It is time to celebrate our second favourite thing: swords! Today, we chat with kidlit author Esme Symes-Smith about their magical middle grade fantasy series, Sir Callie, which features a non-binary hero. In anticipation of the second installment in this medieval world, Sir Callie and the Dragon's Roost (out November 7th), discover where and how Callie's story began, and what's in store next in this new interview!
Your Sir Callie series is an exciting middle-grade fantasy with lots of swords, magic, and queer rep, yay! Tell us a little bit about these books and what inspired you to write them.
SIR CALLIE AND THE CHAMPIONS OF HELSTON was my pandemic book. I had just gone on submission with a book that wouldn’t sell when my day job (Starbucks) closed down for three months. I needed something that would bring me joy, just for me. I have always loved Tamora Pierce’s books, especially the Kel and Alanna serieses, and I figured this was as good a time as any to finally write my knight book! I never start writing with any kind of intention, but it quickly became apparent that Callie would be a funnel for all my 2020 rage and frustration, whilst striving to find hope in what seems like a hopeless world.
The stories take place in a magical medieval setting. What did the world-building process look like for you, and why did you choose this time period in particular?
I’m from England, and I’ve always loved the classic, cliché medieval fantasy setting! I am, by no means, any kind of historian, and I exist mostly on vibes! That being said, the world of Wyndebrel really turned into a love letter to the places I grew up in – Devon, Cornwall, and Dartmoor in particular. I feel like the Southwest of England has a really special kind of ancient magic. It’s definitely a place you can easily imagine witches and dragons coexisting with humans.
For process, I don’t do a lot of plotting or pre-planning. While I’m writing, I am living inside my characters, so whatever is important to them in the moment, that’s my focus. For example, Callie is really intrigued by the palace but couldn’t care less about trade or farmland, or the practicalities of their society. Just like any twelve-year-old, they care passionately about what directly affects them but very little outside of that.
Can you tell us a little bit about your characters? Which, if any, did you identify with most and why?
My characters are the reason I write, and I love them all with my whole heart (except Peran. 0/10. He has no friends). Callie is very me, in that they are a fiery, indignant Aries who leaps before they look. Callie is definitely the easiest main character I’ve ever written! The other kids came to me just as easily. I always knew I wanted a trio consisting of a righteous knight-to-be, a soft prince, and a fierce girl. The way Edwyn has grown into a main player has been really exciting because he originally started as a more two-dimensional antagonist. His growth is one of my favourites.
The adults, too, have been really fun to grow. It’s shockingly hard to write good parental figures into kidlit! But I feel like Nick is the right balance of protective and disastrous. Without Neal, he would definitely be more of the latter!
And Peran…Look, I have always loved complicated villains with tragic backstories, but some people are just cruel for the sake of being cruel, and Peran’s motivation doesn’t run any deeper than that. I love how much he is despised!
What initially drew you to writing for younger readers? Are there any aspects you love most about kidlit, and anything you found challenging along the way?
So I didn’t know I was a middle-grade writer until quite a long way into my journey towards publication. I have always loved stories that blur the age categories, especially books like HIS DARK MATERIALS by Phillip Pullman, and series where the characters grow from young children into older teenagers. But when I realised I was a middle-grade writer, everything clicked into place.
I love that you can do just as much, go just as hard and just as deep as the older categories, but what sets MG apart is the enduring promise of hope. As a queer author in 2023, I cling to that hope even if it’s hard to believe in it sometimes, and I see it living in the kids I get to interact with.
Luckily, I work with an amazing team who fully supports me and my stories. Instead of being told to tone it down, we work to deliver the heavieness in a way that is accessible to the young readers who need it most.
Much like in the real world, Callie struggles to find their place in society as a non-binary person. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience with writing this representation, and why it’s important to you and your readers?
Callie and I worked out we were nonbinary at the same time. I was working on the second draft of Book 1, then titled THE PRINCE’S CHAMPION, and it was the scene near the beginning when Callie and Elowen are clashing about magic. I realized that Callie’s reaction to magic, and all things traditionally feminine, was verging on toxic, and I really had to take a moment to challenge myself, because Callie was very me right from the beginning.
