There is an essence, a spark, deep within every living being. At its most basic level it's a need to find the means to survive. How, when and where it grows is left to each individual. No being has absolute control over what may happen but their response shapes the size and durability of the flame burning within them.
For some existing in extreme dire circumstances keeping the fire aglow is a minute by minute struggle. In her debut novel for children, The Wonderling (Candlewick Press, September 26, 2017), author and illustrator Mira Bartok weaves the fabric of a world unlike any place you have previously encountered. It is, like our world, full of darkness and light, good and evil, kindness and cruelty. Thrumming beneath it all is ancient magic.
In Part The First: On the Mysterious Origins of the Wonderling & His Arduous Life at Miss Carbunkle's Home for Wayward & Misbegotten Creatures we read:
An Inauspicious Beginning
BEFORE HE WAS CALLED THE WONDERLING, he had many names: Puddlehead, Plonker, Groundling, and Spike, among others. He didn't mind these much, not even Groundling. The name he truly disliked was the first he ever remembered being called: Number Thirteen.
This being referenced is no more than three feet tall, probably remaining this height his entire life. He looks somewhat like a fox but walks upright; a mix of animal and human known as a groundling. Unfortunately he only has one ear, a right ear. He has no recollection of his life other than living at the Home ruled by harsh, demanding and thoroughly evil, Miss Carbunkle. About his neck hangs a cord holding a medallion stamped with the number thirteen. He does as the rules dictate and is quiet, trying to be invisible. His demeanor invites, through no fault of his own, the attention and bullying of a sly, wily rat named Wire and his two cronies, Mug and Orlick.
Number Thirteen hides and keeps with him at all times a scrap of blue blanket monogrammed with a letter he believes to be M. Tucked inside it is a tiny gold key. These two connections to his past are his only solace. He is without friends until the fateful day, a Sunday, when the wards of the Home are outside in the yard. Doing something brave and dangerous, something he has never done, earns this groundling a steadfast friend. Her name is Trinket. She is a brilliant inventor, small and shaped like a kiwi but lacking any sort of wings. She gives Number Thirteen the name of Arthur.
Friends can change your perspective. Friends can visit you in the infirmary where you learn shocking facts about Miss Carbunkle and meet her niece, compassionate Nurse Linette. Friends can tell you about your beautiful voice singing as you sleep. Friends can and do help you escape. Oh, yes, friends change everything.
Both Arthur and Trinket have questions needing answers. What neither of them can imagine are these leading them to meet a young child living inside a tree with his family, discover the disparity in the shining city of Lumentown, live and work for a kind-hearted, thieving scoundrel, encounter The Songcatcher, suffer and live in fear in Gloomintown, a subterranean world beneath Lumentown, become friends with a valiant mouse, uncover a diabolical plot and travel with lightning speed on the back of a night crow as big as a horse. As threads from Arthur's previous life are woven into his current, constantly shifting status challenges mount creating numerous life and death situations, necessitating instant decisions. Readers will come to understand in some souls the spark is but a single note waiting to release a powerful song.
When thinking of this title penned by Mira Bartok it's as intricate and singular as each individual. Layer after layer reveals a little bit more of the entire story but an aura of mystery and magic still remains at the satisfying conclusion. The past, primeval and more current, figures prominently in the paths chosen by characters within the narrative.
Mira Bartok excels at world building with highly exquisite descriptions of places, seasons and weather. This enhances the moods and outlooks of the characters. Her characters through their thoughts, conversations and the narration are living, breathing beings molded by choices and fate. They embody charity and wickedness in varying degrees. Here are some sample passages.
Two dim-witted mastiffs the size of calves stood chained together in front of the gate, barking incessantly and salivating so much that small puddles of drool gathered at their feet. At night, beneath the eerie glow of the gaslight, the guard dogs resembled a slobbery Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of hell---minus one head, of course. The dogs responded to one voice only, that of the headmistress, Miss Carbunkle, who ruled over her dominion with a cold, impenetrable heart.
Arthur heard a haunting sound. It was the hoot of an owl. He and Trinket watched its silhouette flash by, wings spread across the indigo sky, then disappear.
"Miss Carbunkle gives them a bad name," said Trinket. She motioned upward with her beak. "Owls, hawks, falcons and such. Even Merlyn the magician had an owl as a friend."
A gust of wind shuddered through the trees, and the two friends, a bit fearful, burrowed closer together beneath the old gray blanket. Comforted, they lay still, gazing up at the sparkling night wrapped around them.
All of a sudden Trinket hopped out from under the blanket. "Arthur! Make a wish! Do it right now!"
"Make a wish. It's the perfect night for it. Come on!"
"...And without our dreams, we are nothing."
Rendered in ink, gouache and graphite the images created by Mira Bartok heighten the atmosphere of this title. Beginning with the dust jacket in cool tones with hints of luster on the varnished elements, we are transported to Arthur's world. We immediately wonder about the mechanical beetles and their part in this story. On the back, to the left, is a depiction of the pamphlet advertising the warmth and welcome given to the wards of Miss Carbunkle's Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. It is, without a doubt, a complete fabrication.
After a full length picture of Arthur beneath the text on the title page, we are treated to a map of The World Of The Wonderling. Elegant illustrations are placed on the table of contents and each of the three parts. Each chapter begins with a small visual and within some chapters other pictures are placed to elevate a moment. Spot color is carefully placed on the otherwise sepia-toned images.
One of my favorite pictures of several is a loose oval taking up nearly a page. It features Arthur and Trinket seeking shelter near the huge tree. They are nestled under the old blanket gazing up at the starry sky. Trinket is reaching toward Arthur certainly imploring him to make a wish.
It's easy to imagine reading this aloud to a gathered group of gals and guys. They will hang on every word, begging you to keep reading The Wonderling written and illustrated by Mira Bartok. Each reader will literally reach a point where they can't stop reading compelled by this world, its inhabitants, the intertwining of their lives and the heroes who emerge. I highly recommend you place a copy of this title on your professional and personal bookshelves.
To learn more about Mira Bartok and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website. At Penguin Random House you can view several interior pages, including the map. Publisher Candlewick Press has developed discussion questions. There is a website dedicated to The Wonderling. Teacher librarian, former Caldecott Committee member and blogger, Laura Given chats with Mira Bartok on her blog, LibLaura5. There is an article posted at Publishers Weekly about The Wonderling prior to its publication. Mira Bartok chats with Corinna Allen, Live at ALA, Books Between, Episode 35. Please take a few minutes to watch this video. It will endear you to Mira Bartok and her book completely.
UPDATE: Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, chats with Mira Bartok at Watch. Connect. Read. October 25, 2017