Mira Bartok began her writing career with an autobiography that was a New York Times Bestseller and winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. The Wonderling is her debut novel.
Fox 2000 brought the rights for this extraordinary debut novel with its nod to Dickensian heroes and rogues, before the manuscript was even completed. In The Wonderling, Mira Bartók tells the story of Arthur, a shy, fox-like groundling with only one ear and a desperate desire to belong, as he seeks his destiny.
Welcome to the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, an institution run by evil Miss Carbunkle, a cunning villainess who believes her terrified young charges exist only to serve and suffer. Part animal and part human, the groundlings toil in classroom and factory, forbidden to enjoy anything regular children have, most particularly singing and music. For the Wonderling, an innocent-hearted, one-eared, fox-like eleven-year-old with only a number rather than a proper name – a 13 etched on a medallion around his neck – it is the only home he has ever known. But unexpected courage leads him to acquire the loyalty of a young bird groundling named Trinket, who gives the Home's loneliest inhabitant two incredible gifts: a real name – Arthur, like the good king in the old stories – and a best friend. Using Trinket's ingenious invention, the pair escape over the wall and embark on an adventure that will take them out into the wider world and ultimately down the path of sweet Arthur's true destiny.
Mira Bartok is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir 'The Memory Palace", which won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. The Memory Palace was also a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and was voted a best book of 2011 by the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post. Mira Bartók has written and illustrated numerous nonfiction titles for children and has also edited and translated several picture books in Italian, Norwegian, and Sámi (Lapp).
Mira Bartók received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has an MFA in painting from the University of Illinois as well as an MFA in fiction and creative nonfiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Prior to her writing career, Mira was a gallery artist and also worked as a cultural specialist, public programmer, and assistant director of family programs at several major institutions, including the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago's Lincoln Park Children's Zoo, and Harvard University's Peabody Museum, among others. She is also the former director of education at the Chicago Children's Museum.
Her writing for adults has been noted in The Best American Essays series and has appeared in More magazine, Psychology Today, and several literary magazines and anthologies. She is a frequent commentator for New England Public Radio.
The Wonderling is her first novel for young readers. Mira Bartók lives in Western Massachusetts.
Walker Books Australia
Author: Mira Bartok
Question: Where did the idea for the story of The Wonderling begin?
Mira Bartok: Like most projects I do, The Wonderling came out of a confluence of ideas, experiences, dreams, and memories. But first and foremost, the character came from a sketch I made back in 2014 of a one-eared rabbit. Eventually he morphed into a fox because he looked too much like Matt Groening's rabbit in his Life in Hell comic strip. But I was thinking of a one-eared character even before that, a creature who, despite his deficit, has an incredible ability to hear things from far away. In 2014 I was also rereading Dickens and was reading different versions of the Arthurian legends. The other thing that came into play here was I had just finished writing a very long, and not very interesting, nonfiction adult book on the history of wonder. After I stuck that book in a drawer, I decided that I didn't want to write about wonder, but rather explore a character born in extreme deprivation who experiences wonder on a rather profound level.
Question: The Wonderling seems heavily influenced by steampunk and fantasy. What was it like combining those elements in this kind of mash-up for young readers?
Mira Bartok: I always wanted the book to look and sound very Victorian with a touch of steampunk to it. But steampunk lite. I didn't want a ton of dirigibles and all the other typical steampunk inventions, but inventions that felt more personal, like the Songcatcher. The same goes for fantasy. I wanted this book to feel as realistic as a Dickens novel would, only there happen to be characters who are part animal, part human, and there's a touch of magic here and there. In book two, the magic will play a greater, more mythic role. But in the first book, I tried to introduce the magic slowly. The most important thing to me, no matter what the genre is, is that the book has a lot of heart.
Question: As an accomplished artist and musician, can you discuss the importance of the arts and the influence of music on your own writing, even as they are under imminent threat in our culture right now, as in your book?
Mira Bartok: The arts have always been my lifeblood. I don't think I would have survived my difficult childhood without the arts. I grew up in a time when, despite the fact that I lived in a working-class neighborhood, we were fortunate to have great art, music, and theater programs in our schools. And my mother, despite her struggle with mental illness (schizophrenia), was a musical prodigy and taught me how to play piano at a very young age. Music and art were my first loves, not writing. So of course they are going to inform what I do. I'm a very visual thinker, and most of my ideas spring from images. And when I write, the musicality of language generally comes before clarity. Sentences need to sing, or I get bored with them.
Question: What do you think about having the opportunity, so early in the life of this book, to be developing the story for a feature film as well?
Mira Bartok: I am still baffled by what happened early on with this book. It still seems unreal! I'm very excited about the prospect of its being turned into a film. I actually have imagined this book from the beginning as a movie. Not that I ever thought it would happen, but I saw it unfold like a film as I was writing it. But the book has always come first. My dream would be that it becomes a book that children, or adults, keep next to their beds at night.
Question: One of the central themes of The Wonderling is that no matter one's size, stature, or humble beginnings, they can make positive change in the world. How do you think this story will resonate with readers today who may feel powerless, threatened, or oppressed?
Mira Bartok: I always go back to that quote from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film: 'Even the smallest person can change the course of the future." I thought about the line a lot when I wrote this story. I don't know how my book will resonate with those who feel powerless, but I would hope that, at the very least, they won't feel so alone. And that they will be able to find solace and courage within the pages.
Question: What do you hope readers (of all ages) will take away from The Wonderling?
Mira Bartok: I'd be content if they took away a little wonder, a dash of hope, and a bit of empathy. I think we need those three things more than anything right now.
Walker Books Australia
Author: Mira Bartok