As the son and sidekick of a celebrity archaeologist, Tennessee Russo has been facing down ancient death traps since before he was old enough for his learner’s permit. Spending time on both sides of the camera for his father’s reality show, Ten is used to being in the spotlight, especially after coming out as gay on international television. However, after Ten and his father get into an argument over the ethics of selling cultural artifacts to the highest bidder, his dad cuts him from the show and stops speaking to him.
Two years later, Ten’s dad shows up unannounced to offer his son a chance to find the rings of the Sacred Band of Thebes. The Sacred Band was an ancient Greek army said to have comprised 150 queer couples. As with much of queer history, the warriors’ legendary love is dismissed by historians as platonic, and Ten believes that finding their missing wedding rings will prove that queer love is older and stronger than the world wants to admit. But can he trust the man who abandoned him two years ago? With the rumored magical powers of the rings drawing dangerous attention, Ten will have to figure out who is really on his side if he wants to survive another season of his father’s show.
L.C. Rosen’s Lion’s Legacy is an entertaining queer adventure reminiscent of classic movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy. Hidden chambers, puzzles with deadly stakes and a fun, casual romance hit all the essential blockbuster buttons. However, Rosen’s take on the genre actively interrogates the ethics of treasure hunting, posing questions about the ownership of history and the responsible way to handle historical artifacts. Much like Ten’s strained relationship with his father, there’s a lot of nuance to work through to find the right path forward. Ten’s inner conflicts and the temple-raiding thrills are well balanced by Rosen, who sacrifices neither emotional complexity nor pacing.
Lion’s Legacy is a celebration of the strength of queer community, whether felt by two queer people passing on the street, or resounding through the uncountable queer lives that have intersected throughout history. Ten knows queer history can be fun, weird, tragic and beautiful, but above all he knows it’s a history worth protecting.
Firelit hidden chambers, puzzles with deadly stakes and a fun, casual romance hit all the essential blockbuster buttons in Lion’s Legacy.
Hamra and the Jungle of Memories is a stunning retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” that brims with big emotions, big adventure and very big teeth.
Hamra knows the rules about the Langkawi jungle behind her island home in Malaysia: Never enter without asking the jungle’s permission, never use her real name and never take anything that isn’t hers. But the morning of Hamra’s 13th birthday finds her disinclined to heed adults and their inexplicable rules. Her mother, a nurse, is staying at a hospital far away, treating COVID-19 patients; her father is busy delivering supplies to those in need all over the island; and her beloved grandmother is increasingly unrecognizable as dementia steals her memories.
Feeling frustrated and forgotten, Hamra consciously breaks the rules by taking a magical jambu fruit from the jungle, earning the ire of the powerful weretiger to whom it belongs. The tiger makes Hamra a deal: If she will help him regain his human form, he will forgive her crime and heal her grandmother. What follows is a series of dangerous tasks that take Hamra, her best friend, Ilyas, and the tiger through the jungle and beyond.
Their journey is a kaleidoscope of mysterious marketplaces, cryptic clues and beautiful monsters. Acclaimed author Hanna Alkaf’s powerful use of imagery and metaphor make Hamra’s inner life of simmering anger and fierce love as vibrant as the magical world around her. All three of the novel’s heroes are persistent and believably flawed, and their mistakes and emotional bonds are as vital to the story as their abilities to ward off killer bees or locate ancient bones. Even the tiger, who originally appears as an unknowable threat, takes on human complexity as his growing friendship with Hamra forces him to face his past.
Perfectly entwined with the narrative’s fairy-tale and folkloric roots are concerns that will feel realistic to young readers. Hamra grapples with the fear and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, including isolation from school and friends, exhausted parents and the hypocrisies of authorities. The book also explores the sometimes difficult transition from childhood into adolescence and the heartache of watching a family member be transformed by incurable illness. The bravery Hamra shows in the face of these challenges admirably mirrors the valor she displays on her quest.
Featuring engaging characters and fantastic thrills, Hamra and the Jungle of Memories is an unforgettable adventure.
In this stunning retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Hamra’s feelings of simmering anger and fierce love are as vibrant as the magical world around her.
