By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Dhonielle Clayton to the WNDB blog for the first of a two-part interview on The Marvellers, illustrated by Khadijah Khatib, out May 3, 2022! We previously revealed the cover for the book here.
Eleven-year-old Ella Durand is the first Conjuror to attend the Arcanum Training Institute, a magic school in the clouds where Marvellers from around the world practice their cultural arts, like brewing Indian spice elixirs and bartering with pesky Irish pixies.
Despite her excitement, Ella discovers that being the first isn’t easy—some Marvellers mistrust her magic, which they deem “bad and unnatural.” But eventually, she finds friends in elixirs teacher, Masterji Thakur, and fellow misfits Brigit, a girl who hates magic, and Jason, a boy with a fondness for magical creatures.
When a dangerous criminal known as the Ace of Anarchy escapes prison, supposedly with a Conjuror’s aid, tensions grow in the Marvellian world and Ella becomes the target of suspicion. Worse, Masterji Thakur mysteriously disappears while away on a research trip. With the help of her friends and her own growing powers, Ella must find a way to clear her family’s name and track down her mentor before it’s too late.
Hi Dhonielle, thanks so much for speaking with We Need Diverse Books, an organization you of course are very familiar with! Let’s start off with, what is The Arcanum Training Institute for Marvelous and Uncanny Endeavors? And talk a little about building this incredibly detailed world.
Arcanum is a magic school in the sky where children of Marvellers go to practice their talents and to become part of the magical community. It is a training institute where kids learn all sorts of various ways to tap into their marvel, which is the light inside of them that gives them the gift of magic, and those are categorized into five different Paragons of marveling.
It’s a fun school, there are trolleys that help you get around and there are towers that move, and the school never looks the same way twice. And there are little creatures called rotties that live in the walls, that love sweets and carry messages. And there’s a lot of hidden rooms and lots of hidden things in that school, in the institute.
Building this world was very purposeful and targeted. I made lots of charts and floor plans and everything had all this detail. I believe that in order for children and readers to feel immersed, the devil’s in the details, it’s all about the details for me. I’m a world person first. There are a lot of writers that are character people first; I’m a world person first, and I saw the school in the sky before anything else.
So, I started building it, thinking about this idea of global magic and what does that really look like? And if we come to a school with global magic, what will be the unifying principle? So, there’s a reason that the school is in the sky: it wouldn’t be in anyone’s territory, any one country or community’s territory. And there’s a reason I use constellations. When we get into book two, you’re going to get a different culture’s constellation because it’s the one thing I believe unifies all human beings on Earth, is that we look up at the sky, and can see stars and patterns of stars. So, it was important to me that if I’m going to make a global magic school, it came down to all of these details that make it feel so real, a place that can really exist.
I want my young readers to be looking up at the sky, hoping that the Arcanum Institute is right there, hidden behind the clouds. And that required me to think through all the details that make something feel like it’s real. And that’s newspapers, that’s thinking about where everything is and how it changes, it’s very technical. So, I have a lot of drawings, and grids, and a notebook full of details for the world.
The dining hall is probably my favorite thing in the school because I wanted it to feel like a home for kids who are from all over the world, whose food is sometimes ostracized. I wanted it to feel like a place of celebration. So, if I’m talking about community, if that’s the biggest theme and it is global, that has to be reflected in the actual school itself, its curriculum, where things are, what they look like, etc. It was really hard.
Suspension of belief, disbelief, is what I’m going for. I wanted it to feel like a portal when you get high above those clouds, and that requires work. And the way to make something feel like magic is right around the corner, is to do the deep worldbuilding, the building blocks, to make it really infusing. I wanted it to feel like when you left in that little sky ferry, and you went above the clouds, you were literally transported somewhere else that had different rules, almost like a portal fantasy, even though it’s not a portal.
It was fun, but it was a lot of work. It took me seven years for this first book; I did seven drafts with my editor. They (Henry Holt) bought this book in 2017. Long before all the other books, I’ve been working on it with my editor. But we wanted it to be perfect so that it could live forever versus it being topical, and “of the now.” I wanted classic. And so how do we make something classic? You have to do the work, the deep worldbuilding.
Any series lives and dies with its lead character, and you’ve got yourself a good one here. Tell me about Ella Durand.
Ella is the little girl, the young girl that I wish I was. When I was her age, I was a nervous Nellie, I just wanted to read my books and be left alone, I was a curmudgeon, I was more like Harriet the Spy than anything else.
Where Ella wants to be everyone’s friend, she wants to learn, she wants to be in community, and so she’s excited for the challenge of being the first conjurer to ever be admitted into the Arcanum Institute for Marvelous and Uncanny Endeavors, and she takes that responsibility very seriously, and is really excited about it. She’s focused on the positive always, where if it were me, I would have been nervous, I would have been grumpy, I probably wouldn’t have talked to anyone, I would have been more like Bridget.
