It was a reaction to "pink and sparkly unicorns" that inspired children's author Annabel Steadman to upend the stereotype.

Back in 2018, she dreamed up an island with sky battles, and elemental magic, where selected teenagers learn to be unicorn riders.

"Growing up I didn't like the unicorns in the shops, I liked dragons and scarier creatures," says the 32-year-old.

"Unicorns have been in our culture for thousands of years, they weren't always cute and cuddly and fluffy. I thought what if they were real and we've got it completely wrong and they are actually bloodthirsty?"

Ham & High: The third book in the series is out on April 25 and AF Steadman is signing copies at Pickled Pepper Books in Crouch End on May 5The third book in the series is out on April 25 and AF Steadman is signing copies at Pickled Pepper Books in Crouch End on May 5 (Image: Simon & Schuster)

The Camden resident left the first draft on her computer for a year and didn't tell a soul she had written it.

But she says: "I couldn't stop thinking about this world. I think if you can't stop thinking about it, it's probably the one you should be doing, so I came back to it to see if it was going anywhere.

When her agent sent the first Skandar novel to publishers, it netted a seven figure, three-book deal and film contract with Sony Pictures. Queues now form outside her signings, and teachers report having to create 'Skandar spoiler free zones' in classrooms.

"When it was ready to go I felt sick, I thought 'this is it the moment when someone tells me if it's any good. It was the most stressful moment and afterwards I felt strange, as thought it was all a dream.

"I kept thinking I had made it up."

As a child Steadman adored fantasy stories: "I used to borrow 10 books a week from the library and I always drawn to the fantasy shelves purely for the escapism.

"I loved things that fired my imagination like Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials or the huge sprawling imaginative worlds of Ursula Le Guin."

Steadman had always wanted to be a writer but says through "years of doubt and questioning yourself" she squashed her ambition and took a practical job as a lawyer.

Now she's free to take "epic" book tours of Australia, the US and UK as she hopes to draw children into her fantasy world.

"It's very helpful to get out and meet children across different continents, they are brutally honest, you get to learn what they like and don't like whether the jokes you are making are funny."

"I've tried to keep the books as diverse as possible so children can see themselves in the characters and suspend their disbelief that they could be part of this fantasy world and could be a unicorn rider.

"I really like inclusive books where you can dream you are on that adventure."

In the books, every 13-year-old takes an exam to see if they are destined for a unicorn on the island, but only a few are chosen to learn elemental magic and take part in the Chaos cup which is watched on TV.

Badly bullied at school, teenage Skandar is glad to leave his phone and world behind and take up the challenge. The third book Skandar and the Chaos Trials  is out on April 25 and centres around their third year of training and completing a series of terrifying trials across the Island’s elemental zones.

Friendships, allegiances and rider-unicorn bonds will be pushed to the limit including the sibling love and rivalry between Skandar and sister Enna.

As the four main characters are growing up "hopefully they will reflect readers' experiences in their lives."

"It's probably the most dangerous book so far, the trials are a way for the characters to explore the island further, meet some elemental creatures, take what they have learned so far, and use it out in the wild.

"They also go to some awkward school disco type dances."

The book also has an explosive ending she says: "the third in a five book series can be a dropping off point and I'm not going to let that happen."

With the book deal on the table, Steadman had just hours to decide what she wanted to be called, and opted for her initials because they added a note of "epic gravitas" and were "coded fantasy" like JRR, CS, or JK.

"Because it's got a unicorn on the cover and Annabel is a very female coded name I didn't want to put boys off," she adds.

"I like having a separate name, I don't even have my photo in the books so readers can suspend disbelief about who the writer is. Although it's interesting when I turned up to events with a male publicist, they thought he was the author."

Skandar and the Chaos Trials is published by  Simon & Schuster. AF Steadman will be doing a public signing at Pickled Pepper Books in Crouch End on Sunday 5th May.