Madeline Hathaway grew up traveling the country with her family and working a circuit of Renaissance faires. While living in an RV and going to school online, Maddie spent her days surrounded by faux kings and wizards. She was happy with this unconventional upbringing until her mother died of cancer.
Now, almost a year after her mother’s death, Maddie constantly searches for ways to grief-proof her life. She keeps a journal filled with “noticing pages,” where she tallies everything from therapy sessions to cups of tea. She believes that if she can observe and record everything, she’ll be able to keep all the mundane, precious details of the people she loves safe in her memory.
But when the circuit brings Maddie and her father back to Stormsworth, her mother’s favorite and final fair, it’s no longer the same as in Maddie’s perfectly protected memories. Stormsworth’s new owners have made big changes, turning the previously quaint fair into a high-budget attraction.
What’s more, cheerful Arthur, the son of Stormsworth’s new owners, seems determined to break down all the careful castle walls Maddie has built around her heart. Arthur insists on calling Maddie “Gwen” and declares that it’s her destiny to play the role of the fair’s princess, then drags her into the part. But could this charming bard with a penchant for playing pop songs on his lute have ulterior motives? Maddie’s grumpy resistance to Arthur’s unbridled enthusiasm makes for an entertaining dynamic full of banter and slow-burn sweetness.
Amid all the courtly whimsy, Maddie’s feelings of grief are grounded and tender, with her journals and other coping mechanisms providing insight into her quiet desperation for control over her life. Maddie’s love for her mother is gently but powerfully woven throughout her first-person narration, as every aspect of the newly transformed Stormsworth calls bittersweet memories to mind.
Compounding these emotions are other relatable teenage worries, such as a lack of experience with her peers after a lifetime of home-schooling and feelings of self-consciousness and ambivalence toward how the world perceives her as a girl in a larger body. Author Ashley Schumacher treats all of Maddie’s emotions with the care they deserve, making each catharsis she experiences feel like a triumph.
The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway is a funny, sincere story of healing grief and blooming love in a place where the dragons might be papier-maché, but the magic is real.
Ashley Schumacher’s third novel is a funny, sincere story of healing grief and blooming love in a place where the dragons might be papier-mache, but the magic is no less real.
Accepting dares is a way of life for Theo Wright. His close-knit friendships with Jay and Darren revolve around tasking one another with all manner of physical challenges and public humiliations. When Jay dares Theo to ask his crush to prom, Theo knows that his only chance to do so will be at the biggest house party of the year. Unfortunately, Theo’s promposal goes awry, and he exiles himself to an empty bedroom belonging to the host’s little sister.
Gradually, four more teens, each with their own troubles, join Theo in the mermaid-themed room to escape the social pressures of the party below. There’s Luca, whose own promposal disaster has gone viral; River, a nonbinary teen who’s nervous about announcing their identity; Makayla, a cheerleader who has endured years of slut shaming; and Aleah, Theo’s former best friend. Several heartfelt conversations and one fateful Waffle House run later, the five teens become unlikely allies in a plan to confront their respective emotional hurdles.
Although Theo narrates As You Walk on By, each of the five teens could carry their own story, and the web of relationships among the novel’s large cast is realistically complex. Author Julian Winters skillfully uses his characters’ rich interpersonal dynamics to explore the complicated emotions of fractured friendships, the pressures of reputation and family, and the friction between self-image and public identity. Winters also does an excellent job of highlighting how the teens’ diverse and often intersecting racial backgrounds, gender identities and sexualities influence their particular experiences of high school’s social battlefields.
Winters’ dialogue remains as effortlessly funny and charming as fans of his previous books have come to expect. Friends engage in easy banter, gently tease one another and drop plenty of pop culture references. Even the chapter titles are sometimes humorous (“The Same Post Malone Songs on Repeat”). This lightheartedness gives even more impact to the moments when friendships are strained, as characters weaponize their connections to one another with cutting words and painful betrayals.
All five central characters experience complete story arcs that coalesce in a natural, satisfying way to tell a joyful story of friendship, support and standing up for the life you want. As You Walk on By will leave readers feeling a little less invisible—and a little more invincible.
