Author Spotlight: Kamilla Benko talks The Unicorn Quest
I'm so excited to host my very first middle grade author spotlight! Kamilla Benko spent most of her childhood climbing into wardrobes, trying to step through mirrors, and plotting to run away to an art museum. Now, she visits other worlds as a children's book editor. Originally from Indiana, she currently lives in New York with her bookshelves, teapot, and hiking boots.
Her debut novel, The Unicorn Quest, is out now with Bloomsbury! In addition to being chosen as a 2017 Book Expo America Middle Grade Buzz Pick, The Unicorn Quest has been getting lots of praise from authors, readers, and reviewers alike! Just check out the graphic below to see what the School Library Connection had to say. :)
And now, here's my chat with Kamilla!
Hi, Kamilla! Welcome and congrats on the publication of The Unicorn Quest. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?
Thank you so much! And thank you for this incredible opportunity! The Unicorn Quest was inspired on gloomy February afternoon in New York City, when I decided to treat myself to a “weekend vacation.” I took the subway from Brooklyn to northern Manhattan—about an hour and a half journey—to The Cloisters. The Cloisters is an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and houses all of their medieval art, including seven famous tapestries known as The Unicorn Tapestries. But the unicorns on these hangings aren’t eating rainbows or prancing around stars. They’re being hunted. And as I looked at the rather gory images, I asked myself, “What kind of world would want to kill unicorns?” And with that question, the idea for The Unicorn Quest was sparked.
The tapestries also inspired my world building. Because the idea came from art, I created a fantasy world where art is literal magic. A place where you can do almost anything, so long as you craft something with your own hands. For example, you can polish a mirror so shiny that it reflects the future, or—if you have nefarious plans—carve an army from stone.
How does the theme of sisterhood shape the story in The Unicorn Quest?
Sisterhood permeates the entire story. In fact, if Claire and Sophie weren’t sisters, the story might not have even happened at all! Claire, as the youngest, is tired of being left behind by her older sister, Sophie. So when Sophie leaves for this magical land without her, Claire must follow.
And while Claire and Sophie have their disagreements, I think they are both aware, on a subconscious level, how special a sister is. Because if you think about it, a sister is the only one who can exactly understand what it is like to live in your family as a girl – no other person will ever have that experience, and though you can try to explain it, a sister is someone who understands your past without explanation.
Kids tend to see the world much differently than adults. What do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when writing from a middle grade POV?
That kids are incredibly wise and don’t need to be spoken down to. I don’t change my vocabulary for them (and in this day and age, a definition is only a click away!) or my plot twists, but I do try to keep in mind what kind of experiences they may not have had yet, and so I have to get a little bit creative sometimes to figure out, say, what the childhood equivalent of driving a car for the first time is.
Stakes are high in The Unicorn Quest. Do you have any tips for writers who may need to ‘up the stakes’ in their own stories?
I’m so glad you feel that way! Honestly, in my first drafts, everything usually goes great for the main characters, and then I have to go back in and roughen it up for them. For me, the best way to raise the stakes is to think about the character’s emotional state, and then throw her into something that will increase that particular emotion. So for example, Claire is scared of the dark, and so of course that means she has to go underground where darkness reigns. If she wasn’t scared of the dark, and instead scared of, say, heights, I might have made her skate the tops of tree tops, instead!
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
For me, it’s committing to the story line! As part of day job, I am a packaging editor, which means it’s my job to come up with book ideas. I’m trained to spin it out in several different directions and plots, but when you’re the author of a book and not the editor, it’s really had to see the big picture, and I lose track of what the story is really about. To help myself, I try to think in big themes, and I like to boil down my entire story into a single word. For The Unicorn Quest, that word is transformation.
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author?
The day after my cousins (ages 8 – 10) finished the book, I got a call from their mom telling me that they were currently “playing Unicorn Quest” in the back yard. Each one had a pencil tucked behind her ear like my main character. My heart practically exploded at this news!
What are you reading, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
I’m a bit late to the game, but on the YA side I’m currently infatuated with V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, and on the middle grade side, I’m just finishing up Roshani Chokshi’s hilarious Aru Shah and The End of Time. I highly recommend both for excellent world building and character development.
And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing career?
That truly the only thing you have control over is your own story, and that’s what you need to focus on: making your book the absolute best it can be.
Many thanks go out to Kamilla for taking the time to tell us more about the inspiration behind The Unicorn Quest, as well as sharing some actionable tips on how to up the stakes in your own story, and using keywords to help focus theme. Be sure to add Kamilla's magical debut to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore.
And, as always,