The Face of Real Life in Escapist Fiction (Diane Magras)
Art by Vivienne To
Who couldn’t use a good escape these days? With a worldwide pandemic, climate disasters, threats to essential human rights, and war dominating the news and social media, it’s not hard to feel that the world is crumbling.
This is where escapes come in. And middle grade
adventures—fast-paced, otherworldly, and all encompassing—provide incredible
escapes. While putting characters in immense danger, these works give young
readers an essential distance: Kids can experience chases, battles, and
monsters—but in their minds alone.
Yet those escapes can also plant questions and awareness that will give young readers strength—if the author takes advantage of this opportunity.
I’m committed to writing thoughtful stories that offer an escape, yet also address important themes. From the distance that fiction provides, I can bring up powerful topics—gently, and shrouded in fantasy. I hope this technique will help young readers who are experiencing real-world threats themselves feel seen and respected. I also hope it will introduce other young readers to challenging yet rewarding ideas—or strengthen ideas, modeling how this world might deal with issues they already know and care about.
Take the worldwide pandemic. There’s an obvious parallel between that and my third book, Secret of the Shadow Beasts. In my story, a country faces a terrible threat: Shadow beasts emerge at night to decimate humankind with their fatal venom. The government issues warning and rules, but some people ignore them. The kids in my cast battle the monsters (they’re the only ones who can stop the shadow beasts, being immune to the venom)—and find themselves in danger when adults break rules and bring shadow beasts down on all of them. My protagonist—the brave, emotionally vulnerable, and creative Nora Kemp—struggles with a situation that’s tragically common in our world as well: the loss of a parent to a nationwide threat.
Secret of the Shadow Beasts also has a tie-in to climate justice: The shadow beasts themselves come from the destruction of the country’s essential ecosystems. Nora and her companions value the environment and are frustrated that people in the past created the disasters they’re dealing with in their present day. These kids are tasked with the most dangerous work in their world—and are eager to understand why and how it’s become like that. And stop it as much as they can—a bit like the youthful climate justice warriors of our world.
And one more: It’s essential for people in our world to know the full stories of our nations’ histories, the grim injustices, the racism and colonialism, and the mistakes on which our societies were founded. Grim injustices and mistakes of the past play a huge role in Secret of the Shadow Beasts—and it’s Nora and Amar, the history-loving leader of her group, who are especially committed to delving into the truth and bringing to light what’s happened.
Kids are heroes. That’s clear in my book, and it’s something that I want my readers today to feel deep in their bones: the fact that they have the potential to do great things, in small ways as well as large, with all of it forming meaningful steps toward a better world.
Often, escapist fiction fulfills desires: to have an adventure, a tight-knit group of found family around you, to emerge from conflict a hero. And that’s part of Secret of the Shadow Beasts, only some of these are not just wish fulfillment but things that I want to see come true today. Why can’t we have a world where:
children’s voices are essential, trusted, and powerful;
LGBTQIA+ children and adults are respected, their needs provided as a matter of course;
women of color hold positions of immense authority,
society values the greater good; and
most people listen to reason?
Sometimes our world is so bleak that sinking into a fantasy with warmth, humor, and nonstop action is one of the best ways for kids to find comfort. But we children’s authors have the opportunity to do more: We can show our young readers a reflection of the truth, a path forward, and prepare them for their own days to come.
Photo credit: Michael Magras
Diane Magras (she/her) is the award-winning author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, as well as its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is her ambitious third book. An unabashed fan of libraries (where she wrote her first novel as a teenager), history (especially from cultures or people who’ve rarely had their story told), and the perfect cup of tea, Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son.