Five teens become unlikely allies while hiding in the same bedroom during the biggest house party of the year in this joyful, funny novel.
When Theo’s promposal during the biggest house party of the year doesn’t go as planned, he escapes to an empty bedroom to regroup. Over the course of the evening, four more teens, each with their own troubles, join Theo in the mermaid-themed bedroom. What follows is a night of heartfelt conversation and more than one revelation as the five unlikely allies form a plan to confront their respective emotional hurdles. Joyful, funny and deeply felt, As You Walk on By is a story of friendship, love and standing up for the life you want.
Your publisher describes As You Walk on By as The Breakfast Club meets Can’t Hardly Wait, and the book itself references a number of other movies, including House Party. How have movies influenced you as a writer? Movies have been a huge influence on my writing. Like I do with any great book, I find myself dissecting the movies I really love to discover why they make me feel the way I do. Why am I crying? Laughing? Why am I so invested in a protagonist or side character? There have been some great teen films over the years that have stuck with me, and I took this opportunity to pay homage to them while also giving queer, BIPOC characters their shine.
As You Walk on By opens as Theo is dared to prompose to his crush. Have you ever accepted any wild dares that you could share with us? Unfortunately, I have accepted one too many dares in my life. One of the wildest was my senior year of high school. I was in Junior ROTC, and we were traveling by charter bus to Orlando, Florida. My best friend dared me to lick one of the windows. It was not the cleanest of buses, but as a queer teen, I think I was more afraid of sharing a truth about myself with my peers than ingesting the germs from a window. Not much has changed!
The book features five central characters, but we experience the story from Theo’s point of view. Tell us about Theo and why this is his story. Theo is a funny, loyal, determined 17-year-old who’s one dare away from learning that he’s also a complete mess. He has a tightknit friend group, a solid relationship with his father and big (romantic) dreams he’s scared to chase.
I wanted to show this messy, queer Black boy who makes awful decisions and is forced to come to terms with the toxicity he allows to exist in his relationships with people. I’d never written a character like Theo, but I wanted to.
While each character has a very important, meaningful storyline, Theo’s felt like the core of what I wanted to explore with this novel: growing, learning and owning our mistakes so we can become the people we want to be.
The alliance that forms between the five teens hiding in the same bedroom becomes central to their growth as characters. Have you ever found support or encouragement from an unexpected source? Yes. As a queer Black person, I’m always searching for spaces where I feel safe, valued and understood. Although I’ve had the same core group of friends since high school, sometimes my deepest and most personal conversations have happened with people I’ve known for weeks or hours. Vulnerability is infectious. One moment of honesty from someone can unlock so much about yourself.
Young adult books tend to gravitate toward portraying romantic relationships, but much of your work focuses instead on friendships. What do you hope readers take away from your books to help them navigate their own friendships? I hope readers see that friendships are complex and complicated. Even messy! There’s so much to gain from a friendship, but also so much to lose. I’ve had to learn that the hard way. But when you find that person or group of people, especially as a queer person, you’ll learn what love and growth truly mean. Not just for someone else, but yourself.
Many of your books deal with queer Black boys as they struggle with how the stories around them don’t reflect their experiences. Theo, for example, finds it hard to picture himself in the fairy-tale-esque prom romances that his straight and/or white classmates take for granted. How does it feel to know that your books are helping real-life Theos imagine their own happily ever afters? It has been the most rewarding, unexpected part of being an author. Hearing from readers is my favorite thing. I grew up wanting so many of the things I write about. Most of my teen years and early 20s were spent thinking happily ever afters weren’t possible for people like me. There weren’t a ton of examples that I could have one, so I started writing them for myself. Now I get to show young readers we’re more than deserving of the magic promised to everyone else.
Although the characters in As You Walk on By deal with serious issues, the book itself is so uplifting, funny and warmhearted. Is it always your goal to center joy in your writing? Why? Always. I was given too many books as a kid where the queer or Black person’s storyline was about trauma, pain, discrimination and death. Their existence was a lesson for the readers who didn’t look or identify like them. It left me in a dark place. I refuse to let the next generation of BIPOC and/or queer people feel as though their lives are a lesson for someone else instead of being about finding joy in who they are.
