Frozen’s “Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness” Interview with Jen Calonita and Mari Mancusi

Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness is the newest Frozen tale set to wow (and maybe even spook) Disney fans. Written by Frozen storytelling queens, Jen Calonita and Mari Mancusi, Anna and Elsa’s latest adventure gets a little scary and even more exciting in Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness.

Jen Calonita and Mari Mancusi met where the north wind meets the sea―in other words, at the North Texas Teen Book Festival―and instantly bonded over their mutual love of all things Disney and Frozen. A self-professed Elsa, Mari loves all things frozen―especially snowboarding and ice cream. Jen, who is 100 percent Anna, confesses that she took up running solely so she could run in costume at runDisney races. When Mari and Jen are not finishing each other’s sandwiches, Mari can be found in Austin, Texas, with her husband, her dance-loving daughter, and their two dogs, Minnie and Mesquite. An Emmy Award–winning former TV news producer, she’s written more than thirty books for kids, teens, and adults, including the Agnarr and Iduna origin story, Dangerous Secrets. New York Times best-selling author Jen Calonita lives with her husband, two boys, and a chihuahua named Ben Kenobi in New York, where she writes books for kids and teens, including several Twisted Tale novels like Conceal, Don’t Feel. They both like warm hugs.

In addition to having the chance to review Polar Nights, I was delighted to chat to Jen and Mari about their new book, the Frozen universe, relationships and writing a seriously cool detective-thriller type Disney novel unlike any other.

Hi Jen and Mari! Thanks for chatting with us. Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness was recent released. How do you feel?

Jen Calonita: I feel like we’ve been waiting for release day to come forever! At least it feels that way since Mari and I have been talking about this book, plotting this book, Facetiming and writing about this book for over a year!

Mari Mancusi: It’s always so exciting to have your book come out into the world. For so long, as authors, these stories live rent free in our heads. But on release day they suddenly become a shared fan experience. To know people are reading our words all around the world is thrilling! Even if I am at home stuck doing laundry while all this excitement happens…

How would you describe this book?

Jen: It’s part-adventure, part-mystery, a bit spooky, and at its core, a love letter to Frozen fans who want to see Elsa and Anna on a new journey together. It was a joy to write!

Mari: It’s a standalone adventure story set in the world of Frozen with a spooky monster from Norse mythology and filled with themes of the importance of truth, memory and family—particularly sisterhood. It’s also the first post-Frozen 2 novel so it gives fans a chance to catch up with our favorite sisters and see what they’ve been up to since the film’s ending.

Whose idea was it that you guys team up and co-author this story? (Because it was obviously the best idea ever.)

Jen: When Mari and I met a few years ago and realized we shared a love of Disney AND Frozen, AND we both were writing Frozen books (I did the Twisted Tale Conceal, Don’t Feel, and Mari did Iduna and Agnarr’s love story, Dangerous Secrets), we both started joking around about how much fun it would be to create a new Frozen story together. We’d randomly text ideas to each other…”What if Elsa and Anna….?” We love this fandom so much and were brimming with ideas so when Disney mentioned us teaming up on a Frozen book, we jumped at the chance.

Mari: It was a dream to work with Jen! So often writing is such a solitary venture and to have someone to bounce ideas off of or brainstorm with is just so satisfying. We both went on to write solo stories after we finished Polar Nights and found ourselves missing the partnership so much. We’d still call each other up to brainstorm ideas. I really hope we’ll be able to do another book together someday.

Love that! Sounds like you both had so much fun. The chapters flip between Anna’s and Elsa’s perspectives. I assume Jen wrote for Anna and Mari wrote for Elsa. Is that right? What were the pros and cons of writing a book this way, i.e. not only splitting chapters between characters but also splitting them between authors?

Jen: Ha! You know us too well! You have it exactly right. I’m a total Anna and Mari would probably say she relates more to Elsa so we both knew who we wanted to tackle right away. What was so much fun about this process is we’d each write a chapter, then send it to the other person who would provide notes and move the story forward. We tried to outline the story beforehand so we could figure out which character was better suited for showcasing a scene in the book. I’ve never had more fun working on a project than I did writing this with Mari.

Mari: I think having two voices for the two main characters really works well for a story like this. This way you get a different feel for Anna when you read an Anna chapter and vice-versa for Elsa. While I will say our voices are rather similar in style—which is needed for a collaboration—they’re also different enough to make it feel like someone new is talking when you switch chapters.

I was very glad, however, that Jen is such an Anna because I secretly always wanted to write an Elsa book, especially after writing a few small Elsa chapters in Dangerous Secrets. I wanted to go into her head, feel what she’s feeling. Basically, channel my favorite Disney queen. It enjoyed the process so much.

