Interview with Sarah Prineas, Author of THE MAGIC THIEF and WINTERLING

I’m delighted to welcome Sarah Prineas, author of the Magic Thief series. The first book in the series, The Magic Thief (HarperCollins Children’s 2008) has been published in 20 languages all over the world and has won numerous awards. Not bad for a debut novel.

Her newest novel, Winterling (HarperCollins Children’s) came out on January 3. Here’s how IndieBound describes Winterling: “Spirited young Fer travels through the Way to a magical world in which beings part human and part animal serve an evil ruler known as the Lady, and where she hopes to learn about her long-lost parents and her own identity.”

Kirkus Reviews says “The prose is lush and sensuous, evoking the sounds and tastes and scents of the natural world.” You can watch a trailer for Winterling here.

Sarah lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her “mad scientist husband and two odd children, along with a sweet dog and an evil cat.” (These are her words, not mine. I’m sure her cat is very nice.) Teachers and librarians, take note: Sarah does free Skype visits with classrooms and/or book groups that have read one of her books.

Why do you write middle-grade? What’s your favorite part about middle-grade fiction?

Back in 2006, when I started writing the first Magic Thief book, I didn’t even know what middle-grade was. I’d been writing for a couple of years, but suddenly felt as if I’d found my voice. Turns out when I aimed for fun, magic, adventure, peril, wizards, dragons, biscuits and bacon–all my favorite fantasy things–that it was middle-grade. That’s where I’ve been ever since.

I love writing middle-grade fiction because it believes in two things that one of my favorite authors, JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, also believed. One, that the world is full of wonder and magic. And two, that a single small person can have the power to change the world.

Where did the first spark for this story come from?

Winterling came from a couple of places. One, after writing Conn [the male protagonist of The Magic Thief] for a couple of years, I wanted to write a girl protagonist. And two, it came from my love of the Iowa landscape. I wanted to show that magic can live even here, in the secret places in the countryside.

What kind of research did you do? Does WINTERLING draw on the mythology or traditions of any particular culture or cultures?

I spent a lot of time in the University of Iowa library reading old books on fairy lore, especially the lore of Scotland, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. The “puck” character shows up in a lot of those old stories.

What did you do to make the worlds and characters of Winterling different from those of The Magic Thief?

I didn’t really have to do anything; they are what they are. It’s all very intuitive for me, not craft-y. Conn’s voice never intruded on Fer’s story. There was one change that made a difference in the style, and that was the shift from the first person (Conn is the narrator of the Magic Thief books), to the third person. Writing in the third person allowed me to show a wider picture of the world. Stylistically, I got to flex my writing muscles a little more instead of being bound to one perspective.

I loved how Fer couldn’t really trust anything she saw. There’s a real sense that everything is not as it seems, keeping the reader wondering, in a good way, what was real and what was an illusion. Can you talk about some of the ways you accomplished that?

Even though the story is in the third person, it stays pretty close to Fer’s point of view, so the reader sees much of what she sees, and understands that other world as Fer understands it. If Fer doesn’t know what, exactly, she’s seeing, the reader doesn’t, either.

Those in power in that other land can use a “glamorie” to disguise themselves and their intentions–the illusions are a source of some of their power. Part of Fer’s arc is learning to see through the illusions to the truth of who or what people are.

Why did you decide that Fer is vegetarian?

Fer is very in tune with the land and its creatures, so it naturally followed that she and her grandmother don’t eat meat. Also it meant I got to make some vegetarian jokes in the book, because the puck character Rook is a committed carnivore. He really doesn’t get the point of vegetarianism. I mean, why eat roots and herbs and stuff when you could eat bunnies?

I’m very fond of the character Rook, who has such compelling internal and external conflict. And I love his name, which means both “a relative of the crow” and “to swindle or defraud.” Can you tell us a little about him and how he came about?

Rook was an incredibly fun character to write–and yes, the double meaning of his name is intentional. He’s also known as “Robin,” which is the name any puck gives to people he doesn’t know or trust. In Winterling Rook is pulled in two directions, trying to remain true to an oath that bound him to the “Lady” (who is evil), while his bond of friendship to Fer is growing. He can’t be true to both of them at the same time, and it makes him very cranky.

Rook is a puck, which in traditional fairy lore is a trickster character who can shift into a horse (to carry people into bogs and buck them off) or into a ferocious black dog. My pucks have a whole social structure (explored in a lot more depth in the second book), and because of their trickster natures they are outcast from the regular (fairy*) world.

*I should note that the word “fairy” is never used in the books; the people in that other world don’t think of themselves as fairies, though they know they’re not human.

What other books would you recommend to readers who enjoy THE MAGIC THIEF and WINTERLING?

Maybe Diana Wynne Jones, especially Howl’s Moving Castle. Another big inspiration for me is the animated film director Hiyao Miyazaki–his movie Spirited Away shares some themes with Winterling. I also recommend Anne Nesbet’s The Cabinet of Earths as a magical MG read.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle grade fiction?

The best advice I can think of is to trust your readers. Tell the story that needs to be told and trust that they will take that story and make it meaningful.

What’s next?

Next up is The Summerkin, which is a companion novel to Winterling. It’ll be out in 2013. And after that, HarperCollins is going to publish a fourth Magic Thief book, though I don’t yet know when. And after that, I’ve got another book on my contract. It could be another in the Winterling world, or it could be something entirely new. We’ll see!

Thanks for stopping by, Sarah!

Thanks for hosting me!


Jacqueline Houtman is a freelance science writer and author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010).

Jacqueline Houtman on FacebookJacqueline Houtman on Twitter
Jacqueline Houtman
Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, BAYARD RUSTIN: THE INVISIBLE ACTIVIST (Quaker Press 2014). Find her at

Comments are closed.