Author photo of Julian Winters courtesy of Vanessa North.
One of YA’s brightest rising stars reflects on taking dares, being honest and writing stories about finding joy in who you are.
Give this to a reader who has a competitive streak, whether it manifests on the field, in the classroom or at game night.
Game On: 15 Stories of Wins, Losses, and Everything in Between highlights the importance of “playing the game” to find yourself. In each tale, characters interact with a game, from sports and video games to neighborhood pastimes and more. Many stories illustrate the thrill of competition, even as characters grapple with why rivalries and the act of winning mean so much to them. Nearly all the stories capture the central game’s emotional underpinnings, allowing characters to become closer to one another, to find courage in other aspects of their lives or to see something in a new light.
Standout story: Gloria Chao’s “Mystery Hunt” follows two college freshmen who share an adorably nerdy passion for language puzzles as they embark on the linguistics department’s annual scavenger hunt. As they race to piece clues together, Faye’s growing friendship with her cute classmate, Pierce, inspires her to form deeper connections with other people in her life. The story’s puzzles are challenging, the emotional stakes are high, the pace is fast, and by the end of the hunt, readers will be eager for more adventures with Faye and Pierce.
★ Tasting Light
Give this to a reader who yearns to expand the limits of what is possible.
Every story in Tasting Light: Ten Science Fiction Stories to Rewire Your Perceptions masterfully demonstrates how powerful science fiction can be. Whether the teens in these futuristic tales are sipping coffee in a spinning city, exploring parallel universes or experiencing bold new technologies, they’re contemplating themes like race, class, disability and gender as thoughtfully as teens today, while dreaming up new and inventive ways to improve themselves and their worlds. As one character muses, “You can be a teenager and make things happen. They’re not mutually exclusive at all.”
Standout story: Junauda Petrus-Nasah’s “Melanitis” begins in the middle. What’s a FAN, and why is it a big deal that another one has been murdered by police? To give away more would spoil the experience: As narrator Amari processes the unfolding news, so do we. Petrus-Nasah takes a classical sci-fi theme—the perils of scientific overreach—and applies it to the disparity between joyous Black energy and the dangers of being Black in a white-dominated society. The result is daring and devastating.
Give this to a reader who is smitten with all things magical, mysterious and macabre.
In Eternally Yours, editor Patrice Caldwell collects 15 paranormal romance stories that feature supernatural suitors ranging from ancient immortals to undead high school students. Many of the tales have contemporary settings, their speculative elements intertwined with familiar teenage concerns like part-time jobs and parties. These realistic details—and the often relatable protagonists—give the collection a grounded core that allows readers to truly connect with larger-than-life dramas such as hunting vampires or making out with mermaids. This anthology will sweep romance-minded readers away into one otherworldly love story after another.
The standout story: Marie Rutkoski’s dreamlike “Bride-Heart” follows a teenage waitress caught up in the ominous affections of a wealthy older man. As it becomes clear that there is far more to the rich stranger than anyone suspects, a test of agency, control and subtle magic unfolds. Rutkoski crafts an atmosphere of creeping dread as she upends many paranormal romance tropes. Her tense, twisty tale will keep readers guessing all the way to the end.
Give this to a reader who knows exactly what they’d do if they woke up with superpowers.
Many of today’s most successful superhero stories were dreamed up long before current teenage readers were born. The 13 tales in Generation Wonder: The New Age of Heroes introduce brand-new, contemporary superheroes across a range of genres, from comical adventures to fast-paced thrillers. In a clever touch, each story opens with an illustration in the epic style of a comic book cover by artist Colleen Doran. Diverse, imaginative and entertaining, these stories prove that extraordinary heroes can truly come from the most ordinary circumstances.
The standout story: In Nulhegan Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac’s “Ordinary Kid,” Leonard is a Native American teen just trying to survive high school—and figure out how to use his newly acquired superpowers, of course. After an encounter with a mysterious entity called Crow, Leonard becomes telekinetic and gains an “uncanny ability to sense when someone [is] picking on someone else.” He decides to use his powers to disrupt his town’s drug trade before turning his attention to an even more dangerous target. Leonard’s self-deprecating humor and hunger for justice call to mind such well-known superheroes as Captain America and Spiderman.
