Lev Grossman, author of the bestselling Magicians trilogy for adults, is releasing his first book for a middle grade audience this fall. In The Silver Arrow, two siblings conduct a magical train around the world, transporting talking animals of all sorts to new habitats. PW spoke with Grossman about writing for middle graders, his children’s book inspirations, and what’s coming down the line.
While your last series of books, the Magicians trilogy, was strongly rooted in some of the most recognizable works of children’s literature—Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.—this is your first book expressly for younger readers. How was writing for middle grade different, and how do you think your adult novels prepared you for the task?
It was interesting. Middle grade books of the kind that I’m writing, that take after things like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Charlotte’s Web, play by a different set of rules than adult fantasy. The Magicians was a grown-up take on what was basically a middle grade genre and here I’m actually writing for a middle grade audience, and I had to switch gears somewhat. I’m a parent and I have kids who are 16, 10 and seven, so I have been reading Roald Dahl for almost 10 years at this point and I felt like I knew the rules. You’re tapping the same emotions as when writing for grownups, but kids just don’t process them as much, so they are probably a little more raw. I never wanted to talk down to kids, so to the best of my ability I wrote it like I would have written it for a grown-up audience. It’s a kid’s kind of story but very rarely did I throttle back and think, what kid will get this? I tried to write it presuming they would get everything and so far they pretty much have.
The Silver Arrow has drawn comparisons to Narnia and the work of Roald Dahl and P.L. Travers, and The Magicians has ties to Narnia as well. What appeals to you in these classics, and how have they influenced you?
The Magicians was sort of my breakthrough book and I think one of the reasons it worked out so well for me was that it engaged so directly with its literary precursors. I find that very energizing as a writer. I don’t pretend that stories come out of nowhere or out of my own profound soul or brilliant brain. I am very conscious of stories that have come before. So, I invited in Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis and Enid Blyton. You want them in the room when you’re writing because I owe them a big debt and I’m very conscious of it.
The first chapter book I can remember reading was The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I sort of imprinted on it the way a little duck imprints on whatever it sees when it hatches. I really recognize that as the book that taught me how novels work and what they are for. It gave me that experience that you long for as a reader of being totally swept away and immersed so that the real world recedes to a tiny little horizon in the distance. I’ve always chased that as a writer and as a reader.
The thing I’m really conscious of with those writers is that they don’t talk down to their readers and they don’t tend to fudge things. The real world is cruel and arbitrary and often disappointing, and one thing I learned from Dahl and Lewis is not to shy away from that and not to try to write around it. Kids know that the world is brutally unfair because they have been to recess and to playgrounds. They know when you’re lying, and they hate it. Very often as a parent and a writer there are things I’m tempted just not to tell them but it’s no good—they always find out. For example, one of the characters in the book is a very venomous snake. I thought it’s a little awkward that the snake is full of venom that will cause agonizing death and maybe I just shouldn’t mention it. But on a subsequent draft I thought no, kids will want to know—do you die in agony if a mamba bites you and if so what kind of agony? I realized that you have to kind of lean into the cruelty and the darkness sometimes.
Since you mentioned the snake, The Silver Arrow features many talking animals, including some unusual and endangered species. How did you choose what to include?
That was really hard. There are many near-miss animals that are really clamoring to be in any hypothetical sequels. There was a wolverine and he was on the waitlist and almost squeaked in, but there just wasn’t quite room... but we’ll come back to him. I’m very fond of writing about animals that talk. I find it easier than writing about humans.
Talking animals are a fixture of children’s literature—is there a particular one that has stuck with you over the years?
Yes, a few. I will say it certainly began for me with T.H. White in The Once and Future King, specifically The Sword in the Stone. The young King Arthur gets his education by talking to a lot of different animals. White is very good about thinking through the kinds of things animals would talk about. When he meets an owl, its not like a human in an owl suit playing an owl, he tries to think what it would be like to be an owl.
And yet, the one that’s really imprinted on me is a minor one in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books by Douglas Adams. The hero learns to speak the language of birds and immediately learns that bird conversation is unbelievably boring. All they talk about is wind shear and acorns and that’s it. It was a real revelation for me—it was a throwaway gag by Adams but I thought, you know, animals probably don’t care about the things we care about. They probably have their own intense interests which don’t coincide with ours. Really, this is what got me started on this book; I tell a lot of stories to my kids and I remember one that had talking animals in it. I realized that from the animals’ point of view the humans are not here to save the day. From their point of view we are living in what amounts to a post-apocalyptic world and the humans are the villains.
The siblings in this book are provided with vast resources but offered little in the way of guidance, instead making decisions and finding the will to persevere on their own. This is an empowering message for children, but I wondered while reading if you were intending for parents to pick up on it as well?
That’s an interesting point. It’s another thing that carries over from The Magicians, where although they are in a fantasy novel they really lack the kind of Gandalf or Dumbledore figure that usually turns up in books like that to advise the heroes and point them in the right direction. In the Magicians books the adults were just as poorly informed as the main characters were. I think it’s the same case here. I don’t remember as a child ever getting any particularly good advice and having to figure out a lot of stuff on my own, and I wanted Kate and Tom to have that experience too.
Do you have further plans to write for kids?
Yes. It was such a good experience. It took me three years to write The Silver Arrow, which is longer than I expected so it is definitely harder than it looks. I love the way children read. I love that total attention they give books. The massive emotional investment they have in the characters—it seems so real to them. It’s a real honor to write for an audience that invests so much in what you’re writing. It’s very tempting to do it again.
You mentioned sequels?
The Silver Arrow is being published to all appearances as a standalone but my mind is running to where it is going next. Kate and Tom will still be in the middle of it, but we know that there are other trains out there, other drivers, possibly a naval service or an invisible airline—there could be evil trains. Everything will start getting more complicated. And there will be wolverines in it.
The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman. Little, Brown, Sept. 1 $16.99 ISBN 978-0-316-53953-1