So, Ella has an impossible task ahead of her. She’s becoming a bridge between two communities that have a history between them, and that history has a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs. And so, she’s supposed to be this bridge which is a lot of pressure to put on her, but she’s so excited for everyone to see and learn about her magic, see what is similar and what is different. Excited to get to know everyone despite people maybe not being as excited to meet her.
The “magic school” setting is of course not new. Talk about any challenges or impediments you encountered while building The Arcanum Training Institute from the ground up, creating this wonderful canon, ensuring it stands apart from previous attempts.
So, the magic school story is a perennial evergreen for children’s literature that has existed for probably fifty-plus years. I’m a children’s scholar by trade, so I’ve read all those books, and I always just fell in love with this setting. And because I was a middle school and elementary school teacher, having school stories with magic in them felt like a natural extension of what kids would be excited about.
When I set out to create this new magic school, I was trying to create a world where every kid could self-insert and find themselves. So many of the big properties in children’s literature that feature a magic school are exclusive, and there are so many missing children, so I wanted to create a world where every kid was marvelous, and every kid could come, and we could have a different conversation. Instead of a conversation about the magical and non-magical, I wanted to bring a discussion about community. What happens when everyone has magic? What happens when we’re living together? How does our magic influence each other? How do we organize ourselves? Who gets left out of the shuffle?
So, I really tried to come at this evergreen trope and set up from a completely different lens. To breathe some fresh air into this perennial middle-grade trope.
The answer is probably found in its ancestral roots, diaspora, and Louisiana Voodoo, but what is it about New Orleans that you find so fascinating and ripe for storytelling?
We’ve got the Marvellers as one magical group, and then you’ve got the Conjurers as the other magical group. And the Conjurers have their own Conjurerverse, essentially; they have different Conjurer towns, and New Orleans is one of those. New York and Harlem are one, Atlanta is one, and when you get in subsequent books, they are found in Central and South America, in Colombia, Panama, Brazil and so on and so forth.
The Conjurer world is quite vast, and I wanted to start in one of the biggest Conjurer towns, which is New Orleans, and because I wanted to root it in the familiarity of my childhood. My grandparents are actually from Mississippi and Alabama, and that area, and so we would go to New Orleans when I was young, and I just found it fascinating, that whole area. So, Ella goes between Mississippi and Louisiana, because that’s her heritage, and if I was going to make Black Americans and Black people from Central and South America super magical, I wanted to start in cities that already felt magical. And that’s why I sort of start out in New Orleans. It is a strange place that haunts me, and that I love because it’s weird, and it has so much Black history in general, so that’s why I started our Conjurer universe right there.
The Marvellers really explores the relationship between parents and children, both the good and the bad. Ella has a wonderful supportive family unit at home; is this something you had in your own life growing up?
Absolutely. I definitely used my parent’s personalities and my childhood experience to sort of echo Ella’s. My parents were/are so loving, to the point of smothering, and I wanted to showcase that.
I could have never gone to boarding school because my parents would have just flipped out. My mother calls me every day, maybe two or three times, and she’s just like Ella’s mother, Aubrielle Durand, she’s just nervous and protective, and that’s who she is. You have to call her, you have to check in, she wants to know how you’re doing, where you’re at. And my dad is very much like Sebastian Durand, he’s pushing you out the nest. I did a ton of traveling as a young person because he was a military brat, he grew up all over the world, and he wanted me to really know that America was not the center of the universe. And so, he’s very much into me going on adventures, going out and trying new things, going away from home. So, I wanted to show that contrast between homebody mom, who wants her ducklings close, and dad, who’s like, let’s push them out the nest and let’s see how they do.
And I wanted Ella to be surrounded by love, to the point of excess, like she’s being smothered and protected because she is the first of her kind, and it’s very scary and dangerous to be the first. And I was thinking about my grandparents, and what they must have felt like when my parents were sent to integrate schools in the American South, and how dangerous that was, and how stressed out they probably were. So, I wanted to sort of echo all of that.
Even a seemingly progressive magical world like the Marvellerverse has its fair share of prejudice, including but not limited to anti-Blackness. This of course further establishes that racism is inherent; it’s airborne, even within the community, where it may be more subtle or micro-aggressive, it’s still pervasive and malignant. So, in many ways, The Marvellers despite its fantastical nature is mirroring society, isn’t it?
I really truly believe in telling children the truth in ways that they can understand, and this comes from my experience being a librarian, where kids are coming into my library experiencing all types of things and reading about all types of things. I wanted to show that a magical community, one that can do otherworldly things, would not be immune from bigotry, prejudice, and stereotypes, because it’s part of human nature. And so, I did want to have a different kind of conversation.
I know in many other magic school worlds, it’s always about the magical kid, or the magical and non-magical community, and how they rub up against each other. And I wanted to talk about what happens when everyone has magic, and then how do we ostracize. Because I believe that human beings will always find a way to create insiders and outsiders. I wanted to focus on these topics and really talk about how this magical community should be immune, but it’s not.
