Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Wednesday, June 13, 2018: Kids' Max Shelf: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

Candlewick: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson

Candlewick: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

Candlewick: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson

Candlewick: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M.T. Anderson, illus. by Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin's first collaboration for middle-grade readers, is an intelligent, captivating and hilarious tale that uses fantasy characters and settings to give readers an up-close look at how the victors write the histories.

The work begins with a prologue comprised entirely of Yelchin's detailed pen-and-ink and digital illustrations. An egg-shaped container, liberally studded with jewels, hinges open to reveal a shining gemstone, inside of which an army battles. A "top secret transmission" follows, showing an elf in a giant barrel being handed the container. The barrel is mounted on a massive slingshot and thrown into the sky--it soars out of Elfland, over a great chasm and from day into night, before it is snatched mid-flight by a three-headed flying creature.

A letter to the elf king from Lord Ysoret Clivers gives the reader more information. When the elves "were digging the king's new wading pool, they found some old, buried goblin artifact--a giant gemstone carved with some kind of... [t]ypical goblin story: lots of beheadings." The elf king wants this gemstone to be given to Ghohg the Evil One, king of the goblins, "as a sign that elfish-goblin relations have improved in the last five years, since the truce." And what better emissary than a historian? Magister Brangwain Spurge, whom Clivers and his friends had mocked mercilessly as a child for being a "[s]hrimpy little chap" with "[a]rms wobbly like kelp" and a "[f]ishy sort of face," is chosen as envoy and shot "into the dark heart of the kingdom of the goblins." Spurge knows delivering the artifact is only part of the job--he is also expected to act as a spy and will magically send secret transmissions from the goblin homeland back to elf HQ.

Meanwhile, Werfel the Archivist, goblin historian at the Court of the Mighty Ghohg, is preparing for Spurge's visit. It's Werfel's job to host the elfin emissary, and goblins have "a strong code of hospitality. Once a goblin invite[s] someone across the threshold into their house, it [is] their duty to serve and protect their guest, no matter what." Which means that Werfel is extremely anxious. Beyond being a kind and generous host, he is a scholar and desperately wants to create a "union of elfin and goblin knowledge." But elf/goblin relations have been... tough... since the elves started (and won) a war in order to steal the goblin homeland and force goblinkind across the Bonecruel Mountains. Hosting an elf is intense business. And, Werfel wonders, will the elf like the hospitality chocolates he placed on his bed? Wait--are elves allergic to chocolate?

Spurge arrives, utterly convinced of his own importance and the significance of his mission. He sees the goblins as inferior to elves, brutish creatures with weird traditions and gross habits. And what Spurge sees is important--his transmissions back to HQ are purely visual and reflect "whatever he pictures in his mind's eye.... his image of things." Chapters alternate between Werfel's desperate attempts to please his snobby, scornful guest (in text) and the same scenes played out visually through the contemptuous lens of the elf. Disagreements and misunderstanding abound, many humorous (Spurge has difficulty understanding how goblins use insults to show deep affection), some a product of elfin bigotry (a goblin's shed skin is a "treasured possession" but Spurge finds the practice of keeping them "lying around" to be "[d]isgusting"). As Werfel and Spurge wait for Ghohg to give them an audience, Spurge makes enemies and a treacherous elfin plot is uncovered.

Anderson (Fatal Throne) and Yelchin's (Pip & Pup) amusing, compelling journey into Tolkien-styled fantasy is both extremely nuanced and completely over-the-top. It is, in Anderson's words, "a really tragic meditation on how societies that have been trained to hate each other for generations can actually come to see eye to eye." Or, perhaps it is, according to Yelchin, a "laugh-out-loud misadventure of two fools blinded by ideology and propaganda." It is also a fantastically sharp depiction of how what we see is not always what we get, and how personal perception can shape not just our own reality, but the experience and understanding of those around us. Anderson and Yelchin work cleverly together, giving close readers tons of things to pick apart between illustration and text. And, while the tones of the illustration and text are different from the beginning--the art dark and scary, the text light, friendly and upbeat--it is not immediately clear that Spurge's impressions differ from the reality. As this creative concept builds, a slow understanding dawns, and every reader will be able to literally see how Spurge's thoughts and opinions affect his experience--and how his experience affects his thoughts and opinions. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a work with layers, secrets and hidden gems that will certainly call for many rereads. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Candlewick Press, $24.99, hardcover, 544p., ages 10-14, 9780763698225, September 25, 2018

Candlewick: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson

M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: Finding a Common Language

M.T. Anderson
(photo: Sonya Sones)

M.T. Anderson is the author of Feedwinner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; the National Book Award–winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and its sequel, The Kingdom on the WavesSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad; and many other books for children and young adults. He lives near Boston, Mass.

Eugene Yelchin
(photo: Roxyanne Young)

Eugene Yelchin is a Russian-American author and illustrator of many books for children, including Breaking Stalin's Nosea Newbery Honor book; The Haunting of Falcon Housea Golden Kite Award winner; and The Rooster Prince of Breslova National Jewish Book Award winner. He lives in Topanga, Calif.

