Dhonielle Clayton and Julian Randall Want to Shake Up the Magical Middle Grade World

Authors Dhonielle Clayton and Julian Randall discuss creating magic from the margins in their highly anticipated middle grade debuts.

Who 'belongs' in fantasy stories? Who has been historically centered in magical kidlit canon, and who has been excluded? And what would it mean to center new types of magic to reflect the real world? Authors Dhonielle Clayton and Julian Randall tackle all these questions and more as they discuss their highly anticipated middle grade debuts: The Marvellers (Clayton) and Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa (Randall).

Dhonielle Clayton: I’m very excited about your book! I’ve seen your fancy Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa box floating around the Internet.

Julian Randall: Have you! I’m so excited to see your book, too. When The Marvellers cover dropped, I was so gassed!

DC: I’m so excited to talk about middle grade and magic and protagonists that aren’t typically featured in this genre with you. Let’s start with world-building! Tell me everything about how you crafted Pilar’s world and Zafa.

JR: When I got the idea from Patrice, my agent—“Do you want to pitch a middle grade with a Dominican feel?”—my first thought was: What would this look like? I hadn’t really had a chance to go to the Island and figure out this world. It was this imagined island full of this history. I used this space of imagination and fantasy to collapse history down into an accessible, contemporary place. It was the first novel that I ever finished and I wanted to make it sound.

JR: What about you? Where did this world come from?

DC: The world of The Marvellers came directly from my experience as a librarian in East Harlem, NY. Almost all of my students were first-generation kids with families from the Caribbean, Central and South America, West Africa, and Bangladesh. The only books I could find that centered protagonists who looked like them were books about the bruises of their community: historical fiction that showcased the atrocities of their various ethnic heritages, etc. Whereas, they wanted mischief and adventure and trouble. My fantasy world came about because I believe that the children of the world already possess magic, magic that’s deeply rooted in their respective families and communities. I wanted to honor these children and deeply interrogate what magic looks like when it’s global. What does magic school look like when children from around the world come together? So the underpinnings of this fantasy world came out of my students in my library because they were truly from all over the world.

Photo by Johnny Lee Chapman III

JR: I love librarians! Truly the superheroes of the world. I love what you were saying about making the magic together. One thing that’s really fascinating about the middle grade storytelling moment that we’re in is the spirit of teamwork and collaboration. The protagonist isn’t the person with the answers but more like the point guard who brings everyone together.

JR: What does collaboration and magic mean to you in The Marvellers?

DC: The next generation of children will have to work collaboratively in a lot of ways and bring us together to face the realities of global warming, fractured communities, surviving a global pandemic, the fact that the adults in their lives have left a mess behind, and so on and so forth. I wanted to build a new magical universe that is in deep conversation with the question: When we do come together, what things are gained and lost? I used my parents as real-world inspiration in the building of the themes of the series. My parents were on the front lines of school integration in the American South, so I wanted to replicate that on a global scale through the lens of magic. It’s very much about misunderstood magic and community magic, and how those things rub against each other to create friction.

DC: You do that in your book, too! You’re pulling inspiration from a culture we haven’t seen en masse in middle grade. I would love to hear you talk about what it meant to you. What does it mean to be on the frontlines of a magical exploration of your culture for young readers?

JR: From a very young age, I understood power dynamics. I latched onto fantasy because it made these kinds of magical rules and enforcements visible and palpable. A lot of inspiration came from wanting to build and figure out how the magic in this was going to work. I had to think about how power and magic intertwined. I was a big Avatar fan and they used to do these breakdowns of the powers. For me, I started thinking “What does La Negra’s magic mean?” That started with what to call her. There's a lot of forces that try to tell us that being Black is antithetical to being Dominican, and I wanted to push back hard on that. In depicting La Negra as a sentient form of black sand, we know that Blackness is at the core of what makes us special. I also wanted it to have memories. Dictatorships feed on amnesia. What would it look like for people to remember?

DC: There’s so much that connects our books, especially when you talk about making Blackness powerful. I love what you’re doing for your community and for others who are watching and interacting with your community. I think it’s powerful for kids to see that.

I would love to talk about our main characters! These girls are finding their friends, their power, and how they fit into their world. When I came up with my main character, Ella Durand, I was thinking of my mother and Ruby Bridges, and her being surrounded by those men trying to go to school. Then, I plopped my main character in a big thematic battle. Instead of a magical vs. non-magical dichotomy, I wanted to have the tension exist between two groups of magical people. All of the magical people of the world are born with a marvel; a light inside you that gives you a gift. However, the community our main character comes from, the Conjure folk, their marvels look different than typical Marvellers. The light inside them has been changed due to the chattel slave trade—what happened when they crossed oceans in slave ships, crossed through the pain of the experience, and thus Marvellers aren’t sure what to do with marvels and marvel light that doesn’t fit their viewpoint. As a result, the Conjure folk have been kept out of the Marvellian world and now, Ella is the first member of this community to ever be allowed to attend the Marvellian school: the Arcanum Institute for Marvelous and Uncanny Endeavors. She has to face the things that all of the people think about her group. The same way that I had to do as a kid, being one of few Black kids in my elementary and middle school. I wanted to explore this complicated situation with a magical metaphor that has a tangible link to the real issues of school integration politics that are still happening today. Ella’s journey kicks open a Pandora’s box of questions: Who do we let into our community? How do we ostracize others? How do we make it difficult to make space for others? But nonetheless, Ella has been shielded from this tension and she is excited about this new adventure, and also wants to show off what she can do as a Conjuror... which can create a pressure to be the best representation for one's community and family. What does it look like when you are carrying that burden?

JR: There’s so much I love about that. How do we make a real effort to reconcile those things? So Pilar, she didn’t want to be crafted very much. She just strolled into my head with her camera and said, “Hello, I’m Pilar, and I’ll be handling things from here on out.” From that first sentence, I was able to learn so much about her. Tochi Onyebuchi was talking about this in an interview. We are the first generation of kidlit authors who grew up on anime, a storytelling format that often asks the question: What is the role of a protagonist? I also wanted her to be like my mother and her sisters. These deeply brave, badass Dominican women. One of the first feminist magazines was started by a Black Dominican woman. The history of Dominican resistance is a history of Dominican women standing up, and I knew Pilar belonged with them.

DC: I love how this is a love letter to them and a rallying cry to future generations. You’re really deep diving into the Latinx family magic. For me in The Marvellers, I’m trying to drill down on the “magic school” trope for the next generation.

DC: For Pilar, did you actively think through the current canon and what you wanted to change? Did you come in wanting to disrupt? What were you thinking about when you were writing about Pilar and her world?

JR: I think a little bit. But also, we’re in this lovely time period where we’re starting to see these characters from different backgrounds. There’s ways in which the past informs it, but also it came more from what symbols I wanted to include. Ultimately for Pilar, I think it was fairly early on in the writing process that this magic was not only about her. I wondered how I could perfectly represent this incredibly powerful dude who, like all dictators, was also very fragile. It’s that magic amidst familiar circumstances—I wasn’t necessarily thinking about Latinx magic as a canon to begin with, but then it became that.

JR: I want to hear more about the magic school concept, and what it was like to craft these differences.

DC: The magic school story is perennial for children’s literature. I’m a huge nerd and I’ve studied the canon in order to disrupt it. I noticed that all of these massively popular book franchises never center kids from the margins, so I wanted to shake things up, adding more kinds of kids to these types of stories and universes. When we feature only a certain type of kid, it sends a message about who deserves magic and who belongs. Building the Marvellerverse required me to deep dive into what was next for the magic school story, what would change when taking a global approach, what systems derive from that premise. I set out to create a school that centered around the idea that every kid has something marvelous about them in order to open up a new conversation. Instead of the magic vs. non-magic kids, I dove into the complex puzzle of the ramifications of two magical communities rubbing up against each other and how we teach young readers about building community. Are all truly welcome? How does the hierarchy among magical people manifest?

DC: And to end, what do we hope young readers will take away from our books?

JR: That we’re always enough. I was always so bewitched by the way my mom had a magic to her. Even just seeing her switching to Spanish, there was this whole other power and magic to her that she didn’t typically show to the world. It was maddening to me; surely this is enough, if she can fix all of this. And time and time again it felt that not only did I not have magic but what magic I had was invisible. Above all else, I don’t want any other kid to feel a sense of failure. I want them to find their own magic and sense of Zafa.

DC: Short and sweet, I want to center the students I'm still of service to. Those little Black and brown kids, those queer kids, those disabled kids, those overlooked and missing kids. I never want them to be forgotten ever again, and I wanted to remind them that there’s something marvelous about them.

Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. His poetry and essays are published in the New York Times Magazine, POETRY, The Atlantic, and Vibe. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Julian holds an MFA in Poetry from Ole Miss. His first book, Refuse, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He was also a contributor to the #1 New York Times-bestseller Black Boy Joy. Julian has previously worked as a youth mentor, teaching writing workshops to children on house arrest. Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa is his debut children's novel. Follow him on Twitter!

Dhonielle Clayton spent most of her childhood under her grandmother's table with a stack of books. She hails from the Washington, D.C. suburbs on the Maryland side. She is the New York Times-bestselling author of "The Belles" series, Shattered Midnight, co-author of Blackout, and the co-author of The Rumor Game and the "Tiny Pretty Things" duology, a Netflix original series. 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 across social media @brownbookworm. Her new book, The Marvellers, is her middle grade fantasy debut.

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