Author Morgan Keyes Discusses Dark Fantasy for Middle Grade Readers

Middle Grade Fantasy Novel
Enter to win a copy of Darkbeast, Morgan Keyes’ new middle grade novel, by commenting below

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

Middle Grade Fantasy Author
Morgan Keyes (and her own little invisible “darkbeast” :-D)

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.

She can be found online at her website and Facebook.

Darkbeast is for sale in bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores, including:  Amazon | B & N | Indiebound

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!

Published by

Jill Archer

Jill Archer is the author of the Noon Onyx series, genre-bending fantasy novels including DARK LIGHT OF DAY, FIERY EDGE OF STEEL, WHITE HEART OF JUSTICE, and POCKET FULL OF TINDER.

24 thoughts on “Author Morgan Keyes Discusses Dark Fantasy for Middle Grade Readers

  1. Hi Morgan– Thanks so much for guest blogging today! I very much enjoyed your post, both as a writer and as a parent. My oldest is starting to read books at this level and it’s been neat discussing her choices with her. There’s such an amazing selection for kids these days!

    One of my favorite trilogies from my middle grade years is the story of two best friends and their battle against a witch. The protagonist’s mother was a writer. I can’t remember the name of the books, series, or the author (if anyone knows which books I’m talking about, please let me know!) The best friend’s name was Marjorie and the climax of one of the books was the two girls being attacked by crows one night. They stopped the crows from coming down the chimney by shutting the flue damper on the lead bird and killing it. Although it sounds gruesome, my main reactions were relief and empowerment. (Unlike how you portray Caw in Darkbeast, this bird and its band of brothers were portrayed evilly). As a young reader, the lessons I learned from that book were self-reliance, courage in the face of adversity, and triumph over evil. The “darkness” of the story was its appeal — and the reason its message succeeded.

    One other thing I wanted to mention to everyone: Morgan’s website has a great “For Adults” section with discussion questions, projects, and even a party planner for anyone who wants to throw a Darkbeast-themed birthday party. 🙂

    1. Jill – Thank you so much for hosting this discussion! I regret not swinging by earlier in the day, but I’ve been at the World Science Fiction Convention, where I did a presentation on Rites and Rituals of Coming of Age — drawing in part on DARKBEAST!

      I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments!

      1. Hi Morgan– It was my pleasure. Your coming of age presentation sounds great. We appreciate you stopping by in the midst of the convention. I know how busy they can be! Have fun and best wishes for the rest of your Darkbeast tour. 😀

    1. Hi Miriam– I agree. I think authors who write for young readers can have a huge impact. People always seem to remember the books that influenced them when they were young. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Miriam – Thanks for the kind words. I found writing DARKBEAST was an emotional experience, different from my other writing. In large part, that was because I could remember how *real* other worlds became when I was a middle school student — the possibilities that seemed to unfold in front of me (and ultimately made me the writer I am today!)

  2. Good morning Jill and Morgan. I enjoyed reading about Morgan’s views on the differences between adult and middle-grade writing. I’ve done a few short stories that fall into dark fantasy for mid-grade. However, some of the readers ended up being not quite mid-grade, and thus the parents felt the stories (one story in particular) came out a bit too dark for the young ones. With that in mind, I’m glad to hear the belief that middle graders can handle some fairly stern material. I know I certainly could back then. There’s an idea for a mid-grade novel I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while, thinking perhaps to use it for NaNoWriMo. But I’ve been pondering just how much “darkness” to include. Without having read Darkbeast beyond the blurbs on Morgan’s website, I discovered that there are some interesting similarities with the story I’ve been piecing together. Perhaps it’s worth the time after all!
    I’d like to add that I’ve been following the Magical Words website for a couple of years now and have read posts from Morgan – and heard about Darkbeast – before. I’m always thankful for those of you who make time to blog for the rest of us. It keeps the writing spirit alive when work, sleep deprivation, and life in general would otherwise squash it.
    Finally, I have to admit that I don’t feel very much like a lizard darkbeast. Maybe it could be a dragon, or a komodo dragon, at least? In any event I have sort of my own darkbeast already: an all black cat who is as mouthy as anyone who can talk.

    1. Hi Shamus– If you do NaNoWriMo (or, as my husband calls it, “Project Rhino” — he misheard me talking about it one day and thought that’s what I said!), let me know what you think.

      Thanks for your kind words of appreciation! I’ve found the writing community to be pretty darn supportive and I’m grateful to it too. Tx for your comments!

      p.s. A lizard, huh? The invisible tiger is still the winner. 😉

    2. ::grin:: Shamus – great to see you here!

      I think that the greatest way to test your novel idea is to start writing! You’ll find whether it holds up or not, and NaNo is a good time to try out the notion.

      (And thanks, Jill, for appreciating my tiger 🙂 )

  3. I have two middle grade readers at my house who are going to love this book.

    As a young child, I loved to read my Grimms’ fairy tales, and I also had a book of Russian folk and fairy tales that were quite dark. I loved the excitement of knowing that the bad guy would die (and therefore couldn’t come to get me while I slept!) and the hero or heroine would prevail in the end.

    Best of luck with Darkbeast. I can’t wait to read it!

    1. Ally — Thanks for the kind words! I remember reading Bettelheim’s THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT in college — one of his points is exactly the one you raise — that children use fairy tales to learn they can prevail over threats. (He couched this in a lot of Freudian theory, some of which I absolutely *disagree* with, but…) Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I think one of the interesting things about children is that what scares one silly won’t bother another at all. If the backcover copy/book hints at the contents, the readers (or their parents) will tend to self-select for material that is appropriate.

    1. Hi Kate– That’s probably true about adults too (what scares one silly won’t bother another at all). Insects creep me out, but I have no problem with snakes, mice… or rats. 😀

      And, I agree, if a book is accurately described in back cover copy, by word of mouth or trusted reviewers, etc., that can help readers select what’s appropriate for them. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Kate – I agree, too, that accurate cover copy can help readers make choices, but that cover copy is never complete. There are websites that detail movies so that parents can make appropriate choices for their kids (counting occurrences of specific swear words, describing scenes of violence, etc.) — which is useful for a mechanical, evaluative purpose but would certainly destroy the experience of the reader/viewer!

  5. I read a lot of Andre Norton, and I remember that some of her characters had great animal (or quasi-animal, since much of it was sf) companions. And some of those stories got pretty dark!

    I loved Darkbeast, and I think you hit just the right balance. Even though parts still scared me 🙂

  6. Oh lord. I read everything as a child, starting with every fairy tale I could get my hands on – and those can get rather dark. By about 4th grade I was reading YA and adult fantasy books…I kind of skipped middle grade 🙂

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