Today, I’m excited to chat with Megan Shepherd. She’s well-known for her brilliant, edgy young adult fiction, but her latest novel, THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL, is an unforgettable middle-grade story that reads like historical fiction rolled into a sweet magical fantasy.
There are winged horses that live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospital. In the mirrors that line its grand hallways, which once belonged to a princess. In those that reflect the elegant rooms, now filled with sick children. It is her secret.
One morning, when Emmaline climbs over the wall of the hospital’s abandoned gardens, she discovers something incredible: a white horse with broken wings has left the mirror-world and entered her own.
Tucked into the garden’s once-gleaming sundial, Emmaline finds a letter from the Horse Lord. He is hiding the wounded white horse, named Foxfire, from a dark and sinister force—a Black Horse who hunts by colorless moonlight. If Emmaline is to keep the Black Horse from finding her new friend, she must collect colorful objects with which to blind him. But where can Emmaline find color when her world is filled with gray?
“Magical, terrifying, and full of heart. Open these pages, and ride true.”-Kathi Appelt, Newbery Honor-winning author of The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
“Emmaline’s narration is unreliable, flawlessly childlike, and deeply honest; her faith in magic brings her solace and, possibly, healing. The magical realism is reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia, Elizabeth Goudge, or a child’s version of Life of Pi…Readers will love this to pieces.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred review
“Endearing characters, metaphors for life and death, and a slow revelation of the horrors of war give this slim novel a surprising amount of heft.”—Booklist, Starred review
THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL is available for
pre-order now and releases on October 11th!
Goodreads | Barnes and Noble | Amazon | IndieBound
The historical aspects of THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL are woven into the story so well that I was truly transported back in time. The setting details are careful chosen and beautifully described. The emotion is pure, sweet, and oh so real. The author drives the plot using not one, but two ticking clocks––the cycle of the moon and the main character’s rapidly declining health.
The ending of the story is both heartbreaking and beautiful, and it can be interpreted many different ways. Due to its historical significance and use of symbolism, THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL is an excellent book for classroom discussion. Also, it is a great read-together book for parent and child.
This lovely novel of love, hope, magic, and true friendship is historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, and thriller all rolled into a story that reads like a classic tale that should be on every child’s bookshelf.
Okay, that’s enough gushing from me. Let’s talk to Megan Shepherd!
I adored the Author’s Note at the back of the book where you describe how this story came to you, the personal ties between this story and your grandfather, and all the research that went into the story. Reading THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL feels very authentic, and I think this is because you’ve put so much of yourself into the storytelling. Can you tell us what that was like for you?
Megan: It does feel like a very personal book to me, without actually being autobiographical at all. I certainly wasn’t a child patient during WWII, nor have I ever seen winged horses! But I connected a lot with Emmaline, the 10-year-old main character. When I was young, I was often so frustrated by the mundane, regular world. I wanted adventure, magic, winged horses! I was also a very determined child. I refused to listen to anyone who told me I couldn’t do something. In fact, when I was eight, I wanted a horse very badly, but my parents wouldn’t let me have one. (In hindsight, this makes sense, as we lived right in town.) But I decided that I’d just get one myself, and when we took a trip to Ocracoke Island, where they have wild ponies, I brought my lasso and cowgirl boots and fully intended to catch one and bring it back in our minivan.
THE MADMAN’s DAUGHTER trilogy is young adult gothic horror. THE CAGE trilogy is young adult sci-fi. THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL is middle-grade historical fiction with a touch of magic. Is there anything you can’t write? How have you managed to write in three different genres for young adults and children?
Megan: For some reason, I don’t quite know why, all my books feel similar in my head. They’re placed on different genre shelves in bookstores, but to me, they’re all exploring the same topics: looking at our society from the outside, the relationship between young people and animals, finding wonder and magic in the real world, especially in the darkness. Though it does feel very different to write YA, which is wonderfully angsty and tense, and MG, which is quite a bit sweeter.
