Rebecca Fraser shares the process of writing her new middle-grade novel, Jonty's Unicorn, and explores how sometimes the right thing to do can be the hardest.

What do you love about writing children's books?

As well as writing purely for the love of story and the magical escapism a ripping yarn provides, I also love how books can double as such great vehicles for helping kids make sense of the world.

Young readers are smart, curious, and ever so aware of the society they move through. When writing for children I feel a responsibility to write books with heart that explore issues that matter. Ones that allow kids to see themselves represented no matter their family structure, their ability, cultural background, spirituality, or gender.

In my opinion, there’s never been a better time for healthy and inclusive approaches to literature. The current middle grade landscape in Australia is alive with fiction that explores these very issues. Kids are not only seeing themselves reflected in cracking stories with well-rounded characters, they’re learning from the experiences and perspectives of others. I’ve always believed in Ghandi’s words that we can be the change we wish to see in the world, and authors have the opportunity to do this one book at a time.

What inspired you to write Jonty’s Unicorn?

The idea of a unicorn entering a horse race galloped into my mind while taking a shower one day (the birthplace of many a plot and character!) and refused to leave until I’d committed the vision to paper.

When I’d worked out what the internal and external conflicts were for protagonist, Jonty, and her accidental unicorn steed, Rose, the rest of the story took shape around them…I just never realised how high their stakes would be.

Jonty’s Unicorn is the type of story I loved to read in my tweens (and still do). It was a genuine pleasure to write.

Did you have any personal experiences that contributed to this new book?

When I was around ten years old, like many other girls, I was completely horse obsessed. I begged my parents for riding lessons, which they could ill afford, and read everything I could about horses, horse care, horse anything!

I lived in the Gold Coast’s rural hinterland at the time, and during annual school holidays was fortunate to occasionally go on horse riding camps. My favourite book during that phase (and still a fond favourite) was Follyfoot Farm by Monica Dickens, centred around the characters that work at a sanctuary for abandoned and neglected horses. I read it over and over, memorising all the equine terms and wishing that I could change places with Callie, who lived at Follyfoot and rode every day!

A pony did eventually enter my life—a cranky little Welsh Mountain pony named Skye. We had some fine adventures together, and I can clearly recall how his barrel-like girth felt between my knees, the huff-puff of his breath against a cold morning, the shaking-toss of his head, and the creak of leather.

It especially helped to draw on these memories when I wrote the scenes with Onyx, Jonty’s beloved black horse and best friend, and how it feels for rider and horse to be almost an extension of each other when they know each other so well.

Riding a unicorn taps into a slightly different set of skills, of course...perhaps one day I will get to find out for myself!

You have several contemporary books in your published collection. What was it like diving into the fantasy genre for this story?

I have an enduring passion for speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy and horror. It was essentially my first love—to read and to write, so to be back world building and playing with favourite tropes was very rewarding.

I released an urban middle grade fantasy adventure in 2018 Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean (IFWG Publishing) which riffs off my fascination with the deep sea and has a contemporary coastal Queensland setting, but Jonty’s Unicorn is more fairytale-esque and will definitely appeal to readers who like their fantasy more mystical in nature.

Were there any new themes that you explored in this story?

An issue close to my heart weaves its way into Jonty’s Unicorn through Prince Talon of Irrawene. Unlike his father, King Reynard, Prince Talon is an animal rights activist. He vows that the day he becomes King the first thing he will do is abolish the King’s Annual Horse Race, ban hunting, and close the Imperial Zoo.

While these things are all steeped in Irrawene’s history and tradition, Prince Talon is much more progressive, and appreciates the delicate balance of nature and the environment and believes in the preservation and protection of all species.

What was exciting and challenging about them?

I think trying to get the message across without being didactic or compromising story is the most challenging part about weaving in impactful themes. The art of ‘hiding the vegies’ as they say!

I did try to do that...but Prince Talon is very passionate about his cause!

How did the writing process of this book compare to your other works?

Jonty’s Unicorn actually started out as a 10,000 word rhyming verse novel! After feedback from publishers, who loved the concept but felt it wasn’t commercial enough in it’s current format, I rewrote it as a prose novel, and it was picked up by IFWG Publishing, who specialise in speculative, young adult and middle grade fiction.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Jonty’s Unicorn?

First and foremost, I hope readers are entertained and enjoy being swept up in the story, but there’s also opportunities for reflection gently woven around themes of selflessness, bravery, friendship, loyalty, and how doing the right thing can sometimes also be the hardest.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

Yes! I have a junior fiction novel Skippy Blackfeet being released next year. It’s currently going through the production process with my publisher, Wombat Books. I’m also working on a young adult story, which has also been contracted by Wombat Books.

I really love the middle grade space, and have two other manuscripts I’m keen to get started on. I love (non-rhyming) contemporary verse novels, so am going to flex my writing muscles and try that format for one of them, with the other being a first person point of view prose novel.