With The Chaos Monster (Scholastic, July), author Sayantani DasGupta, who is also a physician, launches the Secrets of the Sky middle grade fantasy trilogy. In this first installment, twins Kinjal and Kiya venture into a magical realm to investigate the disappearance of bees. Combining storytelling with science, DasGupta poses creative solutions to the crisis facing pollinators in our present-day world. PW spoke with DasGupta about her inspiration, decoloniality in children’s literature, and the role of booksellers in a politically charged moment.
What inspired this series?
Secrets of the Sky is set in the same multiverse as my Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series and Fire Queen series, meaning it’s derived from the “Thakurmar Jhuli” and other Bengali folktales I heard growing up as a child. I pitched the series to my editor at the beginning of the pandemic, when we all were so hungry for the thing that nourished us. I wanted to escape reality and reenter the multiverse I had created, but in a new way. I craved sweetness and familiarity, the friend-group adventure books I grew up with.
What were your biggest challenges in writing The Chaos Monster?
I have to hear a character’s voice in my head to figure out who they are. But when I kept writing these stories in the first person, it didn’t work. I was missing the tone I was subconsciously yearning for—of Betsy-Tacy and Tib or C.S. Lewis—a comforting, cozy voice. I had to realize, “Yes, I’m a voice-driven writer, but that voice doesn’t always have to be the protagonist’s voice.”
What books did you have in mind when crafting this series?
Sibling or friend-group books are about the strength of not just you as a person, but the strength of the collective. I grew up with Oxford fantasies—Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien—but they are of a particular mindset. As the British Empire was politically waning, the Oxford fantasies were creating an empire of the mind. I’m trying to figure out how to tap into the comfort of the stories that I adore, but subvert their colonial mentality by putting brown kids in the driver’s seat. So there are characters from the Kiranmala series who pop up here, including the Fire Queen herself.
Is there an element you’re especially excited to share with readers?
What makes a fantasy “cozy” are elements of the familiar in the unfamiliar: sibling squabbling, snacks in a backpack, pajama pants. My biggest triumph was creating the character of Thumbs Up, the flying horse dog. Thumbs Up is the beloved family pet who, no matter what, believes 100% in you. She doesn’t say anything, she’s a terrible flyer, she gets in trouble, but she’s the purest thing.
How has your training as a physician influenced your passion for storytelling?
The Secrets of the Sky series is rooted in environmental justice and the idea that everything is connected to everything. Independent booksellers, librarians, and teachers are at the forefront of making sure stories are abundant, and it’s through that mindset of abundance that we can invite a better tomorrow. When I worked in pediatrics, I would talk about the importance of reading with young patients and write prescriptions for reading. This culturally fraught moment reminds me that stories are good medicine. We’re all the healers involved in that process.
Sayantani DasGupta will attend the Scholastic After Party, June 6, 9:30–11:30 p.m.
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor living in New Jersey.