A dream team! By the way, I love that the character Princess Mari appears in this story. Great add!

Mari: Well, besides her being my namesake, I just fell in love with her character in the Dark Horse comics and her friendship with Anna is so delightful. I would honestly love to write an entire book about her! So when I realized we needed a neighboring kingdom for the doomed sisters to hail from, I realized Vesterland would be the perfect choice.

What do you consider the most significant parts of Disney’s Frozen, as well as other stories about Anna and Elsa’s adventures, that inspired or otherwise provided some guidance for the story you wanted to tell in Polar Nights and why?

Jen: Before we started writing, we both tried to get our hands on every published Frozen book out there! We both love Kamilla Benko’s Forest of Shadows, we read all the Frozen comics and some of the Frozen picture books. When we could incorporate other characters (like Princess Mari) or places, we did.

Mari: We tried to incorporate details from a variety of sources to build a richer, more immersive world. Personally, I sprinkled a bunch of nods to Dangerous Secrets in the book—I mean how could I resist? But at the same time, at the end of the day, we also had to tell a story that would make sense and be entertaining to young readers who only watched the films and have never gone deep down into Frozen lore. So, it’s like an onion book. There are different layers to it. You can read it as a simple, spooky sister story. Or you can geek out on Easter eggs and subtle references to the extended universe.

I love the Easter eggs – I am sure I will spot more each time I read this story. What clear deviations from Frozen and related stories did you want to make and why?

Mari: When you’re writing for a property like Frozen, you don’t want to deviate too much from the source material. Instead, you strive to give fans more of what they love. To deepen the characterizations, the memories, the stories that they already adore. To give fans a chance to spend more time with the characters in an all-new adventure that doesn’t take away anything from the original source material.

Jen: Absolutely! Any chance we had to show Elsa and Anna having game nights, sleepovers, and sisterly bonding moments we took it because that’s what we love just like the fans.

I must admit, this story is a little spooky! It is also a great unsolved-mystery story. How did you choose this genre and were you both onboard from the start (or did one of you have to convince the other, haha)?

Jen: I’m a scaredy-cat! When we started writing, I said, “Mari, you have to handle the chapter where we meet the draugr (which is like a zombie), and Mari is so great at writing spooky content, she did it beautifully.

Mari: Unlike Jen, I’m a horror aficionado. I always joke that it’s odd I don’t write horror when I consume so much of it in the film world. So, when Disney told us they wanted the story to be about a spooky zombie-like creature from Norse legend, I was all in. Of course, we had to keep it PG—it is a children’s book after all—but we really tried to make it sinister and creepy and atmospheric all the way through.

I’d say you achieved that! Polar Nights is filled to the brim with strong, diverse women with very different stories to tell. What sort of research did you embark upon for this book and did anyone in particular inspire some of the new characters that readers will meet?

Jen: Thank you! Queen Rita—King Runeard’s wife (Elsa and Anna’s grandmother) might be one of my favorite new characters we get to spend time with. Both of my grandmothers were strong women, and I was thrilled we got to showcase another powerful woman in this story.

Mari: In Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, they recently updated “the redhead” for sale at the market and remade her into a strong, resourceful pirate named Redd, possibly inspired by a historic pirate named Ann Bonny who was known as the Pirate Queen of the Caribbean. (She has an amazing story if you haven’t had a chance to check it out.) She was inspirational to me for a certain pirate character in the book and we actually nicknamed her Red in honor of our Caribbean queen.

I love (where you are going with) Queen Rita too, Jen. And thank you, Mari, I will definitely check out Ann Bonny’s story. Thank you for the suggestion! Memory, truth and relationships strike me as being at the heart of Polar Nights. What do you think are the key thematic takeaways, or what themes resonate most with you, from Polar Nights and why?

Jen: I think the takeaway is the bond between two sisters is unbreakable. It’s a love like no other.

Mari: In this day in age truth has become almost subjective. People believe what they want to believe or what they’ve read or been told—often without bothering to research the matter. This can cause huge problems in society and actually ruin lives. But truth is still attainable and worth seeking out—if you’re willing to do the work. And if you are able to keep an open mind, you may find your truth in the end was only a perspective. I think that’s an important takeaway to the story.

What relationships were important for you to explore in this story and why?

Jen: I think the fans always want more between Elsa and Anna and we really wanted to give them that. Of course, I adore Kristoff (who doesn’t?), but we really wanted to show that no matter where Elsa and Anna are in the world, they are sisters who put each other first.

