“The dragon wing of night o’erspreads the earth,
And, stickler-like, the armies separates.” – Troilus and Cressida (Act V, Scene 8)
Fantasy, as a genre, is always a contradiction. At its heart, the genre allows us to escape the mundanities of our everyday lives and explore realms to our imagination’s content. The vagaries of the real world are left behind as we engage with humble heroes, dastardly villains, and worlds populated with their own mythologies and logic. Yet, concomitantly, fantasy is a mirror to the real world, a broad brush by which to explore the many challenges facing society without needing to allude directly to the challenges that affect us.
As such, fantasy has a strong representation in the literary canon for younger readers. There are too many titles to count (and indeed, providing the litany of the great works here would not be adequate), but one of the most significant new properties in this field of the genre is the Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland. Sutherland’s bona fides as a writer of YA are impeccable, and she has an extensive catalog of work on the shelves. With Wings of Fire, she created an entirely new sandbox for readers to dive into a world of civil war, intercultural strife, and learning about the injustices of the wider, all from the perspective of a young group of dragons (obviously!). The books in the series were an immediate hit and have been extremely successful, so much so that Scholastic, through their Graphix imprint, has begun released graphic novel adaptations of the books. The first book, Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy, was released in January, with the second book—The Lost Heir—expected to be released in Early 2019. The Beat can exclusively reveal the cover art for The Lost Heir graphic novel, but first… I had the opportunity to sit down with Tui to discuss the origins of the Wings of Fire series, what she hopes readers take away from it, and what she is looking forward to most as the series diversifies into the comics space.
AJ Frost: Hi Tui! Thank you for taking the time to chat. I have to say that before the graphic novel adaptation of Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy was released earlier this year, I wasn’t familiar with the series (but quickly found myself deeply wrapped in the lore). For the edification of readers of The Beat, can you describe the genesis of the series?
Tui T. Sutherland: Sure—I think it first started with a conversation with my agent, Steve Malk, who mentioned that there had been all these animal fantasy series, but none so far starring dragons. I loved that idea because I’ve always loved dragons, but it’s true that in most fiction we’ve usually seen them in relationship to humans—as enemies or partners with humans, and usually in a world where humans are dominant, which frankly makes no logical sense (although I adore so many of those books!). I love imagining myself as a dragon rider, like in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, but I believe realistically I’d be more of a dragon snack. So I decided to write a world where there are dragons and humans, but the dragons are the heroes and the POV characters, and the humans mostly get eaten a lot.
So the world-building was a key part of figuring out the series, but I am very much a writer who loves characters and thinking about characters and emotional development. That to me was the most essential part of the genesis—not just a world full of dragons, but a story where these dragons feel very human and grapple with the insecurities and emotions we also face. Except it’s all in a giant epic fantasy setting where they can fly and set things on fire!
FROST: Do you remember the particular moment when these characters and their destinies became manifest in your mind?
SUTHERLAND: I think it was while I was trying to write their hatching scene—which actually didn’t end up in the final novel of Book One, but then did end up in Book One of the graphic novel series. I spent ages thinking about my five central dragons and what each of their emotional arcs would be, and in particular, how those arcs would be affected by the fact that they’re in a prophecy and are supposedly destined to save the world. But I started to feel like I really knew them when I wrote about baby Clay crawling out of his egg and seeing the other four stolen eggs beside him. And they’re all trapped in this environment which is not natural for any of them—Clay should be in a swamp with the other mud dragons; Tsunami should be in the ocean; Sunny in a desert—but they were all stolen from their families and taken to this cave instead. So the major themes of the first five books were seeded there: nature vs. nurture, fate vs. free will, loyalty, parenting (mostly terrible parenting!), and trying to do the right thing even though you don’t know quite what it is.
FROST: Wings of Fire obviously uses dragons as the main character type. But I wonder how challenging it is to come up with a story that uses dragons as the locus of the plot, yet still, make these creatures feel fresh. How did you approach using these mythological characters in a way that readers have never seen them before?
