A Chat with Brian Farrey About “The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse”

Brian Farrey's latest middle grade novel has all the magical details and atmospheric elements that fantasy readers crave—along with some deep and thought-provoking themes. SLJ chats with the author about exploring fundamental questions of ethics and emotions with middle graders through literature.
Brian Farrey’s latest middle grade fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse, has been compared to Lois Lowry’s classic The Giver. And while blanket comparisons like that are bandied Dreadwillow Carse coverabout with regularity in the book marketing world, this beautifully written, complexly layered tale earns the praise. The story swings between two strong female leads: Princess Jeniah, the reluctant Queen Ascendant whose mother is dying; and Aon, a village girl who escapes to the forbidden Dreadwillow Carse to grieve and remember her mother. The two girls team up to investigate the deeply hidden secrets behind a group of people known as the Crimson Hoods and their connection to the Carse. Fantasy and mystery combine with thought-provoking themes about ethics and sacrifice. There’s something unique about your middle grade fantasies (Dreadwillow Carse as well as “The Vengekeep Prophesies”): they are at once very classic feeling, yet with a distinctively modern sensibility. How do you strike that balance? What kinds of books inspired you as a middle grade reader?   Thank you for saying that! It’s very kind. I like to mix the old with the new. I think what I aim for is to make the trappings feel old or “classic” and then infuse them with more contemporary ideas. I’m kind of embarrassed to say that as a middle grade reader, I didn’t read a lot of fantasy. Of what I read, A Wrinkle in Time is probably the most influential. But I read mainly realistic stories in middle grade: Veronica Ganz by Marilyn Sachs, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Banana Blitz by Florence Parry Heide. In fact, I reread The Westing Game every year, I enjoy it so much. My appreciation for fantasy developed as I got a bit older.   Unlike many middle grade fantasies, in which most protagonists and secondary characters are white, yours is a realistically diverse world.  I’d like to think that, as a society, we’ve reached a point where it’s become impossible not to acknowledge the diversity of our world and reflect that in art. In reality, I don’t know that we’re quite there yet. For me, personally, it was important to recognize diversity on as many levels as possible. I’m a firm believer that kids need to see themselves and what they know to be true in books. I hope a lot of different kids from many different backgrounds and experiences will get that from Dreadwillow.   When Jeniah learns she is the new Queen Ascendant and must take over the Monarchy when her mother dies, she starts training with a rather unusual tutor, who, frustratingly for Jeniah, employs the Socratic method instead of direct instruction. How did you come up with this character? Are there educators in your life who helped you find your own path at critical junctures?  The thing about the tutor, Skonas, is that, while it’s not directly expressed in the book, I always felt that his teaching style varies based on his student. He doesn’t use the same approach with everyone. I think he’s really good at sizing up a student quickly and deciding if this is someone who needs to be spoon-fed information or someone who is up for a challenge…. He just doesn’t tell the student which they are. Most critical junctures in my life were faced with teachers at my side. Honestly, since I stopped enrolling in school, I feel much more adrift. My first book, With or Without You, was dedicated to all the teachers who’d helped me along the way and provided encouragement for my writing (I listed every one of them.).  I fully admit that I’ve been very fortunate in this regard, to have been so supported. Full disclosure: I’m not sure that some of those teachers necessarily set out to influence me, but the majority of them did so knowingly. Fun fact: I still touch base with my sixth-grade teacher every few years. She had a profound impact on me. Pic of Brian Farrey

The author as a young reader. Photo courtesy of Brian Farrey.

  The language you use helps readers see, hear, touch, and even smell the dreaded Carse. Can you tell us about the process of creating these highly sensory descriptions?  I actually took a few walks out into swampy land to get a stronger feel for what it was like out there. After that, I embellished using sounds, smells, and sights that personally haunt my own nightmares. For the most part, I tried to create something that would give me the wiggins, and if I could do that, I figured others might get on board, too.   Aon feels sadness in a society where no one else can. She refers to herself as "broken." It takes time for Aon—and readers—to see why her ability to acknowledge and truly feel sadness is actually a great source of strength. Why did you choose to handle sadness this way?   Mainly because it’s something I truly believe. As much as we strive to be as happy and content as possible, I feel we all need our sadness. We’re not whole without it. The trick, of course, is to try to find that balance where we find strength in the sadness and it doesn’t overwhelm us. Unfortunately, not everyone can do that. Sometimes it’s a matter of circumstances; sometimes it’s biology. But acknowledging and honoring our sadness [are small things that] we can do in almost any situation to give ourselves a little bit of power.   There is a theme about happiness in this book—about what constitutes “real” happiness. Where do you think the boundaries lie among happiness, contentment, and just plain ignorance?  Wow. What a question. Ignorance feels like such a loaded word, something that could be a whole other debate or book. I think the best answer I have is that happiness is so very subjective. We each create our own boundaries; I don’t feel they’re universal. I have a favorite quote from Mary Wollstencraft: “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” I think that’s something Jeniah explores in a significant way in this book.   On one hand, direct discussions of emotions seem rare in texts for middle graders; on the other hand, the movie Inside Out—which deals openly with these issues—was highly popular this past summer. Do you think these issues are part of the current zeitgeist? Why might that be the case?  Queen Sula has a line in the book where she says, “Parents only ever lie to their children to protect them. I have yet to see it actually work.” I think the mind-set in the past has always been “protect the children!” and, for many, that means shielding them from thoughts beyond their ken. The idea was that the middle grade age range couldn’t handle certain ideas or subjects. But we’re slowly coming around to the notion that kids can be more resilient than we give them credit for. It feels like every new generation has to grow up a little faster than the last. Today, some schools have social-emotional learning as part of their curricula. Lessons designed to help kids better understand emotions. I never had anything like that when I was a kid. I like knowing that contemporary kids can find a little more help navigating an increasingly complex emotional landscape.   Your characters struggle with some heavy moral dilemmas: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Do the ends ever justify the means? Pretty philosophical stuff.  I don’t know that it’s ever too early to consider these questions. There are some adults today (some running for political office, for example) who might have turned out very different if they’d been challenged to consider these questions at a younger age.   The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse comes out April 19.    Jill Ratzan writes about children's and young adult literature for School Library Journal, BookPage magazine, Young Adult Books Central, and other library and literature venues. She's interested in traditions and technologies, communities and collaboration, and the transformative power of storytelling.

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