I came to realize that Callie doesn’t hate femininity because they hate girlhood or because they don’t want to be a girl, they fear it because they are not a girl, and interacting with femininity feels like a betrayal of themselves.
I have always had a fluctuating relationship with my own gender, and honestly I put it down to being ‘not like other girls’. It was only through exploring Callie’s gender that I realised I ‘wasn’t like other girls’ because, well, I wasn’t a girl. That was a scary realization, and it definitely took a long while to understand what that meant for myself and how I navigated the world, but in discovering the words that fit me, I have come to be so much more comfortable within my own body, no matter how other people see me. Wearing dresses and make up doesn’t change your gender. I can present any way I please, and I am still myself.
With inequality still very much an issue in traditional spaces, did including marginalised identities in your work impact your publishing experience at all? What made you choose the traditional route?
I have always known I wanted to be traditionally published. Honestly, I love the challenge and having something to work towards, and it has paid off. I know I’ve gotten very lucky in that I’ve found the right people at the right time. The fact that I get to publish these books at this time with a major publisher never fails to blow my mind!I don’t think it impacted me negatively, rather I was more able to focus on the people who were passionate about getting diverse work into kids’ hands.
Did you find any other challenges while writing these books? How did you overcome them?
So it is a universally accepted truth that second books are The Worst, and that was certainly my experience! I had it in my mind that the SIR CALLIE series would be your standard magical school series, following Callie and their friends through their years in Helston. But as I was writing, and as the 2020s kept rolling, I realised that that wouldn’t serve these characters at all. Just because one evil man has been turned out of power, doesn’t mean that the system that supported him in the first place has been dismantled. Tolerance is not the same as acceptance, and it became very apparent that this series had to be something else entirely.
SIR CALLIE AND THE DRAGON’S ROOST was conceptualized, written, rewritten and revised in a single year, and every false start felt like a terrifying waste of very limited time. It was worth it, but I was also trying to work out how being an author fit into the rest of my life at the same time. Once I worked out that balance, and after having an especially anxious conversation with my editor, I found the joy in the dream once more. It’s really scary to finally be living the dream you’ve worked towards and for it to feel…less than good! I was afraid I would never feel good about writing again, but luckily the process of Book 3 proved otherwise!
We’d love a hint about any of your current projects! Will we see more of Callie and the gang soon, or perhaps something new?
SIR CALLIE is going to be a four book series! I have just handed in Book 3 for the last time, and I’m stoked to start on Book 4 for NaNoWriMo in November! I’m very grateful that I get to finish Callie’s story the way I want to.
And yes, I have other works in the pipeline! I intend to stick with queer MG fantasy for the foreseeable future!
Have any shows, movies, books, or games influenced your own work at all?
Oh my gosh, yes! I feel like an authors’ voice is a huge patchwork of everything they love. Mine is made of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Anne With An E, Tamora Pierce, The Owl House, and I’m sure many more!
You also started out writing fanfiction. How has this impacted you as an author, and do you have a preference between writing original characters/worlds vs. fanfic? Are there any fandoms that influenced your writing career the most?
I think getting an early start with fanfiction really let me learn how to be an author on the job, so to speak. Especially in regards to writing for readers. My greatest joy is connecting with readers as a story progresses, and see their emotional reaction to what I’m creating! I used to far prefer writing fic, but I’ve definitely learned to love my original characters even more, even if the initial process is a bit harder.
If you could give any advice to middle grade authors set to make their debut, what would it be?
Remember why you’re doing what you do. There is so little within our control in this industry, so focus on the words you are putting out into the world and the kids you are writing for. The work is worth doing!
Our podcast focuses on media we’re currently loving. Are there any books, shows, movies, or games you’re enjoying at the moment? Any recommendations for our audience? Bonus points if it includes sapphics!
OWL HOUSE!!! Seriously, it is everything. With the most wonderful sapphic relationship included! It is utter perfection, and I’m so thankful to live in a world where it exists!
After cutting their teeth on a steady diet of fan fiction in the Southwest of England, Esme Symes-Smith wandered north to Wales for their degree in literature and creative writing, then promptly migrated to Missouri after meeting their wife on Tumblr.
Esme has been a ghostwriter, an editor, a frozen-yogurt seller, and a caffeine purveyor. They now wrangle preschoolers for a living and have a severe tea problem.