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The Wonderling, written and illustrated by Mira Bartók, 464 pp, RL 4

The Wonderling by Mira Bartók is the kind of book that doesn't come along too often - you can tell just by the cover. With a gift for richly detailed, lyrical writing, Bartók brings together familiar elements and themes from children's literature, using them to build a world that is completely inviting and engrossing, filled with characters you want to get to know and spend time with. 
The Wonderling of the title is a groundling, a creature of this world that is part animal, part human, appearing in all combinations imaginable. Loathed and discriminated against, groundlings have been pushed out of Lumentown by the High Hats (the tall hat-wearing, 100% human aristocrats), labeled, marginalized and forced into glum servitude or worse, the underground world known as Gloomintown. Or, if they are orphaned groundlings, they end up at a cross-shaped, Dickensian workhouse posing as an orphanage, Miss Carbunkle's Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. This is where we first meet Number 13, as he is known at the start of the novel, an orphan with no memories of his life before. A fox-like creature with only one ear, Number 13, who possesses gifts that he keeps secret, is lonely and picked on, a fate only marginally worse than that of every other groundling in this grim place. Things change for Number 13 when Trinket, a flightless bird with ta talent for tinkering and storytelling, arrives. Trinket gives Number 13 the name Arthur, after the king of legend, and she lifts his spirits - literally. 
The two escape the orphanage, but not before learning some vital information about the cruel Miss Carbunkle, and the adventure of The Wonderling begins. Bartók sends Arthur on an odyssey that, while dark, dangerous and creepy at times, is also filled with enough moments of comfort and warmth to sustain reader - whether from Quintus, a Fagin-type rat who takes Arthur under his wing, Pinecone, an elfin child of the forest living in a large, cozy tree with his huge family, or the lovely, music filled home of Phoebe Nightingale in the heart of Lumentown. Moments of darkness, like the sad circumstances that fuel Miss Carbunkle's demented drive to eliminate music from the world to the dank, moldy underground world of Gloomintown, filled with slugs, night crows, mines and graveyards, as well as a secret, ancient dark magic hidden away, drive the story and keep it moving forward without being gruesome.

Bartók's writing, which is melodiously beautiful and includes the words "palimpsest," and "panoptic," (two really marvelous words I learned from reading books - one, a book of poetry by H.D. read in college, and another, a YA novel by e lockhart, read several years ago) is the foundation of this world that calls to mind classic Victorian orphan stories with a splash of The Wind in the Willows, a touch of Roald Dahl and echoes of Wildwood, by Colin Meloy stirred in to make something new and wonderful. There is an element of steampunk, from the inventive tinkering by Trinket, to the mechanical beetles Miss Carbunkle is building for nefarious reasons in the basement of the orphanage, to the flying bicycles and the amazing Songcatcher contraption, that add richness and an air of excitement to The Wondelring, which technically is called The Wonderling: Songcatcher. The sequel will be called The Wonderling: Singing Tree.
When a book grabs me the way The Wonderling did, I am compelled to research the author and the origins of the story. Bartók's are especially interesting, as I learned when I read this review of The Memory Palace, Bartók's memoir about her schizophrenic mother, which is on my to-be-read list now. Learning just a bit about her challenging, complicated childhood and a traumatic head accident that left her, as an adult, with memory loss, added a depth of perspective to my reading of The Wonderling. Reasearching the origins of her first book for children, it was especially uplifting to read this article from 2015 about the crazy coincidences that led to the (seven figure) sale of the film rights to The Wonderling before the book itself had been sold! Finally, the story about where Karen Lotz (president and publisher of Candlewick Press, a publisher who has long been my favorite because of the high quality of books - both in content and design - they put out) was when she read the first pages of The Wonderling that were sent out to publishers before the biding war and how and why Bartók ultimately chose to sell her manuscript to Candlewick Press (a trip to the"target="_blank">Eric Carle Museum
an a very wise study of the collection of books on the shelves of the bookstore there) were fascinating and, again, added a depth of understanding and appreciation to a book I had already fallen in love with. 

When given to the right reader or, even better, when read out loud to the right audience, The Wonderling is guaranteed to entrance, delight and live on in memory long after the last page has been read.

Source: Review Copy


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