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.