SUTHERLAND: I think writing the dragons as the heroes and the POV characters (while the humans are all rarely seen, allegedly-delicious prey) helped make the story feel fresh—the only other book I had read like that before was Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton, which is AMAZING and a very different take on dragons. So I do have different tribes with features and natural weapons adapted to their habitats (IceWings and their frostbreath, for instance), but overall I kept the dragons physically fairly familiar (to a Western concept of them) because I was hoping the uniqueness would come from making these giant reptiles actually very human on the inside. I also wanted to play with some epic fantasy tropes, like the prophecy and the mysterious mind-reading tribe (which we learn more about in Book Four) in a way that I hope is ultimately surprising and fun.
For the new arc, Books 11-15, I have gone further afield from the traditional idea of dragons with the three new tribes I’m introducing. I did a ton of research to develop these and I tried to make them pretty unusual, at least on the outside. But I’m afraid I can’t say much more about that until Book 11 comes out!
FROST: But why use dragons at all? What makes them the most appropriate vehicle, as it were, to use in this type of story?
SUTHERLAND: For a few reasons, although the simplest one is that dragons are just super cool. I mean, have you seen these covers? I love them so much; Joy Ang is so extraordinary (she does the cover art and interior tribe art for the novels), and then for the graphic novels, Mike Holmes has expanded the dragon world in an incredible way.
But to really answer your question—I think having dragons as the main characters allowed me to make everything much bigger and more dramatic, so I can deal with really huge emotions and moral dilemmas. That is, I’m afraid if I were writing the same story about human kids in the real world, it would be way too depressing to read. The war, the way their families treat them, the responsibilities they have at such a young age . . . I think it feels less heavy because this world has magic, these kids basically have superpowers (flying, fire scales, venom spit!), you kind of expect dragon parents to be less cuddly and understanding than human parents—and these kids have a way to fight back and change things. Which humans do, too, but it’s hard to feel that way a lot of the time . . . so that’s a little bit of what I hope the series does. I hope it helps kids find their inner dragon. They may not be facing a gladiator arena or a secret murderer who might be their mom, but I hope they feel empowered to use their own courage, friends, and intelligence to face their own real problems.
FROST: While Wings of Fire is most definitely situated in the realm of fantasy, there’s certainly a political and socio-cultural element to the books as well (can’t all dragons live in peace, for example?). When you set out to write, how do you use your experiences to shape the world of Dragonets of Destiny?
SUTHERLAND: Oh, wow . . . I feel like I could write a whole book to answer that question! There are so many different ways that my experiences have shaped the political and cultural side of the series, but perhaps the most obvious and most relevant for the first five books is that I became a parent for the first time as I was writing Book One. I have two little boys now, and I think about them and how to parent them all the time. I’m really interested in how we build character in our kids (and how it’s similar and different to building fictional characters!), and I spend a lot of time figuring out my dragons’ family backstories and how their parents or guardians and siblings affected their psychology.
So I think that’s part of what inspired the nature/nurture and fate/free will themes . . . like, can we be heroes even if we’re raised by terrible parent figures? Can we save the world even if we’re not in the prophecy? Do we have to fit into a particular mold that’s expected of us, or can we choose to be the person (or dragon) we really want to be? All the political elements are a backdrop to those questions; there will probably always be good and bad dragon leaders and battles and inter-tribe tensions, but the main question is what kind of dragon are you going to be, and how are you going to make the world a better place, even if you can’t make it perfect.
The new arc (Books 11-15) is set in a different political situation, and it’s still very much about character—particularly, I think, each character’s struggle to balance empathy with resistance to evil, and I won’t get more specific than that, but you can probably imagine how current events are affecting the ways one might write about that question!
I think if you had to summarize my political AND my parenting philosophy, it essentially comes down to compassion and empathy—and that if we had more of it (for our children, for other people’s children, for those who seem different from us), the world would be a better place. Hopefully, that comes through in the series!
FROST: For you, what cultural elements—conscious or subconscious—do you think are most impactful on the timelessness and timeliness of the books for modern young adult readers?
SUTHERLAND: I think the most timeless books are the ones where we can connect with the characters and completely understand them, even if their situation is wildly different from anything we’ve experienced before. I’ve never been an orphan accidentally delivered to Prince Edward Island, but Anne of Green Gables feels like a fundamental building block of my soul. I don’t know if the characters I’m building are as impactful for someone else as Anne or Scout or Buffy were for me, but I try to put a little piece of me into each of them and hope that someone else with that same funny piece will think, “oh! that’s just like me!” and feel seen. Or, equally importantly, that someone different from us will read the character and think, “oh, now I understand why someone would feel that way” and then take that out into the real world with maybe a little more empathy—the way books by Octavia Butler, Liane Moriarty, Amy Tan, Mary Renault, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Angie Thomas have done for me.