All the scenes are exquisitely written and truly transported me back in time to WWII. Can you give us a couple of tips/tricks for achieving scenes like that?
Megan: Thank you! Luckily I had some great contacts in the UK to help advise me, and I’ve spent a bit of time there traveling and studying, and I’ve always been captivated by the setting. Whenever I write historical fiction, I do preliminary research to make certain my premise is plausible, and then I shut off the “research” part of my brain and just focus on mood while writing the story. Then, during editing, I turn back on the research part and comb through my manuscript to find any historical inaccuracies.
The ending! Oh, wow! There are so many different ways to interpret what happens. For me, I really liked that the story felt ended, but still felt alive somehow, like fantasy stories should. Did you know all along how you wanted the story to end?
Megan: The ending came as a surprise to me. In the original outline, the story had a different, slightly more definitive ending. But once I had worked through the first parts of the story, I knew that it could only end one way (ironically, in a way that is open to interpretation!).
This is your first published middle-grade story, but you actually started out as a middle-grade writer. Which do you think is more difficult to master, middle-grade voice or young adult voice?
Megan: The middle grade voice, definitely. Middle grade needs humor, even in dark books like mine, and it’s challenging to work in humor authentically without resorting to easy jokes or humor that seems to “talk down” to young readers.
So true! What is your work/writing schedule?
Megan: In general, I try to keep normal working hours of Monday-Friday, 9-5. I love having weekends off. In the early mornings I work out and tend to the gardens, then I’m cleaned up and at my desk by 9 or 10, where I write for 2-3 hours, take a break for lunch, and then write or handle business issues for another 4-5 hours. But in reality, it varies greatly! Many days I’m traveling for work or teaching classes, which throws everything off. Other days I’m handling business all day. And still other times, I’ll dive into an intense writing session for several days of 12+ hours.
Do you have any strange writing habits?
Megan: I work best when my dog is in the office with me. I don’t know why, but it’s comforting to have another creature snoring away! Otherwise, I tend to be set in my ways, needing to be alone, have some tea and chocolate-covered espresso beans on hand. I’m in awe of authors who can write from anywhere or while on the road—that isn’t me at all!
What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
Megan: I’m working on both a new middle grade stand-alone, and a new young adult series. Both are in the early stages so I don’t want to say too much! One takes place in the Appalachians, where I’ve lived most of my life, and the other takes place in a cool foreign city.
Yay on both accounts! Okay, here comes the lightning round. *hands you a slice of warm toast with homemade peach marmalade*
Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden!
Coffee or tea? Tea
Sweet or salty? Sweet
Dog, cat, horse, chickens, or other? (I believe I’ve seen a picture of a live chicken in your kitchen somewhere. Ha!) All of the above. Seriously, I could never chose! (And yes, there are chickens in our house far too often.)
Plotter or pantser? Plotter
Whew! Alright, last question. Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?
Be willing to put in the time. Not just the actual time writing, which can be hard enough, I know! But the time to grow as a writer, too. The years it takes to find your voice and to craft a story that really hasn’t been seen before, even if you’re writing about a common topic, like navigating high school, or werewolves. You can do it, but it requires patience. And this is coming from the least patient person in the world!
There is much wisdom in those words. Thanks so much for the interview, Megan!
Megan: Thank you, Michelle! These were fantastic questions! So nice to work with a fellow NC girl, and I am thrilled that you loved the book!!
After you add this to your TBR list, you’re going to want to head straight to Megan’s THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL website where you can download coloring pages adapted from the beautiful illustrations in the book!
New York Times bestselling author Megan Shepherd grew up in her family’s independent bookstore in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She is the author of several acclaimed young adult series and the middle grade novel The Secret Horses of Briar Hill. She now lives and writes on a 125-year-old farm outside Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, two cats, and an especially scruffy dog. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and at meganshepherd.com.
Michelle Leonard is a chocolate biscotti baker, a math/science nerd, and a middle-grade fiction and nonfiction writer. Connect with her on Twitter: @MGYABookJunkie.