Rebecca F. John on The Shadow Order and fantasy books for tweens and teens
One of the two books our Macaw subscribers have chosen between this month is thrilling dystopian fantasy The Shadow Order by Rebecca F. John. Set in dark and atmospheric Copperwell, the book takes you on a gripping adventure that had us hooked from the very beginning. We particularly love the three main characters - all hugely relatable, bright and thoughtful rays of sunshine in this shadowy, dystopian world. Here Rebecca tells us more about what inspired the book and which fantasy novels for tweens and early teens she recommends you turn to next.
What inspired you to write The Shadow Order?
There were a number of ideas and feelings which came together to inspire me to write The Shadow Order. It began with the idea of shadows being able to shift, to show more than our physical shapes and instead reveal our innermost feelings. The idea came to me as I was walking my dogs along the beach one early morning, watching our shadows stretch and distort in front of us. I felt the urge to write about that idea, but I didn’t yet have a story to explore it through. I let the idea sit in my mind for a year or two, and bit by bit various parts of the story came to me. I realised I wanted to talk to my readers about embracing their passions and being their truest selves, about engaging with the natural world, and about questioning the systems around them. The Shadow Order is mostly about encouraging young people to think critically, creatively, and politically. And friendship.
Are any of the characters or elements of the story based on real people or events (historical or otherwise)?
The characters in the novel are not based on real people, but they are based on real dogs! Since I had the idea for the shifting shadows while I was walking my dogs, they became sort of integrated into the story. The main characters of Betsy, Teddy, and Effie share their names, their personalities, even, in some ways, their physical appearances with my dogs. I had a lot of fun writing them into characters. Also, since I wrote the novel, I have sadly lost Effie, so it’s nice for me to see the three of them together, having fun, in fictional form still.
I didn’t base the story on any real historical events, either. Although there are influences which have made their way into the narrative. The Women’s Enfranchisement group, which Effie’s mother is part of is inspired by the suffrage movement. Copperwell is built around industrialism, as so many towns and cities across Britain were during and after the Industrial Revolution. I wanted some aspects of our history to seep into the world of Copperwell, as a prompt for readers to think about the ways in which that history has shaped the country we live in.
What do you hope young readers will take away from the story and how it unfolds?
I hope that young readers will feel they’ve been on an adventure. That was always what I most wanted as a young reader – to feel I’d experienced something new and exciting, a whole other world.
I hope it will inspire readers to embrace whatever most interests them and throw their energy into their passions. When I was at school, all of Betsy, Teddy and Effie’s interests (astronomy, horses, and music) would have been considered geeky, but those interests become part of the characters’ greatest strengths. I think it’s important to be true to yourself in that way, to become the best version of yourself. Your interests and passions are your superpower.
I also wanted to urge young readers to question the systems that exist around them – as Betsy, Teddy, and Effie do the political leadership of Copperwell. For young people to grow into the best thinkers, innovators, and artists our country can boast, they need to begin thinking in challenging ways. I hope that The Shadow Order can encourage that while telling an interesting story.
What do you think your shadow would reveal that might surprise other people?
Ooh, that’s a tough question. How shy I am, I suppose. I was terribly shy as a young person. I couldn’t stand to go into shops, pick out an item, and pay for it. I didn’t answer the house telephone until I was about fifteen. I was debilitatingly shy. Now, I probably appear quite confident. I am quite confident. I talk to groups of readers about books and writing; I have a job which involves mixing with lots of different people; I am happy to share my ideas and opinions. But it took a long time for me to develop into that person, and the shy girl I used to be is still there to some extent. She’d certainly be visible in my shadow as she is part of what makes me me.
Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Teddy, Betsy and Effie – and for Copperwell?
When I was writing The Shadow Order and developing the world of the novel, I started to imagine that it might become the first book in a trilogy. I don’t know if that will happen, but I hope it will. In The Shadow Order, Teddy talks about a golden horse called the Aur, which his father told him stories about and which may or may not be mythical. I envisage a second book beginning with Teddy having realised his dream of becoming an adventurer and gone off in search of the Aur. That’s the point at which I’ll start writing at least. I’m interested to see where that adventure might take the characters.
Why did you choose to write books for this age group?
One of the most influential books in my life has been Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman. When I read that novel, at around the age of ten, it was without a doubt the best adventure I’d ever been on. It made me want to become a writer, so that I could create adventures of my own. But I felt less confident about the idea of writing for young people than I did writing for adults. I didn’t know what sort of story I might tell them. When the idea for The Shadow Order came to me, however, I knew it was a story for young readers. The story made the decision for me and I trusted it.
Do you have a favourite place to write?
I’m happy to write anywhere. I do have an old Captain’s desk in my office at home, which I love. I always dreamt of writing at a Captain’s desk when I imagined becoming a writer. But I don’t need to be there in order to write. I often scribble notes down when I’m on a train or in the waiting room at the doctor’s, or leave myself messages on my phone when I’m out walking. Sometimes I feel as though I never stop writing. Even when I’m not sitting down to type, I think so much about my characters that it’s like they go everywhere with me.
Which other fantasy books for this age group would you recommend our subscribers read next?
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman: this book influenced me hugely as a young reader.
The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: and The Girl of Ink and Stars; anything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave really! She’s a beautiful writer.
Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A F Steadman: which is exciting and introduces readers to a whole new world.
The Tide Singer by Eloise Williams: a short, beautiful book about being yourself.
The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie by Yvonne Banham: which will be published in April 2023 and is a strange and exciting story, with some very scary bits!
Copies of our The Shadow Order pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!
This post includes affiliate links to our bookshop.org page, meaning we receive a small percentage of the sale should you purchase through them. Additionally, a percentage from all sales on the platform goes directly to local UK bookshops which is an initiative we're delighted to support!