Liz Flanagan used to be Centre Director at the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, and previously worked in children’s book publishing. Here Liz shares with us her hindsight into the second book in the Legends of the Sky series: Rise of the Shadow Dragons and gives us a taster of what to expect in her school workshops.
It’s always fascinating to me how a writer doesn’t always see what their story is really about, until after it’s finished, sometimes a long time afterwards! This was definitely the case for me with Rise of the Shadow Dragons. I did consciously know one thing when I began: that I was reacting to a reader’s comment that Milla in Dragon Daughter was a little bit too perfect. So this time I knew that I wanted to write a protagonist who was as clearly flawed as I am, and as we all are.
In the opening chapter, Jowan experiences a great surge of anger and frustration which makes him lash out – managing to just hold back from violence – followed by despair and sadness at his actions. I wanted to label these normal emotions and show Jowan learning to manage them, forgiving himself and being forgiven before going on to show great courage and compassion later in the story. There’s also a subplot about a group of angry men who’d once been powerful, who end up leading a violent coup which is doomed to failure.
So anger runs like a stream of lava throughout Rise of the Shadow Dragons in one form or another.
And it’s quite amusing to me now that I didn’t even consciously link this emotion to the symbolism of the erupting volcano which appears in the story. I thought I’d got the idea from a documentary I watched about the city of Naples, the network of tunnels that interlace its foundations below ground, and the mostly-dormant Vesuvius across the bay.
So perhaps these are some of the things that fantasy particularly lends itself to: exploring intense emotions and real-life issues safely, whether that’s a child’s pent-up feelings, or the more dangerous simmering anger of adults. In a fantasy novel, these issues can be linked to dragons or volcanoes and kept at arms-length, allowing the young reader to experience them vicariously through a contained and resolved reading experience.
When I run school workshops, I often use mythical animals as a focus, partly because children already come with such richness of knowledge from books, TV, film and games, and this gives a real confidence in creating and sharing new magical animals. We begin with very small concrete steps – each child describing in sensory terms their own magic egg, its weight, colour and texture. This produces some really fantastically vivid and specific language. We move through discussing mythical animals from around the world, and then children make up their own magic animal which could hatch from their egg. This week alone I’ve heard some wonderfully original ideas – such as a giant ice-breathing penguin or a flying electric wolf. We also use the map at the front of my books, and the children sketch their own fantasy world, sometimes choosing mountains or deserts or islands in their world-building.
Finally, we add in some magic powers for the mythical creatures, and often these are surprising and profound. This year I’ve seen children choosing ‘healing’ as a special power, much more than previously, showing how their imaginations respond to the real-world challenges we are living through.
I am really looking forward to adapting this workshop to use with Rise of the Shadow Dragons, linking Joe and his anger and the volcano, to see what this produces in the story worlds and magical animals of the children’s imaginations.
Rise of the Shadow Dragons is published in paperback by David Fickling Books on 6th May. To find out more about Liz’s workshops, please see lizflanagan.co.uk or follow her on Twitter: @lizziebooks. To read a review of Dragon Daughter, visit the Just Imagine Reviews page.