Teens will discover whole new worlds within the short stories of these four anthologies.
In the royal city of Helston, everyone has a role they’re forced to play. Girls are taught to control their natural magical abilities and restricted from using their powers for anything beyond simple domestic and decorative arts. Boys are trained in combat, expected to take up the sword against monsters and other enemies lurking on Helston’s borders. But when Callie, a nonbinary kid who dreams of becoming a knight like their father, arrives at the palace, they expose all the cracks in Helston’s rigidly gendered society.
At the palace, Callie meets Prince Willow, who is useless with a sword but secretly blessed with magic, and Elowen, the chancellor’s daughter whose own magic goes far beyond what’s considered proper or safe. As war looms, Helston’s de facto ruler, Lord Peran, views anyone who won’t play by his rules as an enemy. He won’t hesitate to stamp out sparks of individuality wherever he finds them, including those within Callie, his own children and even the crown prince himself.
Young readers will find a worthy hero in Callie, who displays boundless courage in defending both their convictions and their friends. Although many people in Helston perceive Callie as a girl and try to force them into dresses and magic lessons, Callie asserts their identity with confidence. Determined Callie, gentle Prince Willow and capable Elowen form a supportive trio who balance one another’s weaknesses and demonstrate a variety of ways to be strong. In battles against foes ranging from vicious wolves to familial expectations, Callie and their friends show tremendous heart in the face of every challenge.
At times, Helston’s oppressive culture can be quite heavy, as Callie endures frequent misgendering, navigates a society fraught with sexism and discovers both the emotional and physical abuse that cruel adults have inflicted on their new friends. While threats posed by dragons and witches will keep young readers engaged, Esme Symes-Smith’s debut novel ultimately seeks to confront far more realistic dangers. In clear and simple terms, Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston assures readers that, no matter what anyone else might say, a real fairy-tale ending means finding the space and support to thrive exactly the way you are.
In this debut fantasy novel, young readers meet a worthy trio of heroes who balance one another’s weaknesses and demonstrate a variety of ways to be strong.
Toma hasn’t seen another living person in years, but her life in the sparsely populated outskirts of the Kosa Empire is not entirely lonely. Adopted by a family of upyri—human corpses reanimated by naturally occurring magic—she’s carved out a measure of happiness in the company of her undead sister, Galina, and their parents. But when Kosa’s young dethroned tsar, Mikhail, crash-lands near their homestead while fleeing proletarian revolutionaries, Galina is captured by his pursuers.
Toma will do anything to rescue Galina, even if it means diving into the dangerous center of Kosa’s bloody political upheaval by helping Mikhail. The pair are soon joined by a charismatic boy named Vanya, who has been accused of witchcraft. Vanya is Strannik, one of Kosa’s persecuted minority groups, and he’s witnessed the atrocities committed by the empire firsthand. Together, Toma, Mikhail and Vanya must save Galina, reclaim the imperial throne and show the world who the true monsters are.
In Bone Weaver, author Aden Polydoros (The City Beautiful) draws inspiration from imperial Russian history, Slavic folklore and Jewish culture to craft a detailed setting that feels fully alive, even as it’s constantly shadowed by death. The human politics at the center of the novel are grounded, while the monsters lurking around the edges provide an otherworldly contrast. Polydoros frequently draws on the effect of such contrasts, depicting, for example, realistic horrors like battlefields and public executions alongside surreal forest spirits whose ribcages spill over with butterflies. Loneliness and family, life and death, divinity and heresy, the personal and the political—Polydoros interweaves them all as his trio of characters experiences more of one another’s worlds.
Polydoros also powerfully evokes absence throughout the novel, with the ruins, remnants and suffocating silences of the story’s settings mirroring his characters’ emotional journeys. The gaps in Toma’s childhood memories, Mikhail’s missing magical abilities and Vanya’s unknown mother shape each character’s sense of self. Even as Toma learns more about her past, she is often confronted by a wider sense of what she’s lost, what she will never know and the lives she never had a chance to live. Yet what the characters are missing only motivates them to move forward, to survive and to protect the bonds they form with one another. Bone Weaver is a bloody and unflinching fantasy that balances its darkness with an unwavering cascade of love.
