Mira Bartók: Awakening the Love in Sleeping Hearts

Author and illustrator Mira Bartók won a National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir, The Memory Palace. She has written and illustrated numerous nonfiction titles for children and has also edited and translated several picture books in Italian, Norwegian and Sámi (Lapp). The Wonderling (which is being adapted for feature film by Fox 2000 and Stephen Daldry) is the first novel in a planned middle grade duology from Candlewick in which a young fox groundling (human/animal hybrid) tries to find his history, family and purpose.

Your previous titles for children have all been nonfiction. What drew you to middle grade fantasy?

Actually, I did write and illustrate one children's book that was not nonfiction. It's called Fox Has His Day--Tales from the Far, Far North, and is a book of Sámi myths and folktales. I guess I've had a thing about foxes for a long time! Anyway, I have always loved middle grade fantasy. I recently found a section from a fairytale I wrote and illustrated when I was 14, and there's a line in there that is pretty much the exact line that the Wonderling's mother tells him is his purpose in life: "You must sing to the lonely, comfort the frightened, awaken the love in sleeping hearts." The heart of this story has been living with me since I was kid. In the fairytale I wrote years ago, I used the word "homeless" instead of "frightened." I grew up in a rather poor, unstable household, and was often afraid of becoming homeless. And I think, because my mother was so ill (she suffered from schizophrenia), I longed for a way to comfort and heal her. 

I didn't have any traditional children's books growing up--I had art books instead. My favorite picture book was about Hieronymus Bosch; his fantasy world both terrified and fascinated me. And then my father, who left when I was four, sent two books from afar: a richly illustrated Russian fairy tale book and a Japanese one. I read them over and over again. I also loved epic adventure stories and stories about polar exploration. I was always more drawn to fantasy books that began in a real world but ended up in a parallel universe.

Also, I used to give tours and teach workshops on ancient world cultures to middle grade kids at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I just love that age. At 10, 11 and 12, you're less interested in romance, and more interested in who you are in the world. It's such a great age for reading about magical quests!

The world of The Wonderling is incredibly intricate: primarily fantastical with some splashes of events and people from our world thrown in. How was it to create that world? How does the structure incorporate our own world?

Well, my starting point was the character, which came from a sketch that morphed from a rabbit into a fox/dog/human. He went through a couple permutations. At the same time, I was re-reading and listening to a lot of literary classics. (I definitely tip my hat to Dickens, Shakespeare and a little bit of Dante.) I really wanted to set this book in a faux Victorian England with a touch of steampunk. I wanted it to really feel like that time period, so I read people like Henry Mayhew, who wrote about the everyday life of London's working poor. I also looked at a lot of old photographs from the Victorian era, and listened to audiobooks or read almost every Dickens book. At the same time, I threw in references to Beethoven and Mozart and the legend of King Arthur. I suppose I wanted the world of the Wonderling to exist on that strange and mysterious border between fantasy and reality, past and future. I like the tension and magic that happens when worlds collide. A couple of years ago I read T.H. White's beautiful The Once and Future King, which meshes White's world in some ways with the mythical time period of King Arthur. Then I got completely sucked into a British television show called Merlin, starring Colin Morgan. The character of young Merlin in the show is so humble, and has such an innocent heart. He was a good inspiration for my own Arthur. I'm still researching various Arthurian tropes from both classical literature and popular culture in preparation for Book 2.

This work has the feel of classic children's literature, in part because of the spot illustrations. Why did you want to illustrate this work? Why this particular style of illustration?

I wanted it to feel like a Victorian classic children's book, and used a combination of pen and ink, graphite and a little bit of gouache and watercolor to achieve that effect. And I really wanted to illustrate my own book. Partly because much of my writing starts with a drawing anyway. I'm a very visual writer. Before I began writing, I was drawing, painting and making books by hand--making my own paper, creating etchings for the pages and binding my own books. Even in the writing process, I write by hand first, and make little sketches along the way. 

I don't think of myself as an illustrator, and I realized in this process how much I still have to learn! I was a gallery artist for many years, and pooh-poohed illustration to others--but I secretly hoarded picture books and kept them piled up by my bed. Illustrating this book was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and I can't say I'm satisfied with all my pictures. I'm really happy with Arthur and Trinket, but I had to work so quickly, and the book was so long, that I felt I didn't have enough time to really make all the characters just right. But I think that the overall feel of the book works well. And the beautiful design by Chris Paul at Candlewick helps a lot! Not to mention Iacopo Bruno's cover--it's stunning!

The society in which Arthur lives seems almost like a caste system. Did you set out to explore themes of prejudice and bigotry in this novel?

I think it was something that just happened organically. I realized when I finished my first draft that The Wonderling is possibly more autobiographical than my memoir (The Memory Palace). I was dreadfully shy like Arthur and was bullied a bit when I was little. I also grew up on welfare in a working-class neighborhood on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. We lived for a time in a subsidized apartment filled with poor families who had migrated north from coal-mining towns, then were forced to move in with my grandparents when we got evicted. So my own past was probably floating in the background but, of course, the horrible Syrian refugee crisis was getting worse and worse. Not to mention the volatile pre- and post-election insanity in the U.S. I didn't even realize how much all of that affected my book until later. Also, as I was re-reading Dickens during this time, I saw so many parallels to our current era and the Industrial Revolution, especially in books like Hard Times and Oliver Twist.

There are a lot of great adventure stories where the character starts out as a humble, fearful little guy who transforms into a great warrior. But I didn't want Arthur to be a warrior. I wanted his strength to be in this gift he has--in his imagination, his voice, his music--that divine thing that ushers forth and makes the world wondrous. I wanted him to be the force in the world that says, "Listen. Look around you. See the beauty of the world."  --Siân Gaetano

Interior images: THE WONDERLING. Copyright ©2017 by Mira Bartok. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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