The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is a middle grade fantasy about a scrappy, strong, and fearless 12-year-old girl named Drest whose sheltered life upends when knights invade the remote Scottish headland where she lives with her family. The knights capture Drest’s father and five brothers, and leave her behind with one of their own wounded knights whom she takes as her captive and sets off to reach the castle where her family is being held for execution.
We spoke with debut author Diane Magras about her fascination with medieval Scotland, strong female protagonists, and her favorite books as a kid.
What inspired you to write about a girl trained to be as tough as her five brothers and father?
When I first came up with the premise of this book, I wanted my protagonist to have the same opportunities that her brothers had, and true equality with them. Girls have always grown up being told that they’re physically weaker than boys, that it’s just a matter of biology—and the implied (or direct) conclusion is that therefore they can’t do what boys do. I wanted to confront that by showing a girl who was strong, and also very comfortable being herself. I also wanted to model a community where the men and boys were supportive of the girl among them: Drest’s father and brothers are her biggest advocates. Yes, she’s physically smaller than they are, and younger, but, as they point out, she’s faster on her feet than any one of them, and the best swimmer of the lot. It was especially important to me to upend gender expectations in a medieval setting where women historically hadn’t been seen with equality, and to show how this kind of equality could have actually happened.
Based on your Glossary and Author’s Note, it’s clear you did tons of research for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. What’s your connection to medieval Scotland?
I’ve always been fascinated with the medieval world and the invention, imagination, and beauty that existed alongside the brutality. I’ve been obsessed with the U.K. since I was a teen, and Scotland has for many years had a special place in my heart: a scrappy northern country that throughout history kept standing up to its powerful southern neighbor.
In 2016, I went on my first research trip to Scotland with my husband and son—and then we scrimped and saved to go on another in 2017. We spent hours at castles and abbeys and drove all over the Scottish Borders and to the southern coast. These trips meant a lot to me—I’m the kind of person who puts my hand on a castle wall and starts imagining who else might have put his/her hand there seven or eight hundred years ago. The in-person research also helped me catch details, from what carrion crows really sound like, to locks, doors, and windows in castles. Oh, and the stairs: I’d read about narrow castle stairs, but it’s quite a different feeling to walk upon them with those tight, curving walls and imagine what it would be like to race up or down, weighed by chain mail and a sword and shield.
You thanked your 11-year-old son Benjamin in the acknowledgments, “my first reader and editor, who has read and critiqued every draft.” How did his feedback help you write this story?
He’s an avid reader, and he knows what makes a middle grade novel work. First, I read each polished draft of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter aloud to him, as he read over my shoulder. He helped me catch typos, he laughed at the funny parts (so I knew I’d nailed them), and he questioned some word choices. Sometimes we had discussions about what a term meant, and he encouraged me to spell it out. Whenever I reached the end of a chapter in these read-alouds, I’d stop and we’d discuss how that chapter had gone, what the pacing had been like, what he liked and didn’t like, and anything that wasn’t clear. If he wanted me to keep reading (which meant my pacing was spot-on), we’d have our chat at a break. This feedback was incredibly helpful.
What books did you like to read as a kid?
When I was a middle grader, I read a lot of old fantasy, from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to The Sword of Shannara. But the books that really engaged me and fit me best were The Dark is Rising and the other books in that series. The British lore, those powerful descriptions, the chase scenes, the well-rounded characters—those stories spoke to me in a way that nothing else had, and planted in me the seed to want to start writing. They’re still among my favorite books.
What is up next for you? Are there more books coming that we can look forward to?
The Mad Wolf’s Daughter has a sequel that will be out next year at this time. You’ll learn all about Drest’s mother (some readers may notice a few subtle hints about her in the first book). That and new secrets will come to light!
The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is on B&N bookshelves now!