster. I actually made up that weapon while I was trying to figure out how someone on a skysteed could possibly triumph over a chimera. It’s seriously cool to see a weapon I imagined depicted in such vivid detail on the cover!

Shari: Kiesandra is the main character of Skyriders.  While readers will love Kie, she has difficulty making friends and lives a pretty solitary life between her uncle’s farm and her Sky Courier route. Why is she such a loner, and how is that important in the story?

Polly: At the start of the story, Kie is definitely a loner. She is respected by her fellow sky couriers, but she is not close to them. Her skysteed N’Rah is always encouraging her to be more outgoing and to build a herd of her own. That’s hard for Kie to do because she endured several terrible years at her town’s school. Kie is dyslexic, and in her world and in her time, no one understands why certain students have so much trouble learning to read. Because bullies at her school teased her unmercifully, Kie has had problems letting her guard down and letting people get close to her ever since.

She does love her eccentric Uncle Dugs, even though he is always pestering her to practice skyfighting. He is quite convinced that the terrible chimerae that once ravaged Prekalt are going to return again. When the monsters do reappear, Uncle Dugs is horribly wounded fighting to defend his village. He makes Kie promise to take his great- grandfather’s manual on skyfighting tactics to the capital before it’s too late. Although it’s a huge challenge for her, Kie must make friends and allies in her effort to get people in power to pay attention to her and the most effective ways to fight chimerae, before it’s too late.

Shari: I loved the special bond between skyriders and skysteeds, especially between Kie and N’Rah. What makes these two such a perfect pair?

Polly: Well, N’Rah is definitely much more outgoing than Kie is, and he’s a bit more optimistic in his world view. He helps Kie learn how to trust others, and she helps him be a little more settled and focused. They support each other and give each other the confidence to tackle impossible tasks like fighting chimerae and trying to get commanders in the Imperial Sky Force to listen to them.

Shari: The worldbuilding in Skyriders is so detailed, without feeling like it takes over the story. What do you think are the most important aspects of worldbuilding, and were there any elements that you created for this world but didn’t end up in the finished book?

Polly: I frequently teach world building workshops because I love the process of creating fictional worlds so much! I usually start with the geography of my imaginary world. I think about the land and the climate and how those factors shape people’s lives and their livelihoods. I also like to think about social classes and cultures, and who has power, and who doesn’t. How is status obtained in a world? What happens when a person rebels against the mores and rules of their society? Most of all, it’s vital to figure out in a fantasy novel if there is magic, and how that magic functions. Does everyone have it, or do just certain people? How powerful is that magic and what are its sources and limits? You have to set up rules for magic, and then your characters must abide by them. 

In terms of what I had to leave out… I did want to explain why there is so little magic left in my Empire of Prekalt. Three hundred years ago mages could weave powerful spells, but the evil mage who created the chimerae purposely did everything he could to corrupt and destroy anyone possessing magic over the centuries. In the end, I decided I needed to leave most of that backstory out, but I will put it to good use if Viking Children’s Books buys the third book in my Skyriders series. Here’s hoping!

Shari: Research is always a significant part of any writing. What were the most interesting things you learned in your research for Skyriders?

Polly: I had to spend quite a bit of time researching and thinking about aerial combat. How could young riders on skysteeds effectively fight and kill chimerae? Early on I figured out that my chimerae wouldn’t be able to breathe fire. Bellerophon used a magic shield to protect himself and Pegasus from a fire-breathing chimera. But I couldn’t see my sky couriers flying around carrying heavy shields, and they don’t possess magic. So instead, the sand dragon head on my chimerae is terribly poisonous, and the young prince in my story gets bitten by one. I could describe that sensation quite accurately because I was bitten by a rattlesnake ten years ago (not a pleasant experience)! I also learned a great deal about the tactics pilots use when dogfighting.

Shari: What do you hope readers keep in their hearts after reading your book? (Credit to Rebecca Balcárcel for this question!)

Polly: I seem to write about the theme of found family quite often in my books. I’ve had to move frequently in my life, and I have so valued the wonderful friends I’ve made around the United States and in other countries. By the end of Skyriders, shy Kie has created a supportive herd of her own, and she’s learned to trust and share with her new friends. I also hope readers will remember that kids can be incredibly wise, and we as adults should do a better job of listening to what they have to tell and teach us.

Shari:  Can you tell us what is up next for Kie and her new friends, and for you?

Polly: I’m very excited about the next book in my Skyriders series. The Sky King will be available September 5. I like to say it explains the origin story of the skysteeds. Kie and her companions must find a way to forge an alliance with the wild ones and their leader, the bitter Sky King, before the chimerae return in force and doom all Prekalt.

This spring and next fall, I’ll also be doing lots of school visits. Because my Neptune series made so many state lists, and because I was a teacher and can actually teach during an author visit, I’ve already presented at over 350 schools. In my assembly presentation, I urge students to read, write, unplug and daydream, and in my writing workshops, I get students fired up about their writing.

Shari: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Polly: They should definitely head to my website: https // Because of my teaching background, I made sure there are educational guides and activities there for ALL of my books, along with information on the various school and writing programs that I offer. 

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Polly, and sharing about your fantastic new book!

Polly: Thank you so much for hosting me, and thank you for everything that you and the MG Book Village do to promote middle grade fiction!

Polly Holyoke is the award-winning author of the middle grade sci/fi Neptune Trilogy (Disney/Hyperion) and the new children’s fantasy series, Skyriders, from Viking Children’s Books. Polly grew up in Colorado and enjoys skiing, hiking, and camping in the mountains. A former classroom teacher, she believes kids need to read, write, unplug from their gadgets and spend more time… daydreaming!

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