Mari: I also wanted to explore how the sisters felt about their parents. We don’t get a ton of that in the films, but when writing Dangerous Secrets, I got to tell the parents’ backstories and show that they really did want the best for their girls—even if their methods were not sound. I wanted to give both girls an on-screen (or on-page in this case) chance to reconcile their feelings about what happened to them as children and the actions of their parents. With Elsa able to recreate memories from the past, this was finally possible to do—in a very beautiful way.

Who is your favorite character in Polar Nights and why?

Jen: I’m partial to Anna, as I always am, but I will say, Olaf has some of the best lines in his scenes.

Mari: Olaf does tend to steal the spotlight when he’s on the page! He’s a lot of fun to write! And Anna’s fun to write too—though in our original version we might have gone too far on the snark and had to tone her down. She is a queen now, after all! But my heart will always belong to Elsa!

Without giving too much away, what is your favorite scene or chapter in Polar Nights and why?

Jen: Oooh…so many, but my favorite scene involves pirates! (Can’t say much more than that.)

Mari: I loved writing about Elsa in Ahtohallan and what she’s discovered and learned from the river of memories. It felt special to be in her head during those moments.

What are your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, that you can you share with us about writing Polar Nights vs other writing projects, including other Frozen novels that you have done?

Jen: I loved having a partner. Mari is truly the most amazing writing collaborator. We’d constantly call, facetime, text with ideas and comments or thoughts. We were continuously tweaking and changing scenes to make them more action-packed or nuanced. Collaborating was such a fun process. I really hope the two of us get to team up again. When I’m writing on my own, I’m a plotter. I am always pulling out post-it notes and big pieces of poster board and trying to visualize the story.

Mari: When I write my own (non-Frozen) stories, I am often a “pantser.” As in I’m always changing the plotline at the drop of a hat or writing into the unknown, so to speak. I like to take the adventure with the characters and see what happens as I write, staying open to big shifts or changes in the narrative. When you write a Disney book, however, all plot points need to be approved in advance by the film team, so you have to color within the lines, so to speak. This can make a book much quicker and easier to write, but sometimes I do miss the spontaneity I get with my own books.

Out of the other Disney stories that you have written to date, where does Polar Nights rank in terms of “Most Fun to Write?”

Jen: MOST FUN! No disrespect to Conceal, Don’t Feel, which I adored working on in the Twisted Tale series, but getting to create an all-new story set in the world of Frozen? That’s the dream.

Mari: Polar Nights was definitely the most fun! Though Dangerous Secrets was special in an entirely different way—it was so emotional to write. I cried so much writing the parents’ story. Whereas Polar Nights always had me laughing. If there were any tears, they were happy ones.

What was the most rewarding part about writing this story? What was the most challenging part?

Jen: Rewarding: Working with Mari! Challenging: Just working out the beats of the story so that it all came together in the end. I’m afraid to say too much to giveaway all the twists and the turns, but we really spent a lot of time hammering out the details.

Mari: Jen and I aren’t sisters, but the Frozen quote, “Two sisters, one mind” really feels relevant. Even from the start, I feel our vision for the book was so similar and that made it so fun to put together. No one felt as if they were compromising what they wanted in order to please the other. That said, I think it could be challenging, as Jen said, to keep track of all the details—since two people were writing chapters. I had to make sure my chapters were always consistent with her chapters.

What is next for Jen Calonita and Mari Mancusi?

Jen: In August I have a middle grade novel release called 12 to 22, which is about a girl who makes a wish on TikTok and winds up in her 22-year-old self’s body. It’s near and dear to my heart.

Mari: I have a dragon apocalypse middle grade novel called New Dragon City that will come out in October. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who has lived through a dragon apocalypse who accidentally befriends a young dragon—his worst enemy.  

What do you ultimately hope readers get out of Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness?

Jen: I hope the fans love the chance to spend more time with the Fab Five as we called them (Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven), and relish getting a new story set in the world of Frozen.

Mari: I hope this story can satisfy some reader curiosity about what the sisters and their friends have been up to since the end of Frozen 2 and also entertain them by giving them a fresh story set in the world of Frozen.

Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness was released on July 19th, 2022.

Jess Salafia Ward
Jess Salafia Ward is an Aussie, an attorney and a die-hard Disney fan. She grew up in a city not too far from P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney; and she still enjoys dancing around in Snow White pajamas and serenading her family members with Sleeping Beauty’s “Once Upon A Dream” (though, unlike Princess Aurora, she is not blessed with the gift of song). Jess is an Elvis-lover like Lilo, and when she doesn't have her nose stuck in a book, she delights in sharing with fellow fans all things Disney, books, movies and history.