Lev Grossman, Time magazine’s book critic, was an informed and enthusiastic moderator for the May 29th BEA panel on animal fantasy in children’s books. His daughter is a big fan of the genre, he said, particularly Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series, about a world where dragons rule and humans are often prey.

“In most books, the humans are taming or riding the dragons,” Sutherland said of her series. “But I wanted to write a world where dragons fall in love and have their own society. I thought, in a world of dragons, humans likely wouldn’t fair well.” Sutherland’s favorite dragon books include Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series and books by Naomi Novik. “A lot of animal fantasy is serious and dark,” she said. “But I wanted my dragons to be fun and light.”

Joining Sutherland on the panel were Inbali Iserles, the British author of the Foxcraft series, as well as Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater, co-authors of Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures.

Grossman invited Iserles to talk about why she chose foxes for her series. “There are foxes living in central London,” Iserles said. “You actually see them in the city. They are very misunderstood. Not only are they hunted by hounds but they are considered tricksters, alive with the devil, and bad luck. They seem to have the ability to appear and disappear, so shape-shifting seemed a logical possibility for foxes – and foxcraft is a certain kind of fox magic.” Iserles expressed her wish to spend a week as a fox, and be totally immersed in the world of foxes as she researches her books. “There is an intense compassion for animals in most people,” she said. “In animal fantasy, they’re not totally domestic, we don’t totally understand them, and that is very alluring.”

Unlike Iserles’s and Sutherland’s books, which are narrated by creatures, the new novel by Pearce and Stiefvater is narrated by a human girl. “Pip has a magical power – she can understand what animals are saying,” Stievfater explained. She can tell the difference between what they are doing and what they are really thinking. As Pip meets creatures in real life, she realizes they are very different than what she’s read about in books, so in the novel, she’s decided to talk about them from her perspective.”

Pearce said they wrote a book that features magical creatures because animals are good companions – especially for children. “In a world where adults are in control of your life,” Pearce said, “animals need you and love you unconditionally in the same way children need adults. Animals are such good listeners.”

The collaboration between Stiefvater and Pearce began in an idyllic setting: they were on retreat at a beach house in Malibu. “We were sitting around in a hot tub when we thought up Pip,” Stiefvater said.

Grossman posed one last, very appropriate question to the panel: If you have magical creature with you at all times, which one would it be? “The baku,” Sutherland said. “It’s from Japan, it’s fuzzy and blue. And it eats your nightmares. It’s very useful!” Iserles mentioned a lioness goddess. Pearce wished for a puppy-sized unicorn, since she lives in a condo. And Stiefvater wanted a man-eating horse, like from her novel The Scorpio Races.