Aden Polydoros draws from Russian history, Slavic folklore and Jewish culture to craft a fantasy that contrasts loneliness and family, divinity and heresy.
Dhonielle Clayton is a bestselling YA author, the chief operating officer of the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books and the founder of Cake Creative Kitchen, a multimedia development company. If Clayton’s talent has a ceiling, her first middle grade novel, The Marvellers, reveals that she hasn’t reached it yet.
The Marvellers is the stuff that middle grade fantasy fans’ dreams are made of. The first book in a planned series, it’s the story of Ella Durand, the first Conjuror to attend the Arcanum Training Institute, a magical school that floats high in the clouds. Clayton spoke with BookPage about creating a fantastical world that balances playfulness and delight with analogs to real-life injustices, anchored by a protagonist certain to join the likes of Percy Jackson and Aru Shah in the hearts of middle grade fantasy readers.
The Marvellers is your first foray into middle grade. What was it like to create a story for this readership?
Middle grade fiction is my first love. I’m a former elementary and middle school librarian as well as a secondary school teacher, so those books have always had my heart and reminded me of why I love books.
I feel so excited to get to write for a younger audience because I believe that this is the developmental time period when imaginations are cultivated and grown. I was surrounded by these readers in my library every day and they inspired me as I was creating the world of The Marvellers. I tried to reconnect with the middle grade reader I used to be, diving headfirst into all the magic and all the whimsy.
Can you give us a little introduction to Ella and where she’s at when we meet her?
Ella is an eternal optimist who is very invested in making friends and determined to contribute to her community. She is the young person I wish I had been at her age, but instead I was a grumpy, fussy sourpuss and a mildly reclusive kid—more like Harriet the Spy and Turtle Wexler of The Westing Game than anything else. If I could’ve been left to my own devices rather than having to deal with the community, I would’ve gladly curled up with a book and ignored everyone.
But Ella is the ultimate lovebug and an extraordinary global citizen. If you don’t have friends, she’ll always offer you a branch of friendship. No matter the bad weather, she’s going to look for the sunshine.
Ella faces a huge challenge at the start of the book: She straddles two worlds and functions like a tiny bridge between them. The Marvellian world is uneasy about Conjuror integration into their cities and their school, because for over 300 years they’ve been afraid of how magic manifests in the Conjuror world. Conjure folk remain hurt by and suspicious of Marvellers, leaving many Conjurors torn about whether they should even share space with a group of people who have actively kept them out and ostracized them.
Ella is caught in this emotional, political and social tangle, not unlike how my parents dealt with being the first generation of Black Americans to integrate segregated schools in the American South. Ella must be steadfast and actively hold onto her joy when so many wish to take it from her.
The way that characters treat Conjurers in the book parallels prejudices in our world, especially racism and anti-Blackness. Why was this important to you? How did you balance giving young readers of color a fantastical escape and also representing their own experiences with injustice?
The thematic question at the heart of The Marvellers and its universe is the conflict and tension between two groups of magical people. I wanted this complex and nuanced conflict to parallel anti-Black racism, especially anti-Black racism rooted in the deep-seated prejudice against descendants of the chattel slave trade system so as to include the disapora of trafficked West Africans. I wanted to use magic and fantasy to discuss how anti-Blackness isn’t superficial, but rather an insidious system that penetrates and poisons every aspect of a society, magical or real.
However, this thematic subtext is all lingering just beneath a big story about a magic school. I was very conscious of the story’s balance, of making sure to tell the truth and confront the darker and more uncomfortable realities of queer and BIPOC kids in environments like these while also making sure those kids still just get to have a magical escape.
Each member of Marvellian society has a unique magical talent known as a Marvel, and Ella spends much of the book wondering where her own talents fit in. What would you say to young readers who are trying to discover or embrace what makes them special?
I hope Ella’s struggle reminds young readers that there’s something marvelous about them, and the sooner they embrace that universal truth, the better. My grandmother told me that it only mattered what I liked and how I felt about myself, and everything else was nonsense and not my business. I hope young readers can be excited about what makes them unique, because the magic system of this world celebrates that.
