“So many people said it couldn’t be done,” said Dhonielle (pronounced don-yell) Clayton about a novel set in a school of magic. “How can anyone compete with Harry Potter?”
Well, Clayton proved them wrong. “The Marvellers,” the first book in her new middle-grade series, was launched this month.
The boarding school – called the Arcanum Training Institute for Marvelous and Uncanny Endeavors – is quite different from the Hogwarts of J.K. Rowling’s global publishing phenomenon. It’s located in the sky rather than a mystical land that resembles the Scottish Highlands. Young magic folks from around the world are invited to attend.
Clayton’s inspiration came from a real school, one in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood, where she was a librarian.
“The kids there were from different countries, different cultures,” said Clayton, who lives in the city. “They didn’t see themselves in the fantasy books they wanted to read.”
So, for the past five years, Clayton devoted herself to researching and writing a book that might reflect and connect with those students – and so many like them, around the world.
The book opens with 11-year-old Ella traveling from her home in New Orleans to the school. Ella is from a prominent ‘family whose magic connects with death and the underworld. Since the school was founded 250 years ago, Conjurors have been banned. Recently, though, that ban has been deemed unlawful, so Ella is essentially integrating the school.
Many support her and the school’s new openness, but some resist. After one night with her snobbish roommates, Ella learns that she’s been transferred to another room to be shared with a cranky misfit named Brigit. No one will tell Ella why, but she can guess.
There are bullies, a sly villain, a kidnapping, Irish pixies, a West African protector-spider and classes in Marvellian history, chants and elixirs. Ella wonders often about the exam, always held at the end of the first year, that determines a student’s marvel or special magical talent, which is tied to a particular sense (known as a paragon) such as vision, sound or taste.
Her friend Jason is sure that his marvel will relate to his ability to communicate with creatures; Ella has no idea about hers. Now on tour for the book, Clayton told KidsPost by phone from Atlanta about the question she hears most from her young audience.
“Kids see Jason on the cover with a cute little rottie – a magical version of the Australian quokka – and they ask about other magical animals in the book,” she said.
Making “The Marvellers” more inclusive, she said, meant moving beyond the usual unicorns and dragons of Western fairy tales to feature creatures from other cultures and countries.
That was true of food, as well. Clayton researched, sampled and sometimes cooked many of the dishes served to Ella and her schoolmates.
“My favorite was japchae, a kind of Korean noodle,” she said. “It’s a very popular food in the book.”
If Clayton had a magical talent, what might it be? As a kid, she seemed attuned to vision and touch. Growing up in Olney, Maryland, Clayton adored reading and writing. She connected with the emotionally complex protagonist in “Harriet the Spy” and all of Virginia Hamilton’s books.
“And I loved creating things in miniature,” she said of her childhood interest in fashioning dollhouses from cardboard and wood kits. This interest was well-suited to the making of the intricate fictional world of “The Marvellers.” Check out the detailed map of the school grounds in Chapter 3.
As she finishes the sequel to “The Marvellers” and supports young readers and creators of diverse books through the organizations We Need Diverse Books and Cake Creative Kitchen, Clayton can’t rely on just one magical marvel.
“I need them all,” she said .
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