I used a lot of inspiration from my parents and their childhoods, growing up in the segregated American South, having to integrate schools and what their experience was like, and how hard it was for them to be on the front lines of that movement. So that’s where the spark of the idea came from, looking at pictures of little Ruby (Bridges) surrounded by police officers, being escorted into a school, and all these adults screaming at this little Black girl. I wanted to tell the truth to kids about how building a community is really hard, and it takes a lot of collaboration, cooperation, talking, and understanding.
And I think that’s what elementary and middle school should be about, community building. How do I become a global citizen? How do I become a good member of my community and work with other people? So, I was centering around a lot of those themes as we dove into a lot of “isms”.
You wrote that The Marvellers is, “my love letter to kids who thought there might be nothing magical about them because they didn’t show up in those big worlds everyone is always talking about.” It turns out representation matters, and as the COO of WNDB, and with book challenges/bans the highest they’ve been since tracking began in 1990, it seems your job is perhaps more vital than ever. You’ve said it very much feels like your life’s work. Talk about how important it is that young Black girls continue to see an Ella on bookshelves and in stories.
I believe that my imagination would be completely different as an adult had I been given diverse books in my early reading years. I feel like we lose so many readers because they’re not seeing themselves in books. And so, to me it is vitally important that diverse books, and books that feature characters like Ella, like all the characters in The Marvellers, frankly, exist—because it tells young readers that they belong in story, they belong in narrative, and that is one of the most fundamental things that make us human beings, telling stories. And so, when you have an industry that purposefully keeps out certain sorts of stories and certain types of creators, it sends a message about who belongs in this very human thing, which is storytelling, and who doesn’t.
So, for me, creating Ella and the world of The Marvellers is a reflection of my life’s work. It’s everything that I’ve ever wanted to do, create a place where every kid could pick up the book and place themselves in that world, because they find breadcrumbs left behind for them that speak to their experience, and they know they are welcome. They are welcome in this space, and I think that it is vitally important and why I help Ellen Oh and Caroline Richmond in running We Need Diverse Books.
You of course are a tireless warrior when it comes to not only lifting your own community up, but every marginalized community in the greater publishing world. You’ve framed it as “building sympathy and making us all better global citizens.” What personally fuels this activism and is your advocacy inherited or a learned behavior?
I think it all goes back to me being in service of children, being a teacher, being a librarian, dealing with kids every day. Kids who desperately wanted to find some sort of tether to a book or to the page, and me not being able to hand them a book that makes them a reader, the books that make them fall in love with story. That’s what keeps me doing what I do, because I never want that to happen to another marginalized kid ever again. I want there to be so many books that they can just forever have a lifelong relationship with, with story and with books themselves.
So, for me, it’s something that has always been in me and my family. I was raised by people who believed that the definition of success isn’t getting in the room and being at the top of the mountain, it’s how many people did you help along the way? How many people did you help get to the top of the mountain? That’s why I do the work that I do because I want to bring everyone up the mountain. Success for me is a room full of people who have somehow been helped, whether they became writers themselves, whether they become librarians, champions for books, that’s when I’ll know that my life’s work is working. It’s all about community for me; everything is about community.
Something Ella encounters is a lack of historical text and information. It’s this kind of erasure we’ve seen throughout history and see happening today with book banning and the attempt to keep CRT from being taught at any level, even the ones where it isn’t being taught at all. Talk about the consequences of trying to rewrite or exclude a people’s history to maintain a false narrative.
It turns everyone into liars, right? You’re being lied to, and you’re functioning and moving through this world within the context of that lie. I wanted to include this in the world of The Marvellers, that there are so many things, so many secrets that the Marvellarian world has kept, because I believe that’s what we do. I think people try to stay in power by erasing history, by telling a lie, or re-framing a narrative, and I wanted to get into that.
One of the big things the current and next generation of children are battling is this age of misinformation, and since everything is at our fingertips online, we can’t tell what is real and what isn’t. And I wanted to bring that into my fantasy world because I believe that we must help our kids, our students, in figuring out what is real. What is being left out, what is the bias, where does this information telling come from? And I think that’s how human beings behave, especially when certain groups are trying to keep power.
Hopefully it doesn’t go over the kids’ heads, but I think they understand what it means to tell a lie about groups of people, or a lie about their friends, or any lie, and how that can snowball into keeping the truth hidden.
Dhonielle Clayton is a New York Times Bestselling author of The Belles series, Shattered Midnight, co-author of Blackout, and the co-author of the Tiny Pretty Things duology, a Netflix original series. She hails from the Washington, D.C. suburbs on the Maryland side. She taught secondary school for several years and is a former elementary and middle school librarian. She is COO of the non-profit We Need Diverse Books, and President of Cake Creative, an IP story kitchen dedicated to diverse books for all ages. She’s an avid traveler, and always on the hunt for magic and mischief. You can find her on social media @brownbookworm.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.