A.F. Steadman on Her Year of Skandar

Posted on 20th March 2023 by Mark Skinner

A year ago, A.F. Steadman's debut children's fantasy novel Skandar and the Unicorn Thief was published to universal acclaim and enormous sales. Meriting comparison to the icons of imaginative children's literature, the book swiftly became a besteller and scooped the accolades of both Waterstones Children's Book of the Year 2022 and our Children's Book of the Month this February. With the imminent publication of the spectacular sequel Skandar and the Phantom Rider, we asked Annabel to reflect upon how her life has changed in the last twelve months and also asked her what readers can look forward to in the exciting new instalment of Skandar's adventures. 

When I first sat down to write a story about a boy called Skandar, who dreamed of leaving his ordinary life behind to become a unicorn rider, it never really crossed my mind that he might change my life too. It’s been a year since Skandar and the Unicorn Thief – the first book in the Skandar series – was published, and as hard as I try, I still can’t quite believe how extraordinary the last twelve months have been. And – reflecting on all that has happened – I couldn’t help but notice that there are many similarities between Skandar’s adventures on the Island, and my own experiences since publication. 

New friends

When I was growing up, I wasn’t always confident when it came to making new friends – something that Skandar Smith is all too familiar with when we first meet him. For Skandar, unicorns are his escape; for me, it was always books. And I discovered that books were a way for me to make connections with others. Whilst I often felt anxious about what to talk about with new people, I found that I could speak to fellow readers for hours about the worlds of the stories we’d both visited. 

To be perfectly honest, I felt very nervous when the publication of Skandar and the Unicorn Thief was announced. I hardly knew anyone in the publishing world, and I had a lot of anxieties about whether I really belonged – the same as the ones that plague Skandar when he arrives on the Island. But I needn’t have worried. Just as my main character is embraced by his quartet, I too have felt so welcomed by an incredible new community of booksellers, authors, teachers, bloggers, parents and of course my wonderful publishing team at Simon and Schuster Children’s Books. Many of these people have become great friends, and I am so grateful to everyone for their passion and support of me and this series.   

New places 

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is now publishing in 47 languages, and I have been lucky enough over the past year to visit lots of other countries to promote the book. One of the most special trips to me was visiting the Madrid Book Fair last year, and speaking in Spanish to young fans during signings. I studied languages at university, so the opportunity to talk to readers in their own language has been a truly special experience – though the real heroes are the talented Skandar translators who had the difficult job of conveying this world of warrior unicorns – as well as translating their complicated names! 

Like Skandar, I love the wonder of visiting new places – not just abroad, but within the UK itself. I have been completely humbled by the welcomes I’ve received from schools and bookshops across the country – from Glasgow to Cornwall – and blown away by the creativity of the children during my school events. Travelling so far and seeing such enthusiasm for reading gives me hope that – as long as we can get books into young people’s hands – reading for pleasure will continue to bring joy and benefit them into adulthood. 

New experiences 

Although none of my new experiences from the last year have involved learning how to battle with elemental magic like Skandar does, many have been just as wild and wonderful. I’ve stood in front of 800 children and joked with them about flaming farts; I’ve talked about bloodthirsty unicorns on TV both in the UK and across the United States; I’ve been recognised as A.F. Steadman in the street (a little alarming!); I’ve been behind the scenes at bookshops – which is something I’d love to tell my younger self about; I’ve had the opportunity to meet many authors I’ve admired so much over the years; and I’ve got to celebrate winning Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year at London, Piccadilly! 

More recently, I’ve spoken to 11,000 children at once during a virtual event; I’ve got to see children dressed up as characters from Skandar for World Book Day; I’ve been lucky enough to hold six different special editions of my book; and on my birthday I got to unwrap an absolutely GIANT version of the cover for Skandar and the Phantom Rider at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. But I wouldn’t have been able to have any of these new experiences without the incredible support and enthusiasm from booksellers, readers, teachers, bloggers, authors and my amazing publishing team. Thank you for a year beyond anything I could have imagined! 

New responsibilities

Once Skandar hatches his unicorn, he realises of course that he now has many new responsibilities – not least, ensuring Scoundrel’s Luck is provided with Jelly Babies at all times! And my task now is to make sure that I write the best Skandar books possible for readers so that they can enjoy each one just as much as Skandar and the Unicorn Thief. So, what next? 

Skandar and the Phantom Rider, the second book in the series, is available from 27 April 2023. In this instalment, someone is killing the wild unicorns – who are supposed to be immortal – and it’s causing havoc with the magic of the Island. The elements themselves are turning on the inhabitants, and it isn’t long before the riders inside the Eyrie are affected too – the bond behaving in strange and disturbing ways. And as the only spirit wielder in the Eyrie, the suspicious whispers around Skandar Smith only grow louder. Meanwhile, Skandar’s sister, Kenna is on a journey of her own. But is she in more danger than she realises? 

In Skandar and the Phantom Rider, readers can certainly expect to meet new friends – in particular, I hope they enjoy hanging out with the Peregrine Society! They will also get to see new places on the Island, such as the water zone, the Silver Stronghold and Wildflower Hill. And of course, they will get to experience many new adventures with Skandar and Scoundrel as they learn elemental jousting and get tangled in a new mystery . . .



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