RJ Witherow

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.

Discover why Dhonielle Clayton was excited to write a book for middle grade readers.

Ella Durand is sure to join the likes of Percy Jackson, Morrigan Crow and Aru Shah in the middle grade fantasy hall of fame.

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.

“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.”

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.

“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 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.

“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.”

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.

Read our review of ‘The Marvellers.’


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.

Achingly heartfelt and unabashedly nerdy, Julian Winters’ Right Where I Left You delivers the perfect ode to the end of adolescence, when it often feels like you have your whole life ahead of you—and no time left at all.

Isaac Martin has one summer left with his best friend, Diego, before he’ll face college alone as Diego takes a gap year. All he needs are two tickets to Legends Con, a huge comics and gaming convention, to make it the greatest summer ever. At the event, Isaac plans to ask the creative team behind “Disaster Academy,” his favorite comic series, if superheroes Charm and Reverb will ever reveal their true feelings for each other and provide the racially diverse, canonically queer representation he deserves. Diego also hopes to get some vital career advice from Elena Sánchez, the video game designer he idolizes.

But when Isaac lets Davi, an old crush, distract him from buying tickets on time, all those plans are over before they’ve begun. Suddenly Isaac is juggling his strained relationship with Diego, a potential romance with Davi, complicated family dynamics and friendships he never expected. His first Teen Pride celebration awaits at summer’s end, but to get there, he’ll have to survive the social minefield he’s created.

Right Where I Left You is chock-full of geeky references to comics, games and movies, alongside an astounding number of nods to other queer YA books. While these pop culture references are fun, Winters’ incredible attention to detail goes far beyond the surface, straight into the novel’s emotional core. Every location in the book’s suburban Atlanta setting holds history for the characters, underscoring just how much Isaac will leave behind at summer’s end. Winters communicates big emotions through the minute ways that characters coexist in a space, their casual touches and familiar gestures. The perfect pair of Pride socks, a single comic book panel or a brother’s go-to hamburger order—these simple things carry the weight of a character’s deepest feelings. It’s a perfect reflection of that period in life when everything feels too big and too small all at once.

Although the central romance is delightful and swoony on its own, Right Where I Left You is not just one love story, but many. It’s also about the love of friends and family. It’s about loving stories and the communities that form around them. And it’s about what it means for those stories to love you back and how the right representation can help you create your own happy ending.

Julian Winters’ Right Where I Left You is an achingly heartfelt and unabashedly nerdy ode to adolescence.

Olivia Prior has spent her entire life at the Merilance School for Independent Girls, a gray and loveless institution haunted by half-formed ghouls only she can see. Although the ghosts are unsettling, it’s actually the mysterious journal her mother left behind that keeps Olivia up at night. Filled with entries punctuated by ominous drawings in dark ink that suggest her mother descended into madness, the journal tells a strange story Olivia can’t untangle.

One day, a letter arrives at Merilance. It reveals that Olivia has living family members after all and summons her home to Gallant, her family’s estate. But Gallant has ghosts of its own, and within the sprawling house Olivia finds more questions than answers. A gate in the garden leads to a twisted world of dust and death, family portraits are missing from the halls, and one of Olivia’s cousins insists that she should leave Gallant while she still can. Yet no amount of secrets or nightmares can dissuade Olivia from claiming her place in the Prior family.

In her first YA novel since 2017, V. E. Schwab explores what it means to have a home and how a house can be a haven for one person and a prison for another. They juxtapose the pain of losing family with the pain of never knowing one, as characters struggle to preserve whatever scraps of love and comfort they manage to find.

Such fragile familial bonds stand in stark contrast to the macabre imagery of the world beyond the garden gate. When Olivia, who cannot speak and uses sign language, meets someone at Gallant who also signs, or finds traces of her mother’s life through objects in her bedroom, or shares a moment at the piano with her cousin Matthew, these moments carry real emotional weight. But as Olivia discovers more about her past and a connection to the darker side of Gallant, she must decide how far she’s willing to go to hold onto her newfound family.

In addition to its narrative text, Gallant incorporates reproductions of entries from Olivia’s mother’s journal, and dreamlike illustrations by Manuel Šumberac enhance the story’s moody atmosphere. The result is a cryptic tale of familial love and loss that’s perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Seanan McGuire.

Read more: The low, husky voice of actor Julian Rhind-Tutt makes listening to Gallant a unique pleasure.

In Gallant, her first YA novel since 2017, V. E. Schwab offers a cryptic tale of familial love and loss that’s perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Seanan McGuire.

For the inhabitants of the frozen planet Tundar, survival is a daily struggle. Powerful corporations and crime syndicates rule through greed and fear, and everything from the weather to the wildlife can kill you in an instant. The only resource the desolate planet can offer the interstellar economy is exocarbon, a rare metal that can only be mined during Tundar’s annual sled race in which would-be miners drive teams of genetically engineered vonenwolves across hundreds of miles of deadly wilderness to reach the dig site first. With fame and fortune on the line, racers are just as likely to be killed by another team as they are by Tundar’s giant osak bears and blizzards.

Sena Korhosen knows this all too well: Five years ago, both of her mothers died in the race. Since then, Sena has sworn off all things race-related. When circumstances force her to rescue Iska, a wounded fighting wolf, and enter the competition she despises, Sena must use everything her mothers taught her and more in order to survive to the finish line.

Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves makes full use of its perilous setting. Debut author Meg Long spends a significant amount of time familiarizing readers with the culture and creatures of Tundar, as well as exploring Sena’s reluctance to race, which effectively builds a sense of danger and dread for the looming competition. While some readers might find such methodical world building a little slow out of the gate, particularly for a story about racing, the novel’s third act will reward patient readers with all the brutal, fast-paced survival action they could ever want.

Sena’s grief over the loss of her mothers and her deepening connection with Iska form a quiet emotional counterpoint to the novel’s harsh setting. Sena’s memories of her mothers are a source of pain, love, protection and strength, all of which she finds mirrored in the wounded wolf she’s tasked with healing. Whether Iska is helping Sena cross a frozen wasteland or melting her frozen heart, the bond between girl and wolf is lovely and touching. Readers will root for them as they’re swept along on their wild ride.

This sci-fi survival story makes full use of its perilous setting, to which its hero’s bond with a wounded wolf forms a quiet emotional counterpoint.

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