“Movement caught Sam’s eye. Farther down the beach, a shadowy figure walked along the dock that jutted out from the shore. A small boat rocked on the water. The figure climbed in, untied the boat, and rowed away, disappearing into the fog.”
Goose bumps courtesy of Samantha Sea Wells and Donna Galanti! Donna’s new book, Unicorn Island, takes readers on a mystery adventure that blends vivid settings, cool characters, rich sensory detail, and mythological magic. What’s not to love?
I had a chance to catch up with Mixed Up Files member and accomplished MG writer Donna G. to talk about Unicorn Island, learn how it came to be, and discover the author’s fave creature from the realms of myth! Check out Donna’s giveaway at the bottom where she is giving away one copy of the illustrated hardcover of Unicorn Island by Andrews McMeel Publishing (Simon & Schuster). Enter by Feb. 16th. U.S./Canada only.
Sean McCollum: Hi Donna! I loved Unicorn Island and it hit all my feels … the displaced young heroine, the budding friendship, the brooding uncle, the mystery to be solved. (And the illustrations are fantastic!) Most stories have a seed, that moment when the idea first sprouted. Do you remember when that happened with this book? And how long did it take to grow?
Donna Galanti: I’m so glad it hit the feels for you, Sean! The idea actually came over lunch with my publisher! He threw out there that he’d like me to write a book “about a girl who has to take care of a unicorn.” From that, we spent six months bashing around the concept and then my amazing editor helped me polish it more. We wanted to write a story with a strong girl character but one that appealed to all genders. I love stories that are magical but also set in the real world—and that’s what guided me.
SM: The setting plays a big part in this story. Why did you set it in this coastal community—Foggy Harbor, South Carolina? Is it based in any places that are near and dear to you?
DG: I actually had first conceived it being off the coast of Maine (one of my favorite places to visit!) but with other potential seasonal book ideas in mind for the series, I didn’t think that would work so much with the cold season up north. The characters definitely couldn’t cross the sea to an island in a freezing November wind! My dad lives in North Carolina not far from the border of South Carolina, a similar setting, and so that’s what changed it. I loved the idea of placing the story in a sultry climate with mysterious live oak trees added in (they always remind me of ancient wizards with their dripping beards and gnarled branches).
SM: Sam has got some serious spunk and a sense of adventure. How much of Donna G. is in her fearless nature and love of the outdoors?
DG: Oh, so much of Donna G. in Sam! I am an avid outdoors person. Biking, kayaking, hiking. I find peace and inspiration in nature. I’m lucky to have an old growth forest nearby and miles of trails through meadows, woods, and along creeks. As an only child growing up on a mountain in Upstate New York, my playground was the forest. I spent my days roaming along old rock walls with my dogs, gazing up at the sky from secret spots, and writing my poems and stories in the nooks of old oaks. I also used to sing songs to the woods. I still walk in the woods nearly every day alone for hours with my Irish blackthorn walking stick, but listen to the trees sing now.
SM: Hope it’s not a spoiler, but there be unicorns in this book. Why do you think we’re fascinated by mythical creatures and their realms? And what do they mean to you? (Oh, and if you could be a mythical character or creature, what would you choose and why?)
DG: I love mythology! Whether it’s unicorns or Greek mythology, which plays a bit part in my Lightning Road series. I think stories that are grounded in mythology and folklore resonate so much with younger readers because they are ageless. They deal with universal truths that tweens are experiencing themselves in both painful and wonderful ways: conflict, love, loss, and friendship. Kids can totally relate to these topics!
I also think, authors can turn to folklore and mythology to write with diversity in mind. I turn to mythic story structure and archetypes to help shape my characters’ journey. I’m especially drawn to the Hero, the Sage, the Warrior, and the Destroyer. Quest stories with these characters are among my favorites, like with King Arthur and Beowulf but also in modern times, like with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. I love reading and writing about the archetypal hero on a quest, to follow them through a transformative journey that tests them and witness them re-emerge changed on the other side.
As far as being a mythical creature, I would choose to be a phoenix from Greek folklore. How amazing it would be to obtain new life and arise from the ashes once more!
SM: I often find I learn something about myself or the process of writing when I write. Did Unicorn Island reveal anything new to you about yourself or your work?
