Morgan Keyes is kicking off my Fall Into Winter Darkness Book Blast. She’s here today to talk about her middle grade fantasy Darkbeast, which was just released this week. I did some poking around on her website and have to say, it is wonderful. The “Discover Your Darkbeast” quiz was too fun to pass up. (My darkbeast was a rat). I asked Morgan to share something unique about herself. She confided, “I once had my own ‘darkbeast’ of sorts, an invisible five-inch tiger who sat on my left shoulder and kept me company in school.” (Personally, I think an invisible tiger sounds way cooler than a rat! :-))
Writing Dark Fantasy for Middle Grade Readers
Many thanks to Jill, for allowing me to visit and tell you about writing dark fantasy, especially in the context of my middle grade novel, Darkbeast. Due to the generosity of my publisher, Simon & Schuster, I will give away a copy of Darkbeast to one commenter chosen at random from all the comments made to this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT tonight.
In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been magically bound to all her life. Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.
While Darkbeast is my first middle grade novel (and the first that I’ve published under the name Morgan Keyes), it’s actually the seventeenth novel I have written. My other books range from rather spicy category romance (hence, the pen name for my middle grade readers!) to light paranormal to traditional fantasy novels written for adults.
Those other novels – especially the fantasies – allowed me to flex my dark writing muscles. I learned how to torture my characters physically and emotionally. I forced characters to make soul-destroying decisions in the name of love, feudal duty, and religious obligation. My very first novel begins with a character being shot in the eye! (And the second begins with a bloody kidnapping.)
In short, I was wickedly cruel.
And then I started writing for kids. I still wanted to explore serious issues. Darkbeast begins, after all, with Keara deciding whether to murder her closest friend in the world. My almost-twelve-year-old heroine is forced to make decisions that put her at odds with her family, with her religious leaders, with her secular rulers.
I strongly believe that middle grade readers can take a lot. In nearly 70,000 words, I never dumbed down my vocabulary to match my readers’ grade level. I never reworked a plot point to give Keara an easier way out. I never made supporting characters kinder or more understanding or more supportive.
But I did make some concessions to younger readers and to the parents who hope their children sleep through the night without nightmares. Rather than place Keara’s own life directly on the line, I designed the plot to threaten an animal, her beloved darkbeast. Of course, most children love animals, and I wrote Caw to make him extremely attractive. Nevertheless, that bit of distance between the heroine and her friend tames some of the darkness of the novel.
Similarly, I never left Keara alone to face her greatest enemies. Whenever she encounters the Inquisitors, she is in the company of others. She learns that she can rely on her companions, that there is a strength in numbers that can guide her through the most difficult moments in life. Similarly, my young readers are encouraged to find solace in family and friends whenever they must confront life’s greatest fears.
Do I hit the mark perfectly? Possibly not. Just the other day, an adult friend told me that she was apprehensive about reading Darkbeast; she wanted my assurance that nothing bad happened to any animal in the book. Certainly, there are some young readers who crave a similar promise – one that I was unable to give.
But dark fantasy has a place for readers young and old. It helps us to confront our greatest fears. It teaches us that we can be stronger than we ever suspected. I would never deny my middle grade readers that sort of joyous awakening to strength.
What “dark” or “dangerous” books did you enjoy as a child? What lessons do you think you learned from those works?
More About Morgan Keyes and Darkbeast
Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat. Also, there were books. Lots and lots of books. Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C. In between trips to the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, reads, writes, reads, cooks, reads, wrestles with cats, and reads. Because there are still books. Lots and lots of books.
So, readers and writers, how about you? What “dark” or “dangerous” books did you enjoy as a child? What lessons do you think you learned from those works? Comment below to enter to win a copy of Darkbeast for you or your favorite middle grade reader!