AILSA CHANG, HOST:
"The School For Good And Evil" isn't just a fantasy novel series for middle-grade readers. It's a low-key empire.
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CHANG: There's an interactive website, a YouTube channel...
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JOANN YAO: So this week, we are going announce the contest winners for the character collage contest that we've been hosting on the website...
CHANG: There are Tweets, Instagrams, trailers.
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CHANG: Just in time for the fourth book, "Quests For Glory," NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to fill you in if you're not yet familiar with Sophie, Agatha and the Endless Woods.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: The man behind "The School For Good And Evil" empire, Soman Chainani, is a dashing young guy whose CrossFit skills you can follow on Twitter along with excerpts of the new book, #book4.
SOMAN CHAINANI: Growing up, I idolized Madonna and not for her music as much as her sort of, like, business sense, you know? That was always my dream...
CHAINANI: ...To sort of manage a low-key empire. And so, you know, it's funny that it's ended up this way.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Growing up in Miami in the '80s, when he wasn't idealizing Madonna as entrepreneur, he was bingeing on animated movies - "The Little Mermaid," "Sleeping Beauty," "Beauty And The Beast."
CHAINANI: I watched Disney movies almost "Clockwork Orange" style - with my eyes pried open, being completely brainwashed by Disney. I mean my life was Disney. Everything I knew about the world, about story structure, about narrative came from Disney. And then, you know, I went to college, and my first class at Harvard was this seminar on fairy tales.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Reading the original, much darker, much more complicated stories the Disney movies were based on made him feel like he'd been cheated.
CHAINANI: That's where I think "The School For Good Evil" came from. It was this desire to reclaim fairy tales and give kids an alternative to Disney set in a similar fairy tale world that looked like Disney but ultimately break it all down, you know, and show them a way of thinking beyond the Disney good and evil matrix, which I am convinced is corrupting so much of the way kids think.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The first breakdown of the good-evil Disney matrix comes right when the series begins. The School for Good and Evil is where good kids learn to be fairy tale heroes, and bad kids learn to be villains and murderers and monsters.
In the first book, Sophie, a blonde, gorgeous girl who always felt she was destined to be a princess, gets dropped off at the School for Evil while her witchy best friend who lives in a graveyard ends up at the School for Good. In the Endless Woods that surround the school, you come across some familiar characters, like Merlin, Robin Hood, Captain Hook. But the students are at the center.
CHAINANI: We are generating a new sort of era of fairy tale characters that are going to be relevant for the modern world, right? These are kids who are going to be able to look at the past fairy tales and then live out their own.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There's also a very important magic pen called "The Storian." The pen has a will of its own and drafts the official version of new fairy tales as they unfold in a grand, blank storybook. Halfway through the fourth book, we learn - spoiler alert - that there's another pen just like it drafting the same story with the same characters but from a totally different perspective, like fairy tale fake news.
CHAINANI: I started this book two months before the presidential election, and it went to press about a month and a half ago.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Chainani is aware that day-to-day politics doesn't age well, but there are themes that readers in 2017 will recognize.
CHAINANI: Truth and lies and good and evil - they mix in the world. Both sides claim to be good. Both sides claim to be telling the truth.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The power of a lie that feels true and drives people's behavior - that's at the heart of book four, a theme that feels very now. Reading these books, it's hard not to think about "Harry Potter." There's magic. There's school. There's some PG romance. Chainani says he's a fan. But with his books, he tried to move away from the warm safety of "Harry Potter."
CHAINANI: It felt like there was no way that series was going to end with Harry in a pool of blood and Voldemort kicking his heels into the sunset - right? - because it just had such a strong kind of moral spine to it.
And I thought, you know, kids needed something that felt more unstable and that reflected that uncertainty not just of the world but of junior high and high school where kids lie all the time and bad kids win all the time. And so I wanted all the readers to feel slightly uneasy the entire way through.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is a big book, more than 500 pages long. Your reward for making it to the end is a crazy plot twist. It's so unexpected, it'll keep you hooked for books five and six, the film version which Universal is working on and whatever worlds Soman Chainani comes up with next. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.
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