That creature from 2014 became the main character in Mira’s debut children’s novel, The Wonderling, which garnered a seven-figure movie pre-empt from Fox 2000 before the book deal was done.
The Wonderling is set in a slightly steampunk Victorian land ruled by the High Hats, while the Groundlings, the animal-human hybrids, live in servitude, working in underground factories in the City Below the City. The main character, Number Thirteen (aka Arthur), is a shy, one-eared, fox-like foundling who, with the help of his bird-friend Trinket, escapes the orphanage he was brought up in, and goes on a journey to unlock his past.
In the beginning of The Wonderling, Number Thirteen is invisible to almost everyone, and Number Thirteen doesn’t mind. That changes, though, when he meets Trinket and becomes Arthur.
“Once he makes the bold choice to be brave and help a small creature in distress (who becomes his best friend), there’s no turning back,” Mira told Cracking the Cover. “His character develops when he begins to see how he can affect change. And when he begins to understand that he is not alone in his suffering. He becomes more empathetic as he opens himself up to the world around him. And the more empathy he has, the braver he becomes.”
With half-human characters, The Wonderling clearly goes beyond basic fiction. “I wanted to create a kind of borderlands between Dickensian realism and fairytale magic,” Mira said. “I love the tension between the two.”
As for the elements of steampunk sprinkled throughout, Mira felt they were essential but a more restrained hand was needed. “I find so many parallels to what’s going on today — insane speed of production, corporate greed, mistreatment of workers and children, yet brilliant scientific inventions and artistic achievements, etc. — with the Industrial Revolution, so adding a light touch of steampunk motifs seemed to be a natural thing to do,” she said.
Limiting steampunk elements also allowed them to shine. Mira’s favorite part of the novel is when Arthur discovers the Songcatcher, a machine that can capture and play back all the songs and sounds in the world.
“I like it because it is the place where I could let my poetic side loose, since it’s rather like an incantation of sounds and images,” she said. “It’s my most authentic voice I would say, since my heart is always more in poetry than prose.”
Mira’s last book, The Memory Palace, is a memoir for adults, but Mira says she’s particularly attracted to writing for middle grade.
“It’s a great time to read about quests and setting out into the world for the first time,” she said. “And you don’t have to write about all that romantic stuff that comes with YA territory. At least in some books. And truth be told, I’m about 10 years old at heart.”
While The Wonderling is Mira’s first middle-grade novel, it’s not her first book for children. She’s also written a number of nonfiction books on ancient and indigenous cultures. Although those books were more about history and culture, Mira says writing them helped “inform” her fiction.
“Mostly because they also contained myths and folktales, and those stories were tales I originally told when I led children through the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago,” she said. “I told the story of each culture through its objects and its stories.”
No matter the subject, Mira says she writes because she becomes “obsessed with an idea or image or storyline and I can’t rest until I hunt it down. I’m rather like a pit bull with a piece of meat in that way. But the truth is, I serve the idea, and sometimes the idea is best served in another way, sometimes without any words at all.”
Mira is currently working on the second book in The Wonderling series.
Learn more about Mira Bartók and The Wonderling by reading the complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.
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