The Arcanum Training Institute teaches students from all over the world. How did you research the various magical traditions that readers will see represented?
I did a ton of research to build the world of The Marvellers, from spending time in libraries, to traveling, to working with cultural experts from all around the world. It was important to me that all children could find their place in this universe and have the ability to self-insert and imagine themselves as a young Marveller headed to study in the skies or as a Conjuror trying to make their way.
I kept an entire notebook of research about global cultures and theorized what their marvels might be based on their unique folkloric traditions as well as their customs, food and history. I hope that through the series, I’ll be able to learn more and continue to add more inclusivity to this big world.
The world of the novel is bursting with quirks and amazing details. Can you tell us about developing this complex setting? What aspects or elements were the most fun? Were there any challenges you had to solve along the way?
Creating the setting of the Arcanum Institute was the most fun I’ve had while working on a book because I got to add in all the things I wish I’d had at a real school, as both a student and a teacher. The first step was to make a complex map, laying out where everything was and its purpose, plus infusing it all with magic and wonder.
I had the most fun while creating the Paragon Towers and the Dining Hall. I wanted each tower to be a feast for the imagination and embody a particular sensory category in unexpected ways. The Taste Tower would be filled with delicious things to taste and the Sound Tower would display every instrument you could think of and have amazing sound labs. The Dining Hall was a place where I could just have fun, play with food and ensure that the diversity of the student body was reflected in the menus and magical food trucks.
I’m wrestling with my biggest challenge now, because the Arcanum Institute never looks the same way twice, so as I work on the sequel, I have to start redoing my map and changing up the look of the school.
Speaking of the Dining Hall, The Marvellers contains so many imaginative descriptions of food, from dancing dumplings to flying hummingbird cakes. Why is food such an important part of the magic of this world? What’s the most magical thing you’ve ever eaten? What’s the most magical thing you’d like to eat, but haven’t yet (or maybe can’t, because of the laws of this universe)?
I believe that food is a connector between groups of people, and I wanted to use food in this magical universe to bring people together and showcase how diverse and wonderful it could be. I was a kid who was afraid of a lot of different foods, so I wanted to animate the food in a way that might encourage a young reader to seek out cuisines from different cultures and expand their taste buds.
The food I grew up eating, made by Black American women from North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, felt magical to me. Comfort is magic, and that’s what the food I ate growing up gave me. However, when I first had Jamaican food and food from New Orleans, it felt magical because of flavor combinations I’d never experienced before.
If the laws of the universe could bend to my will, I’d actually want to try all of the different kinds of jollof rice and have a real-life jumping jollof rice competition like the one in the book.
The Marvellers beautifully showcases the joy of learning alongside and from people who are different from yourself. What writers whose genre or category is different from yours have you learned a lot from? What about creators in other fields, like artists or musicians?
If you pay close attention to the text of The Marvellers, I’ve included many Easter egg names of people whose work has had a fundamental impact on me as a writer. I included them as literary love letters to these people (but also to make them laugh and feel seen).
As for some writers outside of my current publishing categories who have taught me a lot, I’d have to say Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, Donald Quist and Robert Jones Jr. on the adult literary side. Their work is teaching me a lot about line-level work and a deep resistance to the white gaze in modern work.
I’m also very influenced by music and musicians and their ability to be storytellers in a different format. I love what Beyoncé has done with both visual and musical mediums. I watch her as a creator who constantly and consistently understands the assignment to continually challenge her medium, which showcases the depth of her creativity.
Author photo of Dhonielle Clayton courtesy of Jess Andree.
The Arcanum Training Institute, where students master fantastical abilities as they float high above the clouds, is the setting of bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, The Marvellers. Take a peek at some of the wonders that await as Clayton reveals her inspirations, Easter eggs and more.
This is what River McIntyre knows about who they are: They are a competitive swimmer. They were born and raised in Haley, Ohio, a town infamous for its failing marine park, SeaPlanet, and they feel a bitter kinship with the park’s captive-raised creatures. They have two parents and an older brother, and they’re Lebanese on their mom’s side. These are the facts River knows for certain.
