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Once There Was



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About The Book

A New York Times bestseller!
A Morris Award Finalist

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them meets Neil Gaiman in this “striking and heartfelt” (Kirkus Reviews) novel about an Iranian American girl who discovers that her father was secretly a veterinarian to magical creatures—and that she must take up his mantle, despite the many dangers.

Once was, once wasn’t.

So began the stories Marjan’s father told her as a little girl—fables like the story of the girl who sprung a unicorn from a hunter’s snare, or the nomad boy who rescued a baby shirdal. Tales of mythical beasts that filled her with curiosity and wonder.

But Marjan’s not a little girl anymore. In the wake of her father’s sudden death, she is trying to hold it all together: her schoolwork, friendships, and keeping her dad’s shoestring veterinary practice from going under. Then, one day, she receives a visitor who reveals something stunning: Marjan’s father was no ordinary veterinarian. The creatures out of the stories he told her were real—and he traveled the world to care for them. And now that he’s gone, she must take his place.

Marjan steps into a secret world hidden in plain sight, where magical creatures are bought and sold, treasured and trapped. She finds friends she never knew she needed—a charming British boy who grew up with a griffon, a runaway witch seeking magic and home—while trying to hide her double life from her old friends and classmates.

The deeper Marjan gets into treating these animals, the closer she comes to finding who killed her father—and to a shocking truth that will reawaken her sense of wonder and put humans and beasts in the gravest of danger.


Chapter One: The Girl Who Saved a Unicorn | CHAPTER ONE | THE GIRL WHO SAVED A UNICORN
Once was, once wasn’t.

A long time ago, in that forest that lies between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea, a girl went foraging for mushrooms.

It had rained the day before. The ground was soft and damp, and the air smelled of loam and moss. It was a good day for mushrooms, and the girl had nearly filled her basket with lion’s mane and hen-of-the-woods when she heard a sound away off in the trees. It sounded like an animal crying out in pain.

There were leopards in the forest, and jackals, and brown bears. But this girl didn’t like to think of any creature suffering. So she set out into the forest in the direction of the sound, to see if she could help. A little ways off the path, in a clearing in the deep woods, she found the source of the cries.

The unicorn was bleeding and scared, its leg caught in a hunter’s snare. It was a huge beast, and very wild. The girl had never seen such an animal before, and she knew at once that it was special. She also knew that as soon as the hunter returned to check on his snare, the unicorn would be no more. So she swallowed her fear and crept up on it, as gently and as carefully as she could. To calm it down, she offered it some of the mushrooms she’d picked. And when she felt it was safe to approach, the girl bent down and opened up the trap.

The beast seemed to fill up the entire clearing with its long legs and its sharp, treacherous horn. The girl stood there frozen, too awed and frightened to move. The unicorn looked at its savior for a long time. Then it took a cautious step on its injured leg toward the girl, lowered its massive head, and plunged its horn into her chest, right above her heart.

The girl fell to the ground, and as she did, a piece of the unicorn’s horn broke off inside her. The unicorn watched her for another moment, then turned and loped off into the woods, favoring its wounded leg, and was not seen again for a hundred years.

The girl, bleeding and in shock, managed to gather enough strength to return to the village at the edge of the woods, where she lived. There she collapsed and was carried to her bed. She lay there for many days. At first no one thought she would survive. But after a day, the bleeding stopped. And after three days, the pain began to subside. Slowly the wound grew smaller and smaller, until all that remained was a crescent-shaped scar, just above her heart, and a little piece of unicorn horn, lodged between her ribs.

Time passed, and the girl became a woman. She married, and had children, and when they were born, some of them had crescent birthmarks above their hearts too. And so did some of their children, and their children’s children, and so on. It’s said, though no one can be sure, that some of the girl’s descendants are still alive today, and that a few of them still carry that mark on their skin, where the unicorn first touched her.

And it’s whispered that maybe, just maybe, there’s still a little of the unicorn inside them.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Once There Was

By Kiyash Monsef​

About the Book

When Marjan was a little girl, her veterinarian father told her tales of fantastical creatures— griffons, shirdals, carbuncles—and the tale of a child who saved a unicorn from a hunter’s trap. But now Marjan is a teenager, and her father has been murdered. When a strange visitor arrives at the animal clinic with news that Marjan is a part of a long line of people descended from that little girl who saved the unicorn, Marjan learns that unicorns and the other animals from her father’s stories truly exist. As she is drawn into this secret world, she discovers that she, like her father, has a gift for helping these mythical beasts, and that some people will stop at nothing to keep and control them for their own gain. The deeper she delves into this world, the closer she comes to discovering who murdered her father, and to saving the magical creatures that she once thought lived only in her imagination.

