By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Dhonielle Clayton to the WNDB blog for the second part of our interview on The Marvellers, illustrated by Khadijah Khatib, out May 3, 2022! Read part one of the interview 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.
Great middle grade not only speaks to its intended audience, but hopefully instills a broader message which should be accessible to a reader of any age. The lessons for the younger audience might seem obvious, but what lesson(s) do you hope any older readers draw from this book/series?
I really set out to write a book that reminds you of being a young reader, those first books that you fell in love with, the ones where you were waking up in the middle of the night still thinking about it. I wanted to create that kind of universe where you could just fall into, and not get out. Because that was the pinnacle of reading for me as a young reader, when I couldn’t stop thinking about the world of a novel, that I had to be inside of it.
So, bringing back the love of reading for that older reader who can be jaded, I wanted to remind them of the young reader they were. Bring back that spark of reading about a world that they wish their younger self had gotten. Also, I wanted to remind them that it is possible to create fantasy worlds that are inclusive, that are exciting. That have organic diversity and inclusion embedded in its foundation without it being about those things. That it can just exist.
I live in New York City, and I’m spoiled, I walk around in this weird wild city, seeing everyone, and I wanted the world of The Marvellers to feel like that. Where it’s just there, and where you can find your space. So I want them to understand that, and I want them to interrogate really what it means to be an outsider. As adults we sort of forget our younger selves, we forget that we were once outsiders, and how systems that we’ve built here in the real world also create outsiders. And so to sort of extrapolate from that place, to remind them that we’re in community, and it’s important for us to invite more people inside of our community. I think those are the big themes that I’m hopefully pressing down on.
After a bit of a rough start, Ella really doesn’t start to shine until she finds her people, in Bridget and Jason. Talk about the difference between having no friends, and one or two who only want the best for you.
Having no friends is really, really tough. Whenever I would see a kid in my school that was struggling to make friends, I always felt for them. And so, I wanted Ella to come in as a kid that was so invested in community, who was the kid that you wanted on your team, you wanted to sit with at lunch, you wanted to get to know because they are always open, they’re going to be your friend regardless.
So, I wanted her to face what I think a lot of kids face, where it’s trepidation, people are anxious about new people, and I wanted her to find two friends that were misfits and outsiders in their own way. You’ve got Bridget, who comes from New York City, and she doesn’t want to be at the institute, she didn’t even know that she had Marveller ancestry, or that she was magical in any way, and she really wants to just go home, and she hates everything.
They’re a bit of foils to each other, because even though it’s her birthright to be there, Bridget hates it—whereas Ella has always wanted to belong, wants to be there so badly, but people don’t want her there. And then you’ve got Jason, a legacy character whose family has been at the Arcanum Institute for generations. But he’s different from his siblings, he’s not like his family; he’s quieter, he’s more anxious. He kind of doesn’t want people to know that he’s from this big family. I thought she would really get on with these fellow little misfits, who are also outsiders in their own way. They’re all a little strange, and they become this little family as they try to solve the mysteries in the book. It was a lot of fun.
Speaking of lifting the community, this first book is filled with peers and friends from across the real-life publishing community. How much fun was it to include many of your friends into this canon and did any of them have a say in their character?
For a lot of them it will be a surprise, so a lot of them are finding themselves. Really what I wanted to do is, not only do my friends have great names, but there are people in there whose work I admire and that I love. I feel like our publishing industry is a turn and burn industry, and a lot of great writers are forgotten, and I wanted to make them magical and show them that I’d never forget them, and I will never forget them. And if kids are fully invested in my world and they start researching the things that I’ve put in my world, they’ll find real people and their work.
It’s my way of sort of making sure that these people who have had such profound influence on me, sort of live forever, and making them magical was so much fun.
If could choose, which Paragon would be your first choice: Touch, Vision, Spirit, Sound, or Taste?
Oh, that’s hard because I love all of them. Yeah, I love all of them and I feel like at different age categories I would have chosen differently, but I think, as of today, I would love to be a Paragon of Taste. Because I love cooking, and I love making things, and to be able to make magical food would be amazing.
Give me one lesson you learned from the Tiny Pretty Things experience that you applied to the Blackout deal? It’s a different experience, right, when you start to option books, and I was just wondering if there’s maybe something that you learned that caught you off guard that you that were able to apply later.
Not a lesson really, but I think it just reinforced my love of collaboration. Collaborating with people, writing with other people, creating things with other people, it’s really exciting and fun for me.
When it comes to Hollywood, writers don’t get to control anything, so we really just hope it all works.
Tell me about Cake Creative Kitchen.
It’s my packaging company that is an IP kitchen where I am trying to create the next generation of readers and writers. It dovetails into my work and what I do.
I concept a lot of different books that I think would be great for the marketplace based on my knowledge of the canon and being a librarian. I launch writers and give them work-for-hire opportunities, and show them how my brain works, how I create story, so that I can help create a pipeline of talent to the industry and help change the milieu in publishing. It’s about truly helping people make those connections and get their foot in the door using something that I know will sell, something that I know is vetted so that they can have a long career in publishing.
I’ve loved doing it and I’m having a great time.
What’s next for you, writing-wise?
So, we have Whiteout coming out in November with my same Blackout crew, which is exciting. I’m working on the second book in The Marveller series; I’m about to turn that in.
And I’m working on an adult fantasy, which I’m really excited about, which is unsold, so it’s just for me right now, and then we’ll see where it lands.
I was asked this recently, and I’m not embarrassed to say that if I could only save a few print books in a fire, one of them would be The Belles. What would be yours?
Oh my God, this is so evil! I’m a librarian so this is so rude!
I guess I’ll go with some of the books that made me into a reader, ones that I would return to. So Nella Larsen’s Passing is a book that I return to. I would probably grab Harriet the Spy and the The Phantom Tollbooth, those were two books I couldn’t stop rereading as a child. I would also grab Zoraida Córdova’s next middle grade, which is Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter—it’s so good, it’s not out yet. Along with The Devouring Wolf by Natalie C. Parker, another one which isn’t out yet, but I just love this book so much and I need to always have it with me. Ah, this is a really hard question. I would try to fill my bag with as many books as I can.
I have to grab Holly Black’s new book, Book of Night, which is so good, and also The Cruel Prince because Holly just reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer and a reader in the first place.
There’s a lot. I would grab a lot. I’ll grab my Kindle, though, which has a ton of stuff on it, so that’s already in my bag.
For readers who enjoyed The Marvellers, what other books or authors would you recommend?
I already mentioned Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker, and their middle grades. Of course, Kwame Mbalia and his middle grade. I would say Soman Chainani’s middle grade. I love Karen Strong, her middle grade books very much have a lot of echoes where we share sensibilities, for sure.
I’m looking at my shelves. Who else? I mean, I want to say Rick Riordan, but like, it’s just, Uncle Rick is extraordinary, and has created a world that children never want to leave and that is inspiring to me, and that’s what I want to do.
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.