FROST: What has been the most unexpected response to Wings of Fire books in a general sense? And for you as a writer, as you look at the continuing success and enthusiasm from fans, what is your personal feeling of accomplishment with the continued interest from readers?
SUTHERLAND: That’s such an interesting question—I don’t know that I think of what I feel as “accomplishment” (other than “Oh my goodness! I actually finished all those books by those deadlines….well, more or less!”), because what I feel is closer to gratitude. I feel so lucky that these amazing readers have connected with my books—and they are amazing; the kids I’ve talked to are the sweetest, smartest, most thoughtful people, and it gives me so much hope for the future. Especially since so many of them are storytellers and artists, too! Maybe that’s the unexpected response I’m proudest of, that there are so many incredibly creative young people who want to come play in my dragon world. I hope it inspires them to create their own hopeful, compassionate stories and a more hopeful, compassionate real world.
FROST: As I mentioned previously, the first book in the Wings of Fire series—“The Dragonet Prophecy”—was recently released as a graphic novel, with the second comic treatment on the way. What was your reaction when Scholastic announced that they would refashion your prose novels into comics?
SUTHERLAND: I was very excited—and a little nervous! We love graphic novels in my house, so my kids and I have read a zillion of them together, and I thought it would be amazing to see all the different parts of the dragon world, and all these settings that had previously only been in my head. But I think of the novels as being very internal, too—there’s so much inner monologue from each POV character—so I wasn’t sure how that would end up being conveyed on the page. It’s been fascinating to see how much Mike can convey with his perfect expressions . . . and Barry [Deutsch] has done a great job with fitting everything important into the scripts (which is a challenge because I also write very chatty characters!). So hopefully readers are still getting the sense of the character’s arc, along with all the amazing visuals.
FROST: And what are you most excited to see in future installments of the graphic novels?
SUTHERLAND: I’ve seen the sketches for Book Two now, which are awesome, and I think I’m most excited to see our brilliant colorist, Maarta Laiho, get her hands on the underwater sea kingdom! Everything she did to Book One was perfect, and I’m sure she’ll make the underwater palaces really cool. And even further into the future, when we get to the rainforest kingdom many of the RainWings have sloths as pets, so I am hoping for MANY ADORABLE SLOTHS draped all over the dragons!
FROST: I was excited to see that Mike Holmes and Barry Deutsch were part of the team who translated Wings of Fire into the comics realm. How involved were you in choosing the team for the adaptation?
SUTHERLAND: Scholastic was very lovely about including me in every step of the process, but I also really trusted their choices—their graphic novel group publishes so many of our favorite graphic novels (like Amulet, by Kazu Kibuishi) that I had faith they knew what they were doing and the best way to make it awesome.
FROST: And what was your first reaction to seeing your work laid out as a comic?
SUTHERLAND: Awe. I couldn’t believe how well Mike had captured the scenes in my head! The first scene in the graphic novel is Clay’s hatching and I was also really delighted with how adorable he is!
FROST: What has taken you by surprise with regard to the popularity of this series of books? Do you feel a sense in satisfaction that your stories have resonated so well with audiences?
SUTHERLAND: It’s always a great surprise when a series does well enough that I get to write more books in it . . . I’d originally planned a five-book arc, so I was thrilled when Scholastic asked for Books 6-10. And then getting to expand the world even further with the next five is so exciting!
FROST: You’re such a busy writer, but there’s always something around the bend! What’s next on the docket for you?
SUTHERLAND: Well, we’re all working on the graphic novel adaptation of Book Two, which takes place in the Kingdom of the Sea. But most of my attention right now is focused on the new arc of the series: Book Eleven: The Lost Continent is coming out at the end of June, and I’m so so excited about it! We’re going to another continent and meeting the three new tribes I mentioned before, with a brand-new character as the hero, so it feels like starting a whole new story, in some ways. But it’ll all connect back to the continent and characters we’ve met before, sometime over the five-book arc. I’m writing Book Twelve as we speak and it’s really fun—I hope the readers like it, too!
FROST: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat.
SUTHERLAND: Thank you for the lovely, thoughtful questions!
The graphic adaptation of Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy is available now.