Sangu Mandanna—author of numerous adult, YA, and middle grade novels spanning various genres—adds a new category to her expansive backlist with middle grade fantasy graphic novel Jupiter Nettle and the Seven Schools of Magic, illustrated by Pablo Ballesteros. All that 12-year-old Jupiter wants is to attend one of the Seven Schools of Magic. After failing the entrance exams, she worries that there isn’t a place for her there. Soon she gets another shot at her dream, earning a spot in the School of Earth Magic, but she and her classmates are looked down upon by the other schools. When an ancient enemy returns seeking vengeance on the Seven Schools, however, Jupiter must call upon her innate magic to save her new home. In a conversation with PW, Mandanna talks about the joys and challenges of writing in a new medium, finding magic in the mundane, and her desire to capture the world as it is and as it should be.

What compelled you to write a graphic novel?

I have been a comic book reader since I was very little, so I think that in the back of my head, this was always something I wanted to do. But for a long time, there was this barrier in my brain that said, “I can’t do this because my artistic skills don’t live up to my storytelling ambitions.” I thought I had to do it all by myself, because it’s what I’d done with my previous books. It didn’t occur to me that I might be able to tell this story and that someone else—a wonderful illustrator—would be able to bring it to life. Learning that was possible unlocked that barrier.

Can you describe the process of seeing Jupiter’s story come to life through Pablo Ballesteros’s art?

Pablo has done such an incredible job of making this book a visual feast for the eyes. It was just the most astonishing, incredible thing. I love working in visual mediums as well—I’m not very good at it, but it’s something I like to do for fun. And, as a writer, I feel like I of all people should know that a lot more goes into the process of making art than people necessarily realize when they see the final product. But even knowing this, I don’t think I had completely conceptualized just how extraordinary the process of illustrating an entire book is.

Pablo and I had a chance to talk a little on Instagram. We would bounce ideas back and forth every now and then, and he would say things like, “Would it maybe work better if we change this panel to this?” He was visualizing the book in a way that I couldn’t, so it was a really collaborative process once we got to that point.

It was like literally watching something come to life. I think this is how authors must feel when they see their books become movies. Once Pablo took over, there were the pencil sketches, then there was the ink, then there was color, and then there was the whole thing! It was about three or four weeks ago that I finally saw the finished book and it blew my mind.

How did writing a graphic novel script differ from writing a prose novel?

It was very strange to recognize that each word has to hold so much weight on its own. Each word needs to earn its place on the page and do justice to the illustrations that will come later. So, it was incredibly fun, but also a different process for me. I loved it. I loved learning something new.

I find that I need a lot of distance from my work before I can really appreciate it. When I write a novel, it can take about a year and a half to go from draft to shelf. But even that’s still not enough space for me to see it and think, “This is great. I did something amazing,” because I’m still processing it. I start second-guessing myself. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve opened a finished copy of my book and immediately saw a sentence I wish I’d changed.

But with Jupiter Nettle, after I finished the script, it took almost two years to get to where we are now. I had all that space to get some distance from the story, so when I started to see the finished version, I was able to actually look at our work and say, “This is pretty cool.”

You dedicate the graphic novel “to anyone who has ever felt like they didn’t belong in other magical schools.” In what ways did you develop the Seven Schools of Magic to be a more inclusive institution?

It was very much about reflecting the world as it is in a way that felt authentic and true to me. I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that fantasy isn’t a reflection of the world we live in. I grew up with boarding school stories and magic school stories and I devoured them. But I never had a place in them. There weren’t really characters who looked like me. You barely ever saw queer characters, either. All you saw was a very heteronormative, homogeneous world, which doesn’t make sense to me. I can understand why there was a time when that was how things were done, but the world has been diverse for a very long time. Jupiter Nettle and the Seven Schools of Magic was my response to that; it was my way of saying I loved these stories, but I wanted more from them.

Magic can be all kinds of things—it can be flashy and dramatic and exciting, and it can also be quiet and nurturing and soft.

Anytime I saw someone who looked even a little bit like me in fantasy stories, I would cling to them, almost irrationally, and identify with them, even when it didn’t make sense, just because they were the closest I could feel to being seen on the page or on screen. I didn’t want that when I was working on this book. I wanted it to be open and welcoming and to reflect people of all shapes and sizes and skin colors and ethnicities and sexual identities. I wanted to create a world where everybody is different, and everybody is unique and it’s normal.

Of the seven schools of magic—spellcasting, earth magic, enchantment, alchemy, foresight, healing, and ghosts—which would you want to attend?

I feel like I would be very much like Jupiter in that I would absolutely want to be in one of the more exciting disciplines—I’d like to pick up a wand and go cast some spells or ride a unicorn into battle—but I would discover very quickly that I wasn’t cut out for that.

For what it’s worth, I’m not cut out for earth magic, either. I suppose the one that would probably suit me the most would be the School of Enchantment, because I love the idea of taking innate magic and enchanting objects. I think that might potentially be something I’m good at.

What was it about Jupiter that you felt worked best with the School of Earth Magic?

When I started working on this book, we were in lockdown, and I think we were all feeling isolated because we were struggling with something beyond our comprehension. We kind of went back to the basics: we were planting things, and we were baking things. We were leaning into nature. It was important to me to have that very ordinary kind of magic around making things grow and making things thrive. It’s a skill; there is a patience and a love and a respect that it requires that not everybody can do, and it can be glossed over. It’s understated in a way that, to me, feels downright magical. So, I wanted to make it clear on the page that magic can be all kinds of things—it can be flashy and dramatic and exciting, and it can also be quiet and nurturing and soft.

Jupiter is a symbol for all of us who’ve ever felt like we were pretty ordinary, because we’ve all got something that makes us special.

What’s next for you?

My next middle grade prose novel is called Vanya and the Wild Hunt, and it’s set to pub in March 2025 from Roaring Brook. It’s a second-world fantasy about a neurodivergent girl who discovers that she’s a descendant from a line of monster hunters. I also have a cozy fantasy novel for adults called A Witch’s Guide to Magical Innkeeping, which is coming out from Berkley in December.

I don’t yet have any more graphic novels in the works, but it’s absolutely something I want to do again.

Jupiter Nettle and the Seven Schools of Magic by Sangu Mandanna, illus. by Pablo Ballesteros. Viking, $22.99 June 11 ISBN 978-0-593-46447-2; $12.99 paper ISBN 978-0-593-46449-6