Thirteen-year-old Skandar Smith has always dreamed of being a unicorn rider, one of the elite who compete each year in the Chaos Cup. It’s weeks away from his Hatchery exam—which might offer him the chance to do just that—when, at the Cup, a mysterious figure called The Weaver kidnaps New-Age Frost, the unicorn who, along with his rider, is favored to win. This shocking turn of events sets in motion the story of Skandar and the Unicorn Thief, the page-turning debut novel by Annabel Steadman (writing as A.F. Steadman) due out May 3 from Simon & Schuster. It’s the first in a planned five-book middle grade fantasy series that’s already drawn comparisons to some of the biggest franchises in the category, from Harry Potter to Percy Jackson.
In Skandar’s world, a unicorn is a wild and fearsome creature with bloodshot eyes and an unbearable stench, unless it bonds with a human after hatching from its egg. Due to a long history of attacks on humans, untamed unicorns must be contained in a barren wasteland on the Island, forbidden to come to the Mainland where Skandar lives with his father and older sister Kenna. It’s only through a human-unicorn bond that unicorns can be ridden and their elemental powers brought under control. And it’s only at the Hatchery where students can train to do just that. Despite a number of obstacles, Skandar finds himself there, learning not only about unicorn riding and magic, but how to trust a new group of friends who must keep his dangerous secret and aid him in an important quest.
Skandar’s character first bounded into Steadman’s imagination eight years ago during a long commute. At the time, she was studying law in the U.K. with little time to read the fantasy books that she had loved as a child. But letting her mind wander one day, she saw the figure of a boy flying atop a creature. It wasn’t until sometime later that she decided it was a unicorn, but not the type we’re used to. To pass the time on her train rides, she came up with unicorn names, which she filed away until using them in Skandar: Arctic Swansong, Desert Firebird, and Skandar’s beloved Scoundrel’s Luck, for example.
After practicing law for several years, Steadman came to the conclusion that the profession was not for her. She enrolled in an MFA program at Cambridge and that unicorn-riding boy she’d imagined years before bubbled back into her consciousness. During a summer break, the first draft of Skandar took shape in just a few months.
Steadman has drawn widespread advance praise for the book’s world-building. “I was part of that Eragon generation,” she said, citing Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle as inspiration, along with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Chronicles, Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. The idea of a recognizable world with a deep mythology was always appealing to her, and her paradigm-shifting portrayal of unicorns ended up being a central part of that. “I’ve never really liked the fluffy unicorn thing,” she said. Instead, these creatures are strong, mystical, and somewhat unpredictable. Equally important to the world-building was the character journey of Skandar and his group of close friends. “I’ve always liked the idea of destiny; that there is something waiting for you, no matter who you are,” Steadman said.
Skandar and the Unicorn Thief made quite a splash in 2020 when it was acquired by Ali Dougal at Simon & Schuster UK and Kendra Levin at S&S U.S. in a multi-house auction. According to the Telegragh, the seven-figure deal (which covers the first three books in the anticipated five-book series) is believed to be the largest ever for a children’s book debut. At the time Dougal said the acquisition had created “instant excitement” in-house at S&S. The book has now sold in 23 languages in 36 territories, as of mid-March; Simon & Schuster has announced an initial U.S. print run of 250,000.
The in-house regard for the book also translated to the publisher’s U.S. counterparts. The “grand scope of this world and of this series” is remarkable, said Deeba Zargarpur, who is editing the books for Simon & Schuster U.S. But the appeal of the series isn’t limited to the fantasy elements, Zargarpur believes. “Each character is unique and emotionally compelling,” she said, adding that the book has received company-wide attention that stretches beyond the children’s book division. That kind of enthusiasm is echoed outside of the publisher as well. Barnes & Noble is offering a special edition of Skandar, with a foil-stamped unicorn, stained gold edges, and bonus content, including an annotated chapter by the author. According to Deadline, Sony Pictures acquired the film rights in a seven-figure deal in September 2020. In fall 2021, the company announced that British screenwriter Jon Croker had been signed to adapt the book. Coker was a writer on both Paddington films and wrote the screenplay for High in the Clouds, an animated adaptation of Paul McCartney’s 2005 novel, expected to be released by Netflix later this year. Steadman has finished writing the second book in the series and is already at work on the third.
While Skandar has received praise for its world-building, Steadman said that the series is about a lot more than that. “It’s about family, grief, mental health, finding friends who support you, and finding your place in the world, even if it’s not what you expected,” she said. “I hope kids can take something from that and feel hopeful about friendship and people accepting you for who you are.”
The plan is to release the series in a book-a-year schedule, Zargarpur said. Steadman hopes that readers will grow up along with the characters, experiencing those tween and teen years with Skandar and his friends as they progress through their five-year training at the Hatchery.
In Skandar, Zargarpur said, Steadman has hit upon something “universal,” with globe-spanning, generation-bridging appeal.