Fantasy author James Riley will bring his most recent series for young readers to a close with Happily Ever After, due from Aladdin on May 30. The novel wraps up the saga of undersized giant Lena, young genie Jin, and the power-hungry Golden King, who controls shadow magic and a legion of faceless knights. Launched in April 2022, the Once Upon Another Time trilogy, which has more than 75,000 copies in print, is set in the same twisted fairytale world as Riley’s Half Upon a Time, the first of the author’s middle-grade series (which also include Story Thieves and The Revenge of Magic).
Riley noted that he never expected that he’d return to the world of Half Upon a Time, or even to fairy tales in general. “I’d already tried fitting in as many classic fairy tales into the Half series as I could, and I’d told the story I had wanted to tell from the beginning,” he said. “But ever since that final Half book came out [in 2013], I’ve had readers asking about when I’d be doing more, probably because I left things on a bit of an ‘and the adventure continues!’ sort of note.”
But Riley gave serious thought to revisiting that fairy tale realm when the idea of the character of Lena emerged. “She just popped into my head,” he recalled. “Thumbelina was one of the few fairy tale characters I hadn’t fit into the Half series, and making her a tiny giant suddenly opened up a whole new world—pardon the Disney pun—of ideas, just from seeing fairy tales from a giant’s perspective.”
The author’s biggest challenge in creating Once Upon Another Time was finding the right balance of narrative for new and returning readers. “I tried to make fans of the original series happy by bringing back old favorite characters while not confusing or alienating anyone who hadn’t read those books,” he said. “You definitely don’t need to have read the Half Upon a Time books to understand everything in the new series, but if you have, you’ll have even more fun, hopefully!”
As a writer, Riley has a knack for meshing the real world and the fantasy world—and the two collided in an earlier chapter in his life, when he was employed by Disney.
It’s a topic that often arises when he visits schools, Riley said, since “I imagine the kids think I got to play Goofy or something at the parks, which would have been awesome. Instead, I worked at Disney.com, so it was less of the childhood dream job than I’d imagined as a huge fan of Disney’s animation my whole life.”
While the job didn’t directly inspire him as a writer, Riley added, “the Disney movies certainly did, even just by knowing how many kids have seen them. That let me set up mysteries about which fairy tales certain characters might be from, playing on readers’ previous knowledge of fairy tales, and then pull the rug out from under them with some fun twists. I’m so cruel to my readers!”
Playfully interweaving actual and fictional worlds captured Riley’s fancy some years ago. “That idea had such an impact on me that I wrote a whole series about it, Story Thieves [which debuted in 2015],” he said. “I believe that fictional and real worlds colliding makes for some incredible stories, especially because that’s the core of what magic, and imagination, are about—smashing together the real and unreal.”
Riley notes that his own reading tastes also feed his creative endeavors. “As a reader, I love that stories like this tell us that visiting our favorite fictional worlds isn’t just a dream, but could actually happen, something I’m sure I’m not alone in daydreaming about,” he said. “I hope my readers are getting the same sort of thrill from that as I would. Fairy tales are perfect for this kind of thing especially, given how well-known they are. They’re basically like pop music: You might not remember having heard a particular story, but you know the details by heart anyway. That gives a familiar yet still magical feel to them, perfect for mixing with the real world.”
Kara Sargent, director of brand publishing at Aladdin and Riley’s editor (along with associate editor Anna Parsons), also mentions the appeal of familiarity as integral to Riley’s fiction. “One thing that has always stood out to me about James’s stories is the way the reader gets pulled in so completely and so immediately by his storytelling,” Sargent said. “The narrative voice is so personal that you feel like you’re stepping into a world you are already comfortable in, and want to be in, and yet there’s so much waiting around the corner to discover, so everything is new but also a bit familiar at the same time.”
Though Sargent is sorry to see Once Upon Another Time end, noting “I loved spending time with these characters and I’ll miss them,” she has high hopes for Riley’s next venture—and has some suggestions for the author. “It would be great to see him apply his voice and brand of humor to a classic mystery or historical fiction. I love those genres and I love his stories, so it would be fun to see what he came up with.”
Riley dodged specifics when asked if he has another book in the works, but his response should reassure fans: “I have more than one, in fact! I can’t talk about any of them just yet—but more news soon, in both middle grade and beyond, hopefully.”
Happily Ever After (Once Upon Another Time #3) by James Riley. Aladdin, $18.99 May 30 ISBN 978-1-6659-0492-6