River begins to realize that everything else is a lot more complicated after a run-in at SeaPlanet with Indigo Waits, an out and proud teenager from River’s past. Seeing Indy forces River to admit that they’ve been drowning under the tide of gender dysphoria and internalized homophobia for far too long. In the absence of the words to process their feelings, however, River jumps into SeaPlanet’s shark tank and sets off a chain of events that will forever link Indy’s and River’s lives.
In Man o’ War, author Cory McCarthy engages with every aspect of River’s life to create an extraordinary story with incredible depth. River’s experiences as a competitive swimmer enable McCarthy to explore the complex relationships that trans athletes have with their bodies, while River’s Arab American heritage raises discussions about biracial identity and passing in a world that’s prejudiced in favor of white, cisgender people.
McCarthy’s prose is suffused with emotion and often employs SeaPlanet’s sharks, orcas, Portuguese man-of-wars and other creatures as beautiful metaphors for River’s feelings. The jagged edges of dysphoria, the suffocating pressure of familial expectations and the all-encompassing need for love bleed through River’s internal monologue with biting clarity.
The novel’s exploration of queer identity ferociously resists the idea that coming out is a simple or straightforward process. River’s journey of self-discovery takes years, and Man o’ War follows them through high school and college. They try on different labels, experience both acceptance and rejection from their queer peers and navigate the joys and trials of medical transition. Along the way, McCarthy’s story provides space for every uncertain step, portraying River’s attempts to untangle the snarl of confusion and self-loathing inside themself with empathy and patience.
In Man o’ War, McCarthy validates how finding your name, accepting your name and telling others your name can all be separate, unique battles. Despite the pain those battles sometimes bring, River’s transition is driven by an irrepressible hope—a hope that will assure readers their true happiness is always worth the fight.
River’s plunge into the shark tank at SeaPlanet sets off a journey of self-discovery and transition driven by an irrepressible hope for true happiness.
Ella Durand’s family can work wonders. As Conjurors, they can traverse the underworld, make plants grow with a song, speak with spirits and more. Ella is proud of her family’s gifts, although Conjure folk have long been wrongfully excluded from magical Marvellian society. When a change in magical law grants Conjurors citizenship and the right to attend Marvellian schools, Ella jumps at the opportunity to be the first Conjuror to enroll at the Arcanum Training Institute, concealed from non-magical Fewels high above the clouds.
Ella arrives at the Institute eager to make friends and share her skills, but her goodwill is met by anti-Conjuror prejudice from many peers and adults alike. The dreamlike delights of a school where stars deliver the mail, cafeteria dumplings dance and sugar snowflakes fall from enchanted balloons are dampened by the harsh realities of bullying and exclusion. But Ella is not completely without allies, and when her beloved teacher, Masterji Thakur, goes missing, Ella and her friends must work together to rescue him. As Ella untangles the dangerous secrets at the heart of her teacher’s disappearance, readers will be captivated by hints at even larger mysteries to come.
The Marvellers, bestselling young adult author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, bursts with charm and whimsy as every corner of the Arcanum Training Institute comes alive with magical details drawn from cultures all over the world. Readers who appreciate copious, intricate world building will find much to love. Students take pride in their unique magical talents and heritages, showing off miniature fu dogs and djinn-housing lanterns while also learning from and connecting with magic users from other backgrounds.
Ella, who is fascinated by Marvellian society but never turns her back on her Conjuror identity, exemplifies how The Marvellers vibrantly celebrates both common ground and difference. She is a splendid protagonist whose inner strength propels her through obstacles with optimism and courage to spare. In every scene, her emotions shine, whether she’s feeling love for her family, uncertainty about her future at the Institute or determination to stand up for what’s right.
It’s clear that The Marvellers is only the start of Ella’s journey, but Clayton has carefully given Ella everything she needs to one day join the likes of Percy Jackson, Morrigan Crow and Aru Shah in the middle grade fantasy hall of fame.
Ella Durand is sure to join the likes of Percy Jackson, Morrigan Crow and Aru Shah in the middle grade fantasy hall of fame.
Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.