Discussion Questions

1. In chapter two, “The Work,” readers learn that Marjan’s father, a veterinarian, was recently murdered. A mysterious stranger appears at his animal clinic and makes reference to “the work.” Marjan describes how the woman’s way of speaking “stirred something warm and alien in my chest. Maybe it was just anger—a nice vintage anger I’d been holding on to for a long time. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was hope.” Discuss how anger plays a role in Marjan’s daily life. How does anger both benefit and hinder her?

2. Marjan is often conflicted. One example of her conflicted emotions is found in chapter two, as she stands before her father’s bedroom door and thinks, “I wanted it to stay closed forever. And I wanted to kick it down.” Discuss this and other examples of Marjan’s internal conflicts.

3. The devastating effects of grief are a running theme in Once There Was. Discuss Marjan’s description of grief since her father’s death:

Time had felt heavier, like gravity on another, much bigger planet. A minute on this alien world where I now lived weighed as much as ten minutes in normal time, and when I looked too far ahead, the weight of all that super-dense time made my bones ache. (Chapter four)

Why is weight an appropriate metaphor for a loss of this magnitude?

4. Fairy tales and legends often begin with the phrase “once upon a time.” Discuss the meaning of the two phrases that appear throughout the book: “Once was” and “Once wasn’t.” “Once was” is similar to once upon a time.” How does “Once wasn’t” change the perspective or feeling of the tales of mythical creatures that Marjan’s father used to tell her?

5. Discuss the character traits of each of the mythical creatures in the story. What do their traits have in common with human behavior? Who are the real monsters in the story, and why? Discuss the different stories of these mythical creatures that are woven throughout the book. What lessons are taught by these parables?

6. Marjan knows that her father kept secrets from her, secrets that feed her anger and resentment. Over the course of the story those secrets are revealed. Why do you think her father withheld knowledge of their lineage as part of the Hyrcanian Line? How does uncovering these secrets empower Marjan? Does it change the way she thinks about her father?

7. Define intuition. How does the following passage demonstrate Marjan’s sense that something is missing? “Something in me was hungry and broken. I could feel it in my chest, beneath the ribs beneath the crescent-shaped birthmark just above my heart.” (Chapter four) Locate and discuss additional examples of Marjan’s intuition. What is the “hunger” Marjan refers to over and over in the story?

8. How is Marjan’s gift for feeling a creature’s pain a form of empathy? How does her empathy for the creatures fuel her strength, courage, and humanity? In chapter ten, Marjan is in the carbuncle’s enclosure, sent in to persuade the creature to give her its priceless ruby. Marjan speaks to the creature about trust, anger, and confusion. How does she show compassion for this animal? Why do you think the carbuncle gives its gem to her?

9. Discuss Marjan’s relationship with Sebastian. What do they have in common? Why do you think they are able to connect so quickly and deeply? Select examples from the text to support your ideas.

10. When Marjan first meets Malloryn Martell, she learns that Malloryn is a witch. Later, when Marjan assumes that a black cat belongs to Malloryn, the self-proclaimed witch sarcastically corrects her: “‘Right,’ she said, ‘because all witches have black cats’ . . . ‘we don’t all have black cats. We don’t all ride broomsticks. And we don’t float in water, either. Does that clear up your default assumptions?’” (Chapter five) Define the word assumption. Based on Malloryn’s statement, what do you think is a default assumption? What default assumptions have you made about people you don’t know or who may be different from you? Explain. Do you think Malloryn really is a witch? What parts of the novel support your opinion?

11. At the end of chapter seven, Marjan describes her father’s grief at the loss of his wife. “I saw grief strike him like lightning, leaving him speechless and sobbing at the kitchen table, in the bedroom, in the doorway of our house. I didn’t know how to comfort him. His sadness was a different language.” How can grief be like a “different language”? Although Marjan feels that something is missing, it is not until the end of the book that she learns why she has not been able to grieve the loss of her mother, only experiencing feelings of anger and confusion. Why is it necessary to grieve a loss? By trying to protect her from sadness, how did her father rob her of her ability to heal after her mother’s death?

12. Marjan wrestles with questions of identity.

I saw Zorro watching me from the gloom at the end of the hall. I wondered who he saw—who I was in that exact moment. Was it the brave, confident girl with the unicorn scar, ninety-nine parts human and one part magic? Was it the lost and confused kid who talked to doors that she still was too afraid to open? Or the girl in the corner at the Noruz party, dazed and dazzled and unable to understand how she could possibly belong there, or anywhere? Maybe it was the little girl I’d once been, the one who still haunted these halls, whole and happy. I felt all of them. (Chapter eight)

How would you describe Marjan? What character traits do you relate to? How are you like Marjan? How are you different?

