By Nan Lincoln
Special to The Ellsworth American
Mount Desert Island is a magical place. So it’s no wonder that its dramatic scenery, colorful history and perhaps even its salt and pine-scented air have inspired an impressive number of fantasy writers. Authors such as Terry Goodkind; Kristen Britain and Carrie Jones have all called MDI home at some point in their careers.
Now comes Freeport resident Diane Magras (nee Harrison), who grew up in Bar Harbor. Through Penguin Random House, Magras published her first young readers book, “The Mad Wolf’s Daughter,” and its sequel, “The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter,” in 2018 and 2019. She has now released her third book, “Secret of the Shadow Beasts” (2022, Dial Books). The main character is a somewhat prickly pre-teen named Nora, who discovers unexpected abilities in a world overrun with terrible monsters.
Magras wrote her first book as a seventh-grader at the Conners-Emerson School, with encouragement from her teacher, Lisa Plourde, and graduated MDI High School in 1992. She worked as an intern at the Bar Harbor Times and later as a reporter for The Ellsworth American.
If readers notice some similarities between Nora’s scary world, where hairy, slimy or scaley shadow beasts or “umbrae” lurk in the “gloaming” hours between dusk and darkness, forcing its inhabitants to stay “locked down” for safety, and the very real pandemic years we have navigated these past few years, it’s no accident.
“This is my pandemic book,” Magras said in a recent telephone interview. “In that I wrote it during the lockdowns and quarantines, and references our distress about COVID, and also environmental problems — the hidden, lurking dangers affecting all aspects of our lives.”
As a mother, Diane was most mindful of how children’s lives were being upended — socially, environmentally and educationally — in this new, frightening order. When she made the character Nora and the other children immune to the poisonous bites of the umbrae they’ve been recruited to battle, she wasn’t intentionally referring to actual youngsters being less susceptible to deadly COVID. Rather, she wanted to give her kids an advantage they could use to fix their world.
“In so many ways, our children have been ignored during all this; we haven’t been effectively dealing with the trauma, the mental health issues,” she says. “In ‘Shadow Beasts’ I’ve tried make Nora and her companions courageous and skilled, yes, but also admired, supported and even revered by the adults in their world.”
As an example, Magras cites a small disagreement she had with her Random House editor about how Nora and her band of young warrior knights are coddled by their instructors at Noye’s Hill. That’s the boarding school the “PKs” (Pre-Knights) are brought to for training.
“These kids are uprooted from their homes and families, something their teachers and trainers went through, too,” she says. “So, I figured when they weren’t fighting monsters, the adults would want to make their charges’ lives as easy as possible.”
Magas also wanted to make her band of umbrae killers as diverse as possible with, Black, brown, Asian, white and LGBTQ children represented.
While Magras now finds writing for young audiences comes naturally to her, it was not how she started out her writing career.
“I’ve been writing literary fiction for adults for years,” she says, “but when my son [Benjamin] went into third grade, I started getting interested in what he was reading. I wanted to be able to discuss his favorite books with me, so I started reading them, too.” Paul Durham’s “Luck Uglies” was a favorite series.
“These books were such fun, I was hooked — the colorful characters, the complex monsters and most of all the invariable happy endings.”
Magras says she needed some happy endings in her life about then as her mother had been diagnosed with ALS, a disease that offers no such good outcomes.
“My own writing was getting darker and darker,” Magras recalls, “and making me sadder and sadder.”
A brave little sword-wielding girl named Drest helped Magras fight her way back to a place of joy in both her writing and her life. The year after her mom’s death, while traveling in Scotland, she received the news that Dial Book [an imprint of Random House/Penguin] had made an offer for “The Mad Wolf’s Daughter.”
“While The Mad Wolf is based on actual Scottish history during the Middle Ages and not a true fantasy, I did make up the various towns and villages. Drest was my invention, and I also wrote it like a fantasy.”
Whatever the style and inspiration, it seems to have worked, and her debut book won several awards and nominations and was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
She credits “luck and timing” for this success, but she put herself in a position to take advantage of any good fortune that happened to be passing by.
One of those advantages was her grade-schooler son, who was happy to tell her what worked and didn’t work for him.
“Even without saying anything his response helped,” Magras says. “When I noticed him finishing a chapter and then getting involved in something else, I learned how to write cliff-hangers at the chapter ends. Now I love to hear teachers tell me when they are reading aloud to the class how the kids protest when they have to stop at a suspenseful moment.”
Although Benjamin has now grown out of his mother’s readership demographic, she says he is still an active contributor. In “Shadow Beasts” he invented a video game for Nora to play, and did it so well Magras says, that playing “Warriors of the Frozen Bog” became an important plot point in the finished book.
Like me, other MDI folks might be a bit disappointed that, once again, Magras chose Scotland as the physical landscape of this tale.
“OK, I am obsessed with Scotland,” she admits, “but there are parts of Scotland that remind me of MDI, and while we don’t have ancient castles, with a little imagination the granite mountains and cliffs could be called castle-like. Actually, Maine, specifically MDI, is scattered throughout my books. I mean anyone who’s done the Giant Slide Trail has surely had their imagination sparked.
“‘In Mad Wolf,’ for instance, there’s a description of Hunter’s Beach in Seal Harbor, only I placed it in medieval Scotland.”
And who knows where her adventurous imagination will take us next — a granite-shouldered mountaintop? A place where the incoming tide rumbles like thunder? A deep fjord where dark things slither about in kelp forests? A narrow island pathway bordered by chest high rugosa roses?
Anyway, even if Magras chooses to add a few Scottish castles, desolate moors and a monster or two, the young readers of Maine, may recognize the place and find their own imaginations taking flight.