DG: Absolutely! It taught me that I can write a story fast when I need to under deadline—and still be immersed in the story and fall in love with the characters. To write it quickly I escaped on retreat for a week to do it. In doing this, I returned to the time when I first fell in love with writing and had no distractions. It brought back that time when I wasn’t part of a greater writing world—I just wanted to be a storyteller. I didn’t know much about craft then, and it was just me and the page. A special place. 😊
SM: Tell us about your journey as a writer. Why did you gravitate toward writing for young readers, and what inspires you now?
DG: I wanted to be a writer ever since I fell in love with the world of Narnia at seven with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My hero in it was Aslan, and I even got a lion ring to honor him. I think because of this, I mostly turned to writing fantasy. My first short story was about a flying ship, a Dodo bird, and a wizard. I still have all my childhood stories today. But funny enough when it came to writing books, I started out writing thrillers for adults. I had a young voice in my first thriller and my editor at the time told me that I had a wonderful young voice—so I decided to explore this. I took a class on writing a children’s book in seven months, and did just that! This book, Joshua and the Lightning Road, got me my first agent and book deal. I quickly fell back in love with middle grade and that’s where I’ve been ever since! And actually, I’ve applied what I learned to write thrillers for adults to write thrilling adventures for kids.
SM: I remember so many of the MG books I loved as a kid and the worlds and ideas they opened to me. Is there something special about this age group that appeals to you as a writer? And do you have a favorite MG book or author that you return too for inspiration?
DG: Middle grade readers tend to live life more in the moment than other readers and that appeals to me. It can seem vivid and intense when you experience life this way. I love that kids read to make strong, lasting bonds with characters and stories, which is why series are so popular. I still re-read my favorite childhood books that are on my shelf like the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (my mom made me a prairie dress outfit!) and Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. A favorite book I re-read every Christmas is The Children of Green Knowe by L.M Boston. It has all things I love: a castle, ghosts, adventure, medieval flavor. Plus, it appeals to me as the main character is an only child seeking adventure on his own—which was me growing up.
SM: I need to know—will there be more books in the Unicorn Island series?
DG: Yes! The next book, Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand, comes out digitally in a 5-part serial this May on the Epic! platform with the hardcover compilation to follow in winter 2022. I won’t give anything away, but it’s full of new mysteries, characters, and creatures. It was so fun to write!
SM: Can’t wait to see where your imagination takes us, Donna. Thanks so much for sharing, and good luck to you … and Sam … and the creatures of Unicorn Island!
DG: Thanks for chatting with me about Unicorn Island!
SUMMARY OF UNICORN ISLAND:
Beyond the mist lies a magical secret waiting to be discovered. Unicorn Island is a middle-grade illustrated novel series about a young girl who discovers a mysterious island full of mythical beasts and darker dangers! When Sam arrives in Foggy Harbor, population 3,230, all she can see is a small, boring town that’s way too far from home. And knowing that she’s stuck there all summer with her grumpy Uncle Mitch only makes things worse. But when Sam discovers a hidden trapdoor leading to a room full of strange artifacts, she realizes Foggy Harbor isn’t as sleepy as it seems. With the help of a new friend, Sam discovers an extraordinary secret beyond the fog: an island of unicorns whose fates are intertwined with hers.
“An accessible and fast-paced magical adventure.” – Kirkus Reviews
“An all-too-human, enchanting middle grade fantasy novel.” – Forward Reviews
“What begins as realistic fiction turns to a fantastical tale of magical rescue. Fans of unicorns and magic in the real world will enjoy this adventure.” – School Library Journal
Grade Level: 4 – 6
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing (Simon & Schuster)
Available through booksellers here
Donna Galanti is the author of the fantasy adventure Joshua and The Lightning Road, which the Midwest Book Review called, “A heart-pounding thrill ride full of unexpected twists and turns from start to finish”. She’s also the author of the follow up, Joshua and the Arrow Realm, and writes the popular Unicorn Island series for Epic, the leading digital platform for kids 12 and under. Donna loves to present as a guest author at schools and teach writers at conferences and through her online courses. Donna has lived in England, her family-owned campground in New Hampshire, and Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer. Visit her here: Twitter Instagram Facebook donnagalanti.com