New York City in the early 20th century was filled with street vendors, chimney sweeps and...magicians? At least according to Chris Moriarty, author of The Inquisitor's Apprentice. Sacha Kessler and Lily Astral navigate the complex world of magic, confronting spookily familiar figures like James Morgaunt and Harry Houdini. The first in a new series, The Inquisitor's Apprentice offers entertainment plus an important perspective on immigration.
Find more great fantasy & science fiction among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
It's interesting to read about historic immigration in the midst of the contemporary news about the same subject—why write about this?
I come from a family with various immigrant experiences, and that was one of the most important things I wanted to do with these books: give kids a sense of how it feels to grow up in immigrant families, what it feels like for children in these families to hear the often quite hateful language that was really common in political speech in 1900 and that sadly is becoming more common again today.
Did you do lots of research before you wrote or did you weave the research into the story afterward?
I started with the gut reaction of a parent. When my son was younger, I reread a lot of classic fantasy and felt like I really wanted to have a fantasy series about a Jewish kid. Not in a highly charged way, but I thought that would be fun for my son to read, and I felt sad it didn't exist.
There was the initial writing of the first few chapters that really came from my family's experience and my husband's family's experience, riffing on lots of different relatives who are totally recognizable to people in our families but not recognizable to anyone else! Then there was a moment where it turned from, “Wow this is a cool idea, let's see where it goes,” to, “Yes, it's important enough to me that I want to work on it for five years.” Then there was a huge amount of research and reading memoirs and talking to friends and family about their recollections of growing up on the Lower East Side and growing up in the West Village and trying to figure out how to relate that historical time, which is very foreign to most American kids now.
Your book is about different kinds of power. Why is power so fascinating for kids?
In some ways, all fantasy literature is about power. When you're talking about magic, you're talking about power in some basic way. I feel like part of kids' fascination with fantasy is that they live in a world where really powerful figures can mess everything up and create horrible disasters. That's a basic part of the experience of being a kid, even in a happy family.
Even kids for whom the larger world doesn't pose any exceptional risks, you're constantly at the mercy of decisions you don't understand that are made by your pretty much all-powerful parents. It's a basic psychological attraction for kids—fantasy allows you to work out what's a just way to use power, what's an unfair way to use power, what you do when you have power, what you do when you have no power. It's part of growing up to be ethical.
One thing I really liked about the book is the fact that the hero comes from a very close family. Usually heroes in children's literature are orphans!
There is that trope in children's fantasy—you have to kill the parents off, have the rhinoceros eat them like in James and the Giant Peach, or in Narnia [when] the kids are sent off to get away from the Blitz. It's a basic structural element in fantasy literature for kids for a really straightforward reason: It's incredibly hard to write a book about a kid dealing with serious, grown-up–size problems in the presence of supportive grown-ups and try to explain why he doesn't just ask them for help.
But in context of this book, that didn't work for two reasons. One, I was writing about a Jewish kid. Two, I was writing about a working-class immigrant kid. I would not have been able to portray the experience and trajectory of American families without showing that multigenerational family. When you read memoirs about kids growing up on the Lower East Side or in Little Italy or in working-class Irish families, they're not talking about teenage rebellion or wanting to go out and party. They're talking about getting a job and helping with the rent.
So I had to figure out how to rise to the challenge and make it work structurally. It was important to convey the extraordinary burdens placed on children of first-generation immigrants. You're 9, 10, 12 years old, and you're the one in the family who can speak English, you're the one who can fill out forms, you're the one who can integrate the family into larger society. It's a different relationship and often a painful relationship, because these kids now have responsibilities that are very parental.