In 2008, inspired by Narnia and other tales of adventure, singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson wanted to write a story that stirred something inside of his kids. The result, the Wingfeather Saga published by Random House's WaterBrook imprint, is a middle grade fantasy series featuring dragons and darkness, but also beauty, goodness, and themes of redemption. The books recently surpassed one million copies sold, and Peterson attributes the success to “universal truths” that appear organically in the story.
Peterson says that while his Christian faith influences everything he does, “I wanted to sit down and write the best story I could write, without shoe-horning anything into it,” explaining that, "as a kid, I grew up in the church with a pastor dad, so I can sniff out a lesson. If it’s a lesson-story, I go cold.”
Illustrated by Joe Sutphin, the Wingfeather Saga follows three siblings in the Igiby family who encounter monsters, mysteries, maps, and adventure on a quest to save the world from destruction and discover their true identities. WaterBrook originally published the first two books in the series, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Peterson self-published books three, The Monster in the Hollows, and four, The Warden and the Wolf King, through his music and book publishing platform, Rabbit Room.
In 2020, WaterBrook repackaged and released all four books in hardcover, and a year later published the short story collection Wingfeather Tales, as well as a companion book collecting all the creatures in the series, Pembrick’s Creaturepedia. And in 2022 via Angel Studios, the books were adapted into a TV series,The Wingfeather Saga, which stars Jodi Benson, Kevin R. McNally, and Alkaio Thiele.
The saga includes scenes from very dark places, Peterson notes. For instance, one of the main characters is forced to work in a factory with other children where punishments include solitary confinement in a coffin when anything goes wrong. Peterson drew on his own emotional and spiritual struggles to create internal conflicts for the characters as well.
“I was waiting for an editor to say, ‘Hey, this is a kids’ book,’” Peterson says. “Then when it came out, I was waiting to hear, ‘How could you?’ But it confirmed what I believed to be true: kids already know the world is broken, and they don’t need a fake picture of the world.” Peterson adds, “They see the news, they see their parents argue, and that something is broken inside them. It’s a disservice to them to lie. Kids need to know goodness. To quote G.K. Chesterton. 'Kids don’t need to know that dragons exist, but that dragons can be beat.'”
Sales for the series have been driven in part by unforeseen circumstances. Just as WaterBrook decided to give the Wingfeather series another push—new covers, artwork, and a slate of events—the world shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “Everything stopped: all that work, the new marketing ideas, everything went out the window,” Peterson recalls. “I was on lockdown, and I decided to read 30 minutes a night on Facebook Live.”
Thousands of people tuned in, including parents looking for things to do with their kids during the height of Covid. “It’s one of the most joyful memories of my life,” Peterson says. “It was 30 minutes of deep connection with families—tons of kids curled up, watching. It was the marketing idea that no one had, and a total surprise and blessing—one of the lifelines through Covid.”
While the success of the series can be traced to several factors, Peterson especially appreciates the placement of his books in stores. “I like to go into Barnes & Noble while I’m on tour [as a musician] and do sneaky book signings and leave behind signed copies,” he says. “I find that my books are not shelved with Christian fantasy, but with Harry Potter, so that delights me. I think, ‘Oh good, it’s being taken on its own terms.'”
Laura Barker, v-p and publisher for WaterBrook and Multnomah, says the Wingfeather Saga has a “Narnia-like appeal, both within the Christian space and beyond,” and she notes a growing interest in middle grade fantasy and action/adventure books. WaterBrook is making additions to the Wingfeather series that include a new book, A Ranger’s Guide to Glipwood Forest (Nov. 7); a paperback edition of North! Or Be Eaten (Jan. 2024); and a picture book, The Prince of Yorsha Doon (Aug. 2024). In addition, a second season of the animated series on Angel Studios is slated to stream early next year. Promotions for the TV series will coincide for promotions for the books, including the paperback release of book two, "to meet our growing readers’ needs," the publisher says.