13. Discuss Sturgis, the house gnome. What do you think he represents? Marjan informs Horatio that Sturgis doesn’t seem happy. Horatio replies, “‘He’s always been this way.’” (Chapter eleven) Why do you think Horatio, who claims to love Sturgis, can keep him locked in a cage? Discuss additional examples of Horatio’s hypocrisy.

14. Marjan challenges Horatio regarding the manticore. The conversation becomes a discussion about truth. Reread this passage in chapter fourteen. Do you agree with Marjan, that “‘maybe some truths aren’t worth telling. Maybe some truths don’t do anyone any good’”?

15. Discuss the various definitions of monsters, and apply them to the characters and creatures throughout Once There Was. What or who are the real monsters? Support your reasoning.

16. Reread chapter sixteen, “A Strange Little Heart.” Why do you think that “a curious space opened up in [Marjan’s] chest with each breath. It was luminous and brave and tough, and as it swelled, I felt myself standing taller, seeing the world in sharp, clear lines.” How is this a turning point for Marjan?

17. Discuss the unicorn and what it symbolizes. Marjan refers to the unicorn as “the source.” What do you think she means by source? How does the power of the “now” moment give Marjan the courage to help the unicorn?

18. Horatio tells Marjan, “‘They’re not just animals. . . . They’re our imagination.’” (Chapter twenty-eight) What do you think Horatio means by this? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Do you think the mythical creatures are our imagination? How is the power of imagination an important theme of Once There Was?

19. After her father’s death, Marjan initially distances herself from her two best friends, Clare and Grace. Why does choose not to confide in her friends about her newly discovered powers? Why does she ultimately choose to trust Grace? How does opening herself up to her friend help deepen their friendship?

20. Once There Was is a mystery embedded in an adventure story. Discuss how Majan’s need to know who killed her father compels her to embark on her journey of discovery?

21. At the story’s conclusion, Marjan makes her wish: to have her sadness returned to her. By being willing to feel her pain, how is she transformed?

Extension Activities

Mythical Creatures Dot Com - Readers learn that the image on Jane’s business card, a tea kettle with a curling serpent inside, represents a dragon. Choose one of the creatures from the book, or another mythical creature of your choice, and design a business card for the animal, including an image and important text details.

The Source - Throughout the history of art, unicorns have beguiled artists, poets, and storytellers. Give students time to dive into the visual and literary history of this fantastical creature. For a culminating project, students can create an original work of art, write a poem, or craft a story featuring a unicorn as the main subject.

In the Land of Cyrus the Great - Ancient Persia, roughly corresponding to the area making up modern day Iran, is one of the oldest civilizations in history. Embark on a research project of this fascinating land. To begin, share this video which presents an overview of ancient Persia:

Next, assign pairs or small groups a research topic, such as politics, architecture, art, language, food, and inventions. Students can create a slide presentation or other artifact to demonstrate what they have learned.

Once There Was - The creatures in Horatio’s menagerie, as well as Zorro the nine-tailed fox and the violin Yokai, are all creatures from world mythology. Choose one of the creatures featured in Once There Was and research its origins. Next, imagine an original creature that could stand beside these amazing products of human imagination and storytelling. Make a drawing of your new creature and write its origin story.

Persimmons on the Darkest Night of the Year - In chapter twenty-four, Marjan comes to an important realization about her cultural identity. Have students identify aspects of their cultural heritage. As a culminating project, students can create a slide presentation or an original work of art that highlights an aspect of their culture, such as language, clothing, art, religious customs, and holidays.

This guide was created by Colleen Carroll, literacy educator, content creator, and children’s book author. Learn more about Colleen at

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

(c) Jane McGonigal

Kiyash Monsef is an Emmy Award–nominated producer and director; a writer of short stories, videos, comic books, and games; and a designer of innovative conversational and voice interface experiences. He’s the author of Once There Was, which was a finalist for the Morris Award, and Bird of a Thousand Stories

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (April 4, 2023)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665928502
  • Grades: 5 and up
  • Ages: 10 - 99
  • Lexile ® 700L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

A hard-to-put-down book with great appeal to fantasy and mythology fans.

– Horn Book Magazine, May/June 2023

The detailed visual descriptions clearly conjure up the enchanting world Monsef has created, one populated by expressive, surreal beings, each of which has its own backstory.

A striking and heartfelt debut.

– Kirkus Reviews, 02/15/23

Awards and Honors

  • Kentucky Bluegrass Award Master List
  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
  • Charlotte Award Ballot (NY)
  • Odyssey Honor for Audio
  • ALA/William C. Morris Award Finalist

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