Malayna Evans has been a member of steaMG since launch and we were very excited to have a real life Egyptologist on board. Today we are even more excited to celebrate the day that Jagger Jones makes his big debut.
Your path has taken you from academia to kid lit. Was that always your intention, or did your life take an unexpected turn?
Well, in truth, my life has taken numerous unexpected turns. I never end up where I mean to go but I’m usually pretty happy with where I land. But I did have writing in mind when I went to grad school as an adult. I imagined I’d be the next Robert Graves, but instead of Claudius, my protagonists would be Cleopatra and Ramses. I figured being a professor would be a great plan B. (In reality, I run a small marketing firm, so that Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian history didn’t turn out to be terribly pertinent). In any event, I envisioned myself writing hard-hitting historical fiction … for adults
So what moved you to write this story specifically?
When my son was nine years old, he asked me what ancient Egyptians looked like. I told my beautiful, biracial son he’d fit in well in ancient Egypt. And he told me someone should write a book about a kid who looked like him lost in the past. At the time, my life was pretty topsy-turvy, as was his, unfortunately. So it started out as a fun thing to do together. I was trying to be a good mom, not fulfill my writing dreams. But it didn’t take long for the idea of sharing my passion for ancient Egypt with today’s middle school readers to sink into my imagination. Of course, that nine year old is now 16 and 6’2” (because kids grow faster than books) but his influence is still alive and well.
If you could share one thing about ancient Egypt with kids and teachers, what would it be?
Unfortunately, our education system tends to be a bit Eurocentric, so I don’t think most people realize how many aspects of our day-to-day lives are inherited from ancient Egypt. Our calendar is based on the ancient Egyptian calendar. Our writing system is heavily influenced by theirs as are our writing instruments. They fleshed out math concepts we still use. I could go on. There are many fantastical things about ancient Egypt, and my story zooms in on the most bizarre period in Egyptian history and highlights things like their beliefs about magic and the afterlife—the fun stuff. But when I talk to kids about the past, I emphasize the systems they established that we still benefit from.
Your story blends time-travel and fantasy with real historical places, people and artifacts. Was there some specific tactic that helped you achieve this merger?
That was a challenge for me. I knew I wanted to write a time travel series as soon as my son shared his idea—I wanted to blend past and present. Sadly, my first draft was a snoozer. I loaded it up with arcane history … because I’m an historian and that’s what I do. I had to figure out how to let the storyteller lead, and reign in the historian part of my brain. There were a few things that helped me accomplish this after some fits and starts.
For a start, I chose a theme that reflects a very Egyptian worldview. There’s an ancient blessing, ankh, wedja, seneb, which means (may you have) life, prosperity, and health. Since it’s a three book series, book one considers the Egyptian view of life, contrasting it with ours. So it’s not the princess’s life Jagger is tasked with saving, but her afterlife.
Another tactic that helped me blend fantasy and history was to focus on artifacts, aka things. Everyone has things—modern teenagers and ancient princesses. The bits of the book I’m most proud of are the spots where my characters sort of blend ancient and modern, using chewing gum in an ancient spell, for example. There are so many amazing artifacts from the past—things like amulets ancient Egyptians believed were magical—so giving them a central role helped me beef up the fantasy while staying true to the spirit of the culture.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?
Book two is with my publisher and I’m really happy with how it came together. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that readers who like Aria, the little sister character, will enjoy book two. I’m busy with book three now. And yes, there’s more time travel. But I’m also playing around with a new middle grade idea and a young adult manuscript. I find editing is easier when I shift my mind back from a totally different project, so I tend to have various works in progress moving forward simultaneously. At the moment, my number one wish is that kids will enjoy Jagger’s adventure and learn a bit about ancient Egypt along the way.
Malayna Evans was raised in the mountains of Utah and spent her childhood climbing, skiing, reading Sci-Fi, and finding trouble. Many years later, she earned her Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian history from the University of Chicago. She's used her education to craft a middle grade, time-travel series set in ancient Egypt. Jagger Jones and the Mummy's Ankh is book one. Malayna spends her time writing, sharing her passion for ancient history with kids, and haunting Chicago’s best coffee shops. She lives in Oak Park, Il, with her two kids and a rescue dog. You can visit Malayna on her site (www.malaynaevans.com), Twitter, or Instagram.