A New Heroine for Young Adult Historical Fantasy: Robert Beatty’s Serafina Series

Arleigh Johnson

The Twisted StaffRobert Beatty’s new series featuring Serafina, a twelve-year-old girl living in the basement of the famous Biltmore Estate in North Carolina during the Gilded Age, has ignited the world of Young Adult fiction and is quickly becoming the next big thing within the genre, as well as crossing over to an older audience. Serafina and the Black Cloak (Disney Hyperion, 2015) received its much anticipated follow-up in 2016 with Serafina and the Twisted Staff, which carried over seamlessly with an action-packed introduction and fresh mystery for the beloved protagonist. Serafina, the proverbial underdog, is at once a relatable, awkward pre-teen girl and a mysterious, otherworldly creature with questionable ancestry. What, other than this magnificent characterization, has made her such a hit?

An impressive mix of history and folklore, this series borders on a subgenre which has been quite prolific in the industry: historical fantasy. While many of these novels have vague settings with imaginative storylines rather than factual ones, the Serafina books stay true to both the era and the history of the Biltmore Estate, which is a major tourist attraction in scenic Asheville, North Carolina. As such, the books have historical integrity while also delving into Appalachian lore, albeit with a magical twist.

The folklore, in particular, has opened this series to many readers — those who love Harry Potter-type books, as well as Southern and local enthusiasts, who are interested in the background and history of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Serafina’s father, a mountain man and the chief mechanic at the Biltmore Estate, speaks in Appalachian dialect, giving his character credibility and the added charm of resembling Hogwart’s groundskeeper, Hagrid. In addition, there are catamounts, along with other wildlife of the region, and eerie places such as an overgrown graveyard, an abandoned town, and miles of dark, though beautiful, forests. Mention of haints, shape-shifters and creatures of the night bring this series fully into the ranks of Young Adult Gothic novels.

As for the historical aspect, George Washington Vanderbilt II, his wife, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser Vanderbilt, and the estate’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, are all real historical figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Serafina and the Twisted Staff, there is even a scene with Consuelo Vanderbilt, a prominent member of the Vanderbilt family who was a fashion icon and married to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Robert Beatty is a regular visitor to the estate and has minutely detailed his story to match the setting as it was in the late 19th century. The rooms and grounds are described accurately, including statues, secret passages, and even props that exist to this day.

Beatty has been forthcoming in interviews about the fact that this series is heavily influenced by the opinions of his wife and daughters. They are his sounding board for ideas and suggestions, and have also been involved with the making of the book trailers. With such a thorough and kid-inclusive process, it’s no wonder the series has received overwhelmingly positive reviews and occasioned much excitement among school-aged readers.

The immensely brave and good-hearted Serafina has found her place among the ranks of popular children’s series and is cornering the market on local lore in the South. With a packed author event schedule and opportunity for avid fans to explore the Biltmore Estate first-hand, Serafina is finding her way into the hands — and hearts — of eager audiences. What’s next for our admirable Chief Rat Catcher? After revelations at the end of Serafina and the Twisted Staff, the third book — as yet untitled — can’t be released soon enough!

About the contributor: Arleigh Johnson has worked in the book industry for more than a decade and is an active member of the book blogging community with her websites www.historical-fiction.com and www.royal-intrigue.net. She has been reviewing books online for nine years, and for the HNS since 2011.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 78, November 2016


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