Cover Reveal and Q&A: Author DaVaun Sanders Reveals All About His New Series Launch, Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew
Sometimes it’s a title. Sometimes the cover itself. Sometimes it’s a little more ineffable than that. A certain je ne sais quoi. Who knows why I think some books would make better cover reveals than others, but by gum today’s book got me excited. Maybe, just maybe, it was the description of the plot. See what you think:
“Keynan Masters doesn’t know the truth about Peerless Academy. He thinks it’s just a fancy art school that can’t teach him anything he doesn’t already know (how to write fire poems) and won’t solve his problems (the massive storms that threaten his home and family).
But Peerless is not what it seems…
Secret passageways. Unexplainable portals. Mysterious disappearances. Keynan and his new friends discover that the school is trying to contain a corrupt magic—a magic that gets churned up when Keynan starts putting his poetry to rhythm.
Can Keynan and his friends prevent the magic from destroying the school—and the world?”
I may never been able to pin down why I find this concept so interesting, but one way I’ve found to help solve such mysteries is to talk to the creators themselves. And DaVaun Sanders got back to me in record time with exactly what I wanted to hear. So before I show you the cover of this brand new fantasy series, take a moment to see what he has to say:
Betsy Bird: DaVaun! Thanks so much for answering my questions today. Your new KEYNAN MASTERS series is getting the royal treatment with that cover and all. So tell us a little bit about where this book came from. Heck, while you’re at it, what made you want to write for kids in the first place?
DaVaun Sanders: Hey, my pleasure! And yes, that cover is stunning. Godwin Akpan is an elite talent (seriously, go feast your orbs on his work) and I’m so grateful the stars and schedules aligned for his involvement. When I showed the final product to my fam, the huge smiles on my eight-year-old twins’ faces were all of the confirmation I needed that we had something special.
Inspiration for Keynan? Whew! Where’s my slide deck? There’s so much…how the Phoenix spoken word community fostered my own confidence, a love for seeing kids engage with STEAM curriculum, 90s hip hop videos, Jordan Peele movies…we’d be here all day. At the story’s core, I wanted to lure Keynan and his friends into a magic system that’s inseparable from what they love most—then completely flip it and reverse it, so they have no choice but to rely on their arts and each other.
When it comes to writing for younger readers, I’ll always sing the praises of Alechia Dow, an amazing author friend who first urged me to consider middle grade and mentored me on age-appropriate tone and voice for another project. It’s so critical that we’re mindful of what impression our books leave with younger audiences. And of course, my twins are a natural motivation to keep writing in this space. If they ever end up stanning anything I publish, that boom you hear from the sky is me cartwheeling into low orbit.
BB: When the Harry Potter series came out we saw a plethora of fantasy novels for kids come out in the same vein, but they were usually about white kids going to some kind of magical boarding school of some sort. Then a decade or two passed and now we’re getting fantasy middle grade again but from a much wider range of perspectives and stories. Since you’ve served as the executive editor for the FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction you probably have a better sense than I of that state of fantasy writing today. Can you account for fantasy coming back into fashion? And what are you seeing and loving right now?
DS: We all understand the cyclical and derivative nature of publishing, where the industry tries to chase a breakout success and duplicate it. Coupled with that is new generations of readers flocking to work written that feels more relevant to them, refers to shared timeline watermarks, that kind of thing. So it’s no surprise if fantasy is waxing back into prominence for middle grade.
Diverse stories are treated horribly throughout these cycles. A trope is suddenly, conveniently viewed as oversaturated when diverse authors bring their imaginings and lived experience to the table, or their stories get stamped as knockoffs and dismissed if they are finally published. Discrimination is just as prevalent in publishing as any other industry, but it’s especially insidious given how books influence young minds and attitudes.
My role with FIYAH consistently confirms a well-known truth in underrepresented communities: diverse creators, Black creators, have always contributed spectacular, engaging work and can excel and outsell any IP out there given resources, access, and visibility. We’re definitely enjoying that wider range of perspectives you mentioned, yes—but we deserve to be seeing way more. Job’s not finished.
That said, there’s so much amazingness to love right now! I’m forever behind in my TBR pile, but folks looking for magic school amazingness should be locked in to Dhonielle Clayton’s The Marvellers series. I’m a huge fan of anything written by Eden Royce and looking forward to her latest, Conjure Island. On the visual side I’m all over the place—but Dragon Prince is my absolute jam, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a feel good whimsical series that definitely influenced Keynan’s voice.
BB: Love that you brought up original Netflix shows on top of shouting out other great MG series. And you’ve done more than your fair share of adult speculative fiction in the past. But aside from your work in BLACK BOY JOY, this is your first official foray into children’s books, and certainly your first middle grade novel. It’s almost like using an entirely different set of muscles. How did you make the switch? And were there any particular surprises along the way?
DS: Agreed! There’s multiple layers to consider so a given story strikes the right chord with the intended audience. For me, calibration was key—reading as much as possible at the age range, and also watching media with my munchkins and getting a sense of what they engaged with most, what moved them, what was too scary, that kind of thing. My guiding ideal is do no harm, which required a particular sensitivity to ensure my stakes weren’t the wrong kind of intense, but still captivating.
A surprise is definitely how much I enjoyed writing for this age range. Nailing a scene that will make my kids giggle, sneaking in a dad joke, the crew wondering over why grownups are so odd. Never gets old!
BB: Did the book and the series come to you fully formed or are you the kind of writer that feels out the material slowly as it comes to you?
DS: Every project is different. Some work can take years to marinate while others present such a clearly distinct character or premise that a story organically gravitates around it. Keynan proved to be a mix of both. My worldbuilding felt fairly sound early on in the process, while the characters and their relationships required more care to really pin down, both for each other and the reader.
BB: Was there anything you wanted to include in the book that just didn’t pan out in the end?
DS: My editor (shout out Claire!) has been incredibly gracious with most of the weirdness I squeezed into Peerless, along with foreshadowing at later events. But naturally I keep a file of cuts, because you never know what’ll happen in a future installment…I’m most fond of random magical creatures I think up with my kids. If I manage to slip in the magical chameleon-snail that hits speeds of 20 mph, I’ll be happy.
BB: Now trying to process what a chameleon-snail might look like. Too distracting! Okay, finally, what’s next for you? What can we look forward to in the future?
DS: Well definitely more of Keynan! There are some monumental developments in store that readers simply aren’t ready for. Beyond that I’m planning to stick around the middle grade halls until they kick me out. I’m plotting a few different projects delving into some science fiction hijinks, but floundering a bit over which one to tackle first. Then of course there’s the inevitable new shiny idea that’ll eventually crop up and push everything to the side…! Lastly, my daughter and I are collaborating on some picture books together that will be rated E for Epic. So definitely more to come all around!
Boy. You can just tell when someone is a good interview subject, can’t you? I’m still turning over in my mind that part where he said, “A trope is suddenly, conveniently viewed as oversaturated when diverse authors bring their imaginings and lived experience to the table, or their stories get stamped as knockoffs and dismissed if they are finally published.” Makes me want to do a follow-up interview.
In any case, I’ve delayed for too long. Here, my friends, is the official book jacket of the one and only Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew:
I would like to offer my thanks to Mr. Sanders for so thoroughly, explicitly, and beautifully answering my questions today. Thanks too to Justine Sha and the team at Harper Collins for putting this together. Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew is on shelves everywhere October 17th. Be sure to look for it then!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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