age range: 8-12 years
themes: power, privilege, social responsibility
Alysa Wishingrad’s website
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection
A rich, inventive, captivating story of big injustices and small heroes, The Verdigris Pawn nods to classic fantasy while asking questions deeply relevant to our world. A magical adventure that readers will adore.
— Anne Ursu, author of The Lost Girl
Heartfelt, hopeful, and charming, The Verdigris Pawn is a deftly crafted tale that weaves adventure with purpose, beautifully illustrating how kids can change the world.
— Heather Kassner, author of The Plentiful Darkness
The Verdigris Pawn is a wonderful escape, a tale of truth, trust, and doing what’s right. Readers will delight in this fast-paced fantasy in which mistakes can be opportunities, power is not what it seems, and the seemingly helpless can have the greatest impact of all. A perfect debut for our times.
— Diane Magras, award-winning author of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter
Please tell us about your book.
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is an upper middle grade fantasy adventure that’s perfect for readers who like classic middle grade novels like The False Prince, The Chronicles of Prydain, or the work of Diana Wynn Jones. There’s a timeless quality to the story— it’s a quest that takes place in a quasi-medieval time period– and yet it’s incredibly timely as it takes a very close look at issues around power, privilege, and social responsibility.
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Beau has been raised isolated and alone. And despite the harsh and judgmental treatment he gets from his father, he has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects and how hated and feared their family is.
This all changes when Beau meets Cressi, a young servant girl, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – and most especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for their family’s taxes.
This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But, to restore fairness and equality to the Land, he must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a game similar to chess!).
But when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done.
This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places.
What inspired you to write this story?
The inspiration for the book came from a writing prompt in a workshop some years ago. With the prompt, “tsk, tsk, poor little boy,” I saw this young boy being raised like a bird in a gilded cage in a manor house on a hill, an old man his guardian (or perhaps jailer). It also sparked a new writing voice for me—it took some time, but the story eventually evolved and unfolded.
I’m always deeply inspired by philosophy and politics—not along party lines, but rather how we organize ourselves in society. Power, truth, how easily people can be corrupted are important are concepts I think many upper middle grade readers are beginning to think about. This is a time when kids are beginning to realize that not only do adults not have all the answers, but that they can often be outright wrong.
With this story I really wanted to explore an issue that hits hard for readers this age; who do they want to be in this world, and how do you combat the voices/people in your life that try to force you into certain roles.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I did so much research for this book, and loved every minute of it! I read extensively on despots, how they gain power, how they hold on to it, and how they lose it. I also spent a lot of time reading and researching life in medieval times. What was a day like, a year? What was the common diet for the rich, the poor, and the merchant class? How did the marketplace work, and what took place at harvest festivals?
There were so many fascinating rabbit holes that I fell into while building the world of this book. But if I had to choose a favorite line of research, I think it would have to be the reading I did on the power of plants and herbs to both heal and harm. Many of the plants that Cressi uses in her brews are real, with real-world benefits, and sometimes, real-world dangers. Then there are some that I fabricated, but even those have some relationship to our world and the art of medicinal healing.
What are some special challenges associated with creating a game for a book?
Well, I must begin by saying that game design is an entire art! I have such high regard for the geniuses who create games. I do not have a background in game design, or even much gaming, so it did pose a challenge for me.
I knew that the game of Fist needed to be many things—it needed to be a compelling game, difficult to master, and yet also be accessible and somewhat recognizable to the reader. And it also needed to be an allegory, a reflection of the action and players in the story while not hamstringing me too much with the rules of play. That’s why the playable game came after the book—I knew if I was too focused on the actual rules of play it might force the story to serve the game, not allow the game to serve the story.
To build Fist I researched the genesis of chess, explored ancient games such as hnefatafl, an old Viking game of strategy, and Xiangqi, an ancient Chinese game. There’s an incredibly rich history of games as teaching tools, and at times instruments of subversion providing the blueprint for revolution.
I worked with James Earnest of Crab Fragment Games to complete the game design of Fist so that readers can play! The game is still in the BETA stage at this point, and I have to add the caveat that the rules, as written right now, are not geared toward young readers, BUT if anyone would like to give it a go, we’d love to hear about your experience through the feedback form here at the link. To play all you’ll need a chess set and a set of checkers – and any game piece you’d like to stand in for the verdigris pawn! I hope you’ll give it a go!
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
The Verdigris Pawn explores questions around social structure, power, and privilege—what is it, who has it, what did they do to get it, and in many cases, how far are they willing to go to hold onto to power?
The story explores socio-economic divides and the structures those in power put in place to maintain the divisions. It also tackles the issue of how history is told, whose stories get handed down and what happens to the truth when history is, as it has always been, written by the victors. It opens the door for young readers to explore their own privileges, even when they are hard to see, and provides a road map to empower them to use both their strengths and perceived weakness to create meaningful change in their own lives, their communities, and the wider world.