As I continue to write middle grade fiction, I also make time to read fiction for the same age group. Over the past two years, I’ve read Katerine Patterson, Gary Paulsen, Andrew Peterson, George MacDonald, Kate DiCamillo, S. D. Smith, William Armstrong, Scott O’Dell, Susan Creech, Robert Beatty, Lois Lowry, and others.
I’m now delving into middle grade fantasy, and not just any fantasy. Not Rick Riordan. Not Rowling. But classic fantasy, you know, the kind with an old-world feel. A fellow reader recommended Newbery Medal winner Robin McKinley, who appeals to a middle grade and young adult audience, and I was surprised to hear a name I didn’t know. Not that I think I know ALL the books but surely I would have heard of McKinley through my students if not my own boys at home?
McKinley began her fantasy career with classic fairy tales. In 1978, at the age of 26, her debut, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, was the first of its kind. It was followed by her award winning duology, The Chronicles of Damar, and other retellings like The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest (1988) and Spindle’s End (2000), to name a few.
The first book of The Chronicles of Damar, The Blue Sword, is a 1983 Newbery Honor Book featuring a strong female character who begins a very British enterprise by traveling to family because her parents have passed away. Her brother is already serving at what feels like a very British fort and she joins her aunt and uncle there. Other than unusual names, at first, I thought this might not be fantasy after all. But in spite of taking tea in the desert, we find that Harry, that is Angharad, is a typical girl. She attends the dances with the soldiers, finds some girlfriends, and listens to the legends of the Hillfolk that live far away at the horizon. Within a few months, she is bored of her shallow role and thankfully soon encounters an entourage of these Hillfolk and their king, Corlath.
Once she is taken from her safe fort and drawn into their mysterious world, Harry soon learns how a horse and a great cat can be her companions and that she has a destiny through her family line to rescue these unknown people from a threat from another people. It’s a classic journey trope, not unanticipated, but a different style of detail and narrative than the direct storyworlds of today. McKinley often shifts point-of-view mid chapter and keeps her readers in each character’s mind, an unusual tack.
By the time I started to read Book 2, I knew what I wanted for Harry, the champion and hero of a people she barely knows. But I was surprised as the story began: 1985’s Newbery Medal winner The Hero and the Crown is not a sequel. Instead these are the legends of Aerin, the queen Corlath told Harry about and the same Aerin in her visions in The Blue Sword. It is a true prequel or origin story.
Aerin is a princess in the city of Damar. Her father is a good, righteous king loved by their people. Yet the same people also believe her mother who had passed away was a witch. And so they simply don’t trust Aerin. Though a social outcast due to her looks and heritage, she is humble and kind and is befriended by Tor, the boy who will inherit the throne. Like Tor, each member of the royal family develops magical powers at a young age. But Aerin doesn’t.
Unlike Harry in the first book, Aerin withdraws. Her passivity in the first part of the story is hard to take because her father and Tor love her well. But once she joins her father to squelch a rebellion in the north, her life changes quickly, and we see how McKinley has been laying Aerin’s groundwork. From her horsemanship to her swordplay, Aerin yearns to be useful, becoming a hardened fighter over time, eventually hunting dragons. Battle scenes and love interests soon make this a tale for more mature readers, but her journey to find the mythical Hero’s Crown to save her family and kingdom is the final adventure. It is Aerin’s suffering, though, that makes her most realistic or maybe most ordinary. Her tears, pain, and hard work show us the strength of ordinary people.
For fantasy lovers, the expansive story-world of Damar is delightful and McKinley’s characters (and animals) are well-rounded. With a tangent or two, McKinley may take her time developing people and place, but her prose is clearly worthy of the Newbery honors. Critics might call her long-winded, but I would wholeheartedly recommend The Blue Sword to any reader. Harry’s story is the more relatable coming-of-age in my humble opinion, but also a ‘clean’ read.