Children’s Books Boston hosted a wide-ranging discussion between two prominent fantasy authors at a Midwinter’s Night Fantasy Panel, held at Simmons College on February 23. Bestselling writers Kristin Cashore and Tui Sutherland discussed the challenges of writing fantasy stories, the importance of doing so for younger readers, and the craft that goes into their work, with moderator Martha Parravano, executive editor of the Horn Book.

Billed as an exploration of “what inspires fantasy authors,” the evening kicked off with Sutherland and Cashore’s recollections of the books they read as children. Sutherland, author of the Wings of Fire series, grew up in Paraguay with a limited selection of books, but her mother read stories to her and her siblings from a young age. “My mom had this crazy New Zealand accent,” she told the audience, “and she would read Roald Dahl to us, and she sounded exactly like the Witches.”

Sutherland spoke fondly of reading Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy and similar fantasy books. In contrast, Cashore said she “hardly read any science fiction” or fantasy. The Graceling author was drawn instead to Agatha Christie and the Nancy Drew series. Among more recently discovered influences, both spoke admiringly of the mid-20th century British writer Georgette Heyer.

The authors, who are also close friends and former college classmates, then shifted to a broad conversation that touched on all aspects of writing and publishing. Asked whether fantasy books are an escape from reality, they noted that real-world themes are prevalent throughout their series. Sutherland observed that Cashore’s books have political relevance, frequently exploring the danger of “gaslighting”—manipulating a person’s sense of what is true.

In Sutherland’s own books, parenting is a common theme. She wrote the first book in the Wings of Fire series while pregnant with her first child and joked that, “I write the worst parents possible as reassurance that I’m not that bad.” Cashore argued that all writing is an escape of some kind or another. “Even realism isn’t real,” she told the audience of readers and industry professionals.

Both Cashore and Sutherland candidly discussed their relationships with their respective editors, Kathy Dawson and Amanda Maciel. Cashore credited Dawson’s diverse background as an editor of non-fantasy books with guiding her to the right voice for her forthcoming multi-genre release Jane, Unlimited (due out in September). Sutherland, who also has a forthcoming book, believes Maciel’s experience as an author helps foster a supportive and successful relationship.

Sutherland and Cashore praised the engagement of readers and expressed pleasure that people of all ages write fan fiction and send them ideas and suggestions. At the same time, they said that they rarely look too closely at what comes their way, in order to ensure that the ideas in their books remain free from influence.

The importance of character-driven narrative was a recurring theme throughout the panel. Sutherland spoke of fantasy writing—and writing in general—as an exploration of character-focused curiosity. “There’s curiosity about how things work,” she said, “and there’s curiosity about how people work, and I think that’s very much the heart of fantasy. I’m constantly circling, ‘why are people the way they are?’ ”

The discussion is part of an ongoing series run by Children’s Books Boston, a group formed in 2013 by a consortium of children’s book publishers, scholars, and professionals; the group’s mission is to foster dialogue about children’s books among these groups. The event was hosted by the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s literature, a founding member of CBB.