Candlewick will publish their collaboration The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge on September 25, 2018.

How did this book come to be?

Eugene Yelchin: I became interested in the idea of a book in which the illustrations instead of supporting the text contradicted it. What needed to be done was to tell the story from two opposing points of view: one character would deliver the narrative in the written language, while the other would do the same by using the language of illustration. Both languages would be at odds with each other. Ideally, the book would have two creators so that each would play a role of one of the two main characters. The work of M.T. Anderson had always stood out for its courage, its insatiable intellectual curiosity and its dedication to literary form. As a result, I asked Tobin to work with me on the project. To my great joy, he agreed.

M.T. Anderson: It happened over lunch. Eugene and I had met virtually, online, through shared interests. I was an admirer of his work. As we were walking out of the restaurant, he said to me that he wanted to write a book collaboratively in which the pictures, rather than illustrating the text, contradicted the text, telling a different story, or another view of the same story. We began sending e-mails about settings and plot ideas.... I started to think about all of those ancient travelers who wrote books about their journeys, describing fabulous kingdoms far away. I've always loved the weirder corners of those travelogues and have wondered what cultural misunderstandings and blindnesses might have given rise to their bizarre accounts. So we started to talk about what would happen if an uptight elfin scholar for some reason penetrated the kingdom of your traditional evil overlord to write about the culture of the goblin hordes.

Why elves and goblins?

Yelchin: High fantasy populated with elves and goblins is so deeply ingrained in our culture that both of us knew that subverting such a familiar genre would be a lot of fun. What was fascinating about developing the plot was the fact that Tobin and I had come from very different cultural backgrounds and as such we were perfectly suited to play characters with very different cultural backgrounds. In other words, Tobin and I had to overcome our individual preferences in order to find the common language, and this is exactly what the book is about.

Anderson: Initially we tried to avoid calling them "elves" because both Eugene and I hate the word "elf." (I'm a recovering fantasy addict; Eugene can't stand Tolkien.) But what we liked about using those stale old fantasy creatures is that they already come with baggage for readers. Readers would instantly have a set of stereotypes that they would apply, so they'd start the book in somewhat the same situation as our elfin emissary: believing that goblins are a faceless horde of relentless evil-doers. 

What was the process of writing/illustrating this book like?

Yelchin: Tobin would write a chapter from Werfel's point of view and I would draw a chapter from Spurge's point of view, and then we would exchange the chapters. Tobin would make suggestions, and I would make suggestions, and so we kept inching forward. What made the process stimulating was the fact that our working styles were so different. I planned out my narratives meticulously in advance; all Tobin needed to begin his incredible writing was the overall direction of any particular sequence. As a result, he remains completely free and spontaneous on the page. Tobin's language never feels labored. His sentences are so alive you can feel their heartbeat.

Anderson: The story developed stage by stage. We knew the general direction but no particulars. I loved that, because we both saw opportunities we certainly never would have seen individually. We provoked each other. Both of us love Cold War spy novels, so the plot slid sharply in that direction, which gave both of us a lot of pleasure. It allowed us to play with deeper themes of betrayal and friendship. 

What would you say is the most important takeaway from the book?

Anderson: Always ask who's telling the story and why they're telling it! 

Yelchin: Sadly, the politics of division are about to reach a critical point in this country, as well as in many other countries in the world. This book is about overcoming opposing points of view in order to have a meaningful conversation, in order to unite us, we goblins and elves, rather than divide us. If we fail, fascism happens, totalitarian rule happens, tyranny happens. I saw all three while living in the Soviet Union and that is why I left my homeland. My hope is that our concern for the future will register with young readers.

That goblins save and treasure their shed skins while elves see the practice as disgusting felt like a really perfect example of intercultural misunderstanding. Have you ever found yourself in particularly intense culture shock?

Anderson: I went to school in England for four years when I was young and spent the first three being constantly shocked how deep cultural differences could run in two nations that share one language. Eugene, I suspect, would have an even better answer to this.

Yelchin: Coming to the United States from the Soviet Union was shocking. I will give you one silly example. James Bond movies were routinely criticized by the Soviet newspapers as ultra-violent, anti-Communist, political thrillers, but the movies themselves were never shown to the Soviet audiences. I never questioned the newspapers. When I for the first time watched a re-run of one of the old James Bond movies on TV, I was utterly shocked. The ultra-violent, anti-Communist, political thrillers turned out to be over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek adventure comedies.

But more to the point, when Tobin had the brilliant idea of goblins shedding and preserving their skins, it fascinated me. Together, we pushed his idea to its logical extreme when in the epilogue the elf is undergoing the same metamorphosis. As a metaphor, this is a complete character transformation, a reversal of one's initial belief system. This metaphor feels very personal to me as I, too, had to shed my Soviet skin in order to become an American. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

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