Jessica Khoury, author of Skyborn, the first book in the Sparrow Rising series, stops by the blog to discuss how fantasy novels help children answer their most difficult questions.
As an author juggling a slew of middle grade books and a mother juggling two energetic daughters, I can say with exhaustion that it’s been a long year in my house, as I’m sure it has been in yours. We’ve endured sudden change, isolation, confusion, and so many difficult questions. My oldest daughter, now starting kindergarten, isn’t afraid to ask those questions. Why do we have to wear masks? What’s an election and what is a president? Why do some people have different color skin? And as we welcomed a new little sister in the midst of the pandemic, the inevitable: where do babies come from?
My new series, Skyborn, (book one, Sparrow Rising, just released!) may look on the surface like a simple fantasy adventure story. It’s a book that reaches back to my own childhood love for comforting, exciting fantasies like those of Brian Jacques, T. A. Barron, and Susan Cooper. Sparrow Rising is a story in which kids can have fun and be surprised and feel safe. It can be, if needed, a pleasant shelter for a reader who is simply in need of escape.
But that’s just on the surface.
I created the world of Skyborn to be the kind of place that asks—and answers—those tough questions my daughter asks of me. Questions about politics, race, gender, and one of her favorite topics—what makes bad guys bad and good guys good? It even, coincidentally, explores the issue of disease and pandemics and how different people respond to widespread health crises (the book was written entirely before Covid, but I think that upon reading it, you might not believe it!)
Ellie Meadows and Nox Hatcher are members of a race of humans with bird-like wings. Their society is structured into clans according to their wing type—Sparrow, Robin, Hawk, Eagle, etc. Most of these clans are considered Low, and include such clans as Ellie’s Sparrow kin. They farm the land, craft everyday items, and support the ruling upper class of High clans, the Hawks and Eagles. Class tensions run high, especially in Ellie, who chafes against the strict hierarchy that forbids her from being a knight and defending her town from gargoyle-like monsters that haunt the skies.
Meanwhile, Nox Hatcher is from the Crow clan, a “shattered” clan discriminated against by those in authority. His people are forbidden from owning businesses, congregating in large numbers, or establishing permanent homes. They’re outcasts suffering from slow, quiet class violence that grinds them relentlessly into poverty and crime.
They’re not the only ones suffering in this world. Their Falcon clan friend Gussie was kicked out of her home for not living up to her family’s rigid military standards. Another companion, Twig, born of two clans and bearing bi-colored wings, is ostracized for his differences. And then there are the new class of outcasts, sufferers of a mysterious disease that is slowly withering and destroying their wings, a disease some would rather ignore than heal, for their own financial and political gain.
This fractured world mirrors so much of our own, politically, socially, racially, economically. Whether the rejection the characters face is personal, from friends and family, or general, from society and the authorities, they learn that the only way to survive is by finding their community, whether they’re born into it or it’s something they make for themselves. Just as I teach my own daughter—we all get stronger together. The more we learn about the people around us, where they come from, what their stories are, the more we learn to love them and care about their dreams and pain and futures. And the better our world becomes because of it.
I believe every kid who picks up Sparrow Rising will see familiar faces in its pages, whether that face is their own, or that of a friend or relative or classmate. They will see reflections of their own turbulent world in the Clandoms and find answers on how to navigate it right alongside Ellie and Nox and their friends.
This is a world where every villain is not as evil as they seem and every hero isn’t quite as perfect as they appear. What looks right at first might turn out to be wrong, and vice versa. Instead of accepting the way things are, how can we make things better and fairer for everyone? Are there good ways to change things, and are there wrong ways? Is a hero judged by their strength—or by their choices? Is Nox right when he says, “When the rules are meant to break you, you have to break the rules”?
Our world isn’t black and white. Our stories shouldn’t be either. It’s by taking the time to understand our neighbors that we learn where we fit into their stories. It’s how we heal what is broken in the world.
Through Sparrow Rising and its coming sequels, I’m hopeful that your young readers will find a safe, exciting, at times humorous, at times heartbreaking place in which to explore these difficult questions.
Except the one that asks where babies come from.
I’ll leave that one to you.