Skandar: AF Steadman on new fantasy book Skandar and the Chaos Trials ahead of Waterstones York and Sheffield signings

Annabel ‘AF’ Steadman was always a ‘dragon child’ growing up – and that love for fantasy became a bestselling book series. She talks to John Blow.

If you’ve not heard of the Skandar book series, there’s a good chance the children or teenagers in your life know it well.

Annabel Steadman – who writes as AF Steadman – was not even sure if writing a fantasy story about bloodthirsty unicorns was a good idea, initially.

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It proved to be an internationally best-selling one. She got a record-breaking book deal – reportedly into seven figures and her publicist says the highest amount for a debut children’s author ever - as Sony Pictures snapped up the film rights and it was translated into into 47 languages.

AF Steadman.AF Steadman.
AF Steadman.

“It's been a whirlwind, I've done three books in two years,” says the London-based author, who is 32. “But I think it’s important for this age group because they grow up and the want everything now so a year is about as long as you can get away with.”

Reflecting on the response, she adds: "I don't think that I really still comprehend it. We turned up to a signing, I think it was in Reading last year, and there was just queues down the street and you're just like, I can't believe this is happening.

“It doesn't feel like it's part of your real life because as an author, you spend so much time writing on your own, to then go somewhere where people talk to you about your characters and they're queuing up to have a conversation about them, it's so special and I do feel really lucky that I'm able to experience it because it's unbelievable and it's so joyful.”

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It’s an experience she’s likely about to relive as the third of five books, Skandar and the Chaos Trial, comes out on April 25 and she heads out for signings at book stores, including Waterstones in York and Sheffield’s Meadowhall on Saturday, May 4.

Sheffield fans, in particular, have been keen to meet Steadman.

"I've had lots of messages from people over the last couple of years saying please, please come,” she says.

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At the beginning of the series, in Skandar and the Unicorn Thief – which won the Waterstones Children's Book of the Year 2022 – readers meet 13-year-old Skandar Smith, who has always wanted to be a unicorn rider. As his dreams are coming true, an enemy steals the world’s most powerful unicorn. Magic, sky battles, the uncovering of ancient secrets and adventures ensue.

It’s the kind of story the author would have loved to read in her own earlier years. “I went to the library every week and borrowed lots of books and I always gravitated towards fantasy books,” says Steadman.

“I had quite a difficult childhood and I think that I used fantasy books to escape from what was going on around me. And I think that's why I came back to it as is something I'd like to write because I think if that's a gift you can give to a particular child who needs that time away from the real world, and I think fantasy is brilliant at doing that.”

You can, she says, “throw anything at children and they will kind of soak it up. They're very open minded and they'll take anything in.”

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Growing up in Kent, she loved the likes of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books – which showed her “how big fantasy worlds could be” - and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

“I read that just at the right time,” she says of the latter. “That questioning in your mind of whether it's real or not - I love that and I think I've played on that in Skandar because it's a very similar world to ours, there are very few differences.”

It plays on the idea that “maybe next year, this might come true and some of them might turn up at your door and tell you you're going to be a unicorn rider. Those are the ones that have really captured my imagination.”

Books have plenty of competition when it comes to holding children’s attention these days – how does she deal with that?

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"When I’m writing the books I think about the context that children are in now. They have all these distractions, there's a lot of pressure put on them with exams and things like that. So I think one of my aims is to make it accessible, so that it's very pacey. There's often a very dramatic start so they can get into it straight away, and they're not distracted by something that's over there and going to do something else.”

Steadman wrote two fantasy books when she was a teenager but was “also a fairly practical child, so I was steered in the direction of law”.

However, in 2019, she was awarded a distinction in a creative writing masters from the University of Cambridge, which gave her the confidence to go for writing professionally.

The Skandar idea, though, came to her about nine years ago.

“I'm very visual as a writer, so it was just an image in my head of this boy riding a unicorn that was a sort of a scary, bloodthirsty-looking unicorn, I think partly because I never really liked the fluffy pink toys and things like that, I was more of a dragon child.”So I just thought maybe I can make these a little bit different and it is really fun because there’s so much baggage with unicorns that (children) bring in.

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"I start a school event, and you can see the children that are just like, ‘Oh my gosh, she's gonna talk about unicorns, this is the worst day ever’. They're just too old for them, they're over the pink things, they’re like ‘no’. And then as soon as you say they're ferocious, magical, deadly, they're like, ‘Whoa’. They love that turning it on its head, but they also bring all of that other stuff about unicorns with them, so it's a really fun thing to do as an author.”

For all the fantasy, the books explore real issues affecting young people and Steadman takes that seriously.

“Authors are so available now,” she says. “Because of social media, anyone can send you a message or an email through your website. I think you do feel a sense of responsibility, particularly as some of the themes in Skander are heavier themes like grief and mental health. They do really resonate with people and I certainly feel a responsibility to do them justice.”

She also has three adult fantasy novels with Simon & Schuster UK in the works, with the first, TimeLess, due out in 2026.

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What might she say to young writers who want to break through?

“If you have an idea that you keep coming back to over and over again and you keep thinking about it, and you think it's a good idea, chances are someone else will because people are quite similar. If you're really inspired by it, probably someone else will be and I always say with Skandar, I was not sure that it was a good idea at all. I didn't tell any of my friends I was writing it and sat in my computer in a file called ‘Bloodthirsty Unicorns’ for about six to eight months, just sitting there doing nothing because I thought it wasn't a good idea. So you don't ever really know until you start letting people read it, I don't think.”

For tickets to the book signings in York and Sheffield, visit:

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