I absolutely love portal fantasies. I always have, especially as a kid. So when Nikki Mitchell, and I connected over Instagram, and she told me about her middle grade fantasy series, my ears immediately perked up. Portal fantasies are such amazing tools for kids to learn how to be brave, to recognize themselves in a myriad of different characters, and to have the opportunity to fall into new worlds. Her series, Eleanor Mason’s Literary Adventures, is committed to providing all of that to kids.
Nikki had so many wonderful things to say about writing for middle grade, creating a fantasy world, and connecting with what made us love books in the first place. I hope you enjoy this author interview!
L: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
N: I’m from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (born, raised, and probably will never leave), so I love all things outdoors: fishing, kayaking, etc. I studied English Writing with a minor in Journalism at Northern Michigan University, and have been freelancing for my local weekly newspaper since I graduated in 2011. I’m married to my husband of 10 years this July, have a daughter named Evelyn, a son named Everett, and three cats: Bellatrix, Ousque, and Gandalf. I am a stay-at-home mom (other than freelancing) and I homeschool.
L: What kickstarted your writing journey?
N: I’ve always been writing, but my focus toward creative writing actually switched this past October. I had signed up for Master Classes, and found one taught by R.L. Stine, who was one of my childhood favorites. It inspired me to start writing creatively again, but I figured it would just be more of a hobby, since I’ve always led more toward newswriting. So, taking the time to write creatively again gave me the idea of Eleanor Mason’s Literary Adventures.
L: How would you describe your writing style and how has it evolved over the years?
N: I’ve always preferred writing in 3rd person limited POV, and I write heavy in dialogue. Part of that is because of the news writing, I think. It has definitely evolved though, because I’m writing for a much younger audience than I ever have before. So, the pacing changes, the language changes, and how the chapters end definitely changed. For middle grade, you have to have chapters end on a cliffhanger note, to keep them turning to the next one.
L: Your debut novel is Nightshade Forest, a middle grade portal fantasy. Can you pitch us this book?
N: When eleven-year-old Eleanor receives a gift from her father, she never imagines it will open a portal to a fairytale world. Upon reading the first sentence of chapter one, she finds herself standing in the middle of the Nightshade Forest—a dark woods with glowing blue and purple trees. She soon learns that the magic in the kingdom is out of control, and it is up to Eleanor to restore what has gone missing.
Join Eleanor and her newfound friends, Elfie and Milo in a search for a magic crystal as they fight off creatures Eleanor has only dreamed about. Can she make it to the happily-ever-after and rejoin her family, or will she be stuck in the Nightshade Forest forever?
L: How did you decide this is the story you wanted to tell?
N: I’ve always loved portal fantasy books, especially as a kid, and I really wanted to create a magical world for young readers to disappear into. Plus, I’ve wanted to be able to disappear into a book as long as I can remember. The idea popped into my head, and I just saw this image of a dark forest with glowing blue and purple trees, and I had to write it.
L: Eleanor Mason, your protagonist, seems like a fantastic character for kids to look up to! How did she come to be and how would you describe her?
N: So, a little secret: Eleanor is very much like I was as a kid. While I didn’t grow up in 1945, my family didn’t have a lot of money. I was picked on a lot at school for it, and for other things, and it was in middle school that I discovered Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone when it was first released. I fell in love and soon learned that I could make every one else vanish by picking up a book. I think Eleanor is a little braver than I was though, and probably a little more sassy. I wanted a character that kids could relate to, and have fun reading about, especially little girls. She’s shy and keeps to herself, except when it comes to her books, and it was fun to put her in all of these crazy situations and see what she would do. She’s resilient, like so many eleven-year-olds out there.
L: I would definitely loved Eleanor when I was a kid, I think she just sounds absolutely amazing. What drew you to writing for the middle grade age range?
N: That’s the age I was when I discovered how magical books can be. That’s also when my need to devour any book I could get my hands on started, and I figured if I could reach a couple of kids, and maybe get them to love reading, it would be worth it. Plus, I think it’s a fun age to write for. They’re all about grand adventure and whimsical characters.
L: People can have their opinions, but portal fantasies are the best kinds of fantasies. How did you go about developing the world and idea of this fantasy book?
N: Oh it was so much fun! I had the image of the Nightshade Forest in my mind when I was entertaining the idea of the book, and I knew that had to be the main location. My books have two worlds: Eleanor’s natural world, and then the world inside of her fairytale book. Her home is pretty simple and mundane, but the excitement happens in the Nightshade Kingdom. My daughter is really into fantasy (she’s six) and unicorns, fairies, etc, so I kept her in mind. So the Nightshade Kingdom has fairies, which Eleanor actually becomes when she is transported. It has dwarves, and giants, and large owls, gargoyles, just a bunch of things, and I also throw in a few references to books Eleanor would have read as well. I wanted the world to be as magical as possible. So the weather is enchanted, the fairy village smells like warm apple pie, etc. It’s just magical all around.
L: What is the most creative aspect of this fantasy world Eleanor falls into?
N: I’d have to say the Nightshade Forest, over anywhere else in the kingdom. The sky is completely dark, no stars or anything and the only light is from the trees because they glow. They’re huge, sapphire blue trees with sparkling purple leaves. But, when something in the kingdom goes missing (I can’t tell you because it’s a spoiler), the forest starts to die, and we see the magic starting to fade.
L: What was your favorite part of writing Nightshade Forest?
N: Oh, definitely Elfie. She’s a main character in the book Eleanor lands in, and she’s so much fun. I think she’s actually my favorite character. She’s sassy, adventurous, and likes to take on whatever the world throws at her. She doesn’t wait around for someone else to save the day.
L: Oh, those are just the best kinds of characters! What were some challenges that arose while writing middle grade?
N: The language. I have to remember that kids are reading this, and while they are older than picture books, and early readers, there is still the reading level to keep in mind. With the literacy rates the way they are, many people read at a much lower reading level than what their age would suggest. But the biggest struggle for me, and my editor actually saved me a few times on it, was that I forgot when my book was set. It’s set in 1945. Some words didn’t hit the dictionary until after that, so the words I used, and had my characters use had to be changed sometimes to fit the time period.
L: What books could Nightshade Forest be compared to, in terms of style or theme?
N: It has a little Alice’s Adventures Adventures in Wonderland feel, I think. That’s Eleanor’s favorite book ever, so I tried to make that shine through.
L: There is a sequel in the works...would you like to explain your goals for this series?
N: Yes! I am in the editing stages of book two: City of Gold, which is a very loose Rumpelstiltskin retelling. That one is set to release in 2021. My goal is four books for the series.
L: That's so exciting! I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more about the upcoming books. Do you have any advice for other middle grade writers?
N: Read middle grade books. Get a feel for the style and language used. Also, if you’re able to, I definitely recommend signing up for the Master Class website and taking the classes by R.L. Stine and Judy Blume. And have fun with it. At this age, kids will just about believe anything you throw at them, so create some cool worlds. Also, and I know some may disagree with me, but not all books have to have a moral lesson. Kids can read for enjoyment only. It’s what fuels their imagination and love for reading.
L: Fantastic advice. I just keep re-watching the Neil Gaiman Masterclass...I should definitely branch out. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
N:I hope that when kids read Nightshade Forest, it will add a little bit of magic to their lives.
A huge thank you to Nikki for the interview! I hope you all take the time to check out her work and follow her on social media.
Nikki's Website: https://eleanorsliteraryadventures.com/
Nikki's Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nikkimitchellauthorpage/