'Spirit Animals' Author Brandon Mull on Giving Kids Animal Powers
From best friends Lyra and Pantalaimon in "The Golden Compass" to the Starks and their direwolves in "Game of Thrones," humans often create special bonds with animals in the fantasy genre. With that in mind, Scholastic has launched a new middle grade series, "Spirit Animals": Four children come of age, both in bonding with their spirit animals and by discovering that they hold the key to restoring balance in their very different world.
Two things set "Spirit Animals" apart from other series: First, each of the seven books will be written by a different author. "Fablehaven" author Brandon Mull charted the world and penned the inaugural adventure, "Wild Born"; "The Dream Thieves" author Maggie Stiefvater will pick up with the second book, "Hunted." Furthermore, reading "Spirit Animals" will be a multi-platform experience, as kids will have the chance to go online and create their own animal avatars. Mull shared his inspiration for the series, why he can't wait for the other authors to take the reins and the classic that all middle-grade readers should pick up.
Bookish: What are you most excited about regarding "Spirit Animals: Wild Born"?
Brandon Mull: "Spirit Animals" is my first fantasy adventure I've written where it happens entirely in another world. I've done stuff where we cross over to [another] world, but this is my first in-world thing. I think we built a really fun world where cool stuff happens. Fantasy-wise, it's not very complicated: People and animals can form these special bonds, where you have a spirit animal. They share these amazing powers, and the relationship becomes stronger as it evolves.
We'll follow four ordinary kids from different parts of this world, who all discover they have spirit animals. They end up on a quest trying to save their world. For that to happen, they've got to learn to work together; they've got to make their bonds strong with their animals. It's going to really appeal to people who dig animals--which is every kid. I know [that] when I was a kid, the idea of me having a leopard as my partner would've just blown my mind.
Always when I write, I try to write a book that I would like as a 38-year-old guy, but that also appeals to my inner 10-year-old. This is that kind of subject matter--the imaginative games you play as a kid in your backyard with friends in your neighborhood. We would play this [game] where you could turn into an animal, or you had an animal buddy.
BM: "Animorphs" geeked out everybody, right? This idea of having an animal bond--it's a universal concept that will play out in the fantasy world.
Bookish: Of course, it brings to mind Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series and the concept of daemons. Were there any series or famous fictional animals that inspired you?
BM: It is kind of like His Dark Materials, as far as having this companion that goes through life with you, but honestly, when I went for inspiration, I went more back to the games I played as a little kid. As a kid, we had a horse; we were training it [and] it was kind of feisty, and I was the kind of kid who would imagine, "What if I became best friends with this horse, and I'm the only one who could ride it? All this cool stuff would happen."
[Scholastic] came to me with a kernel of a story. My job as the author, then, was to say, "What would be cool about having a leopard as your companion, or a panda? What would be upsetting?" What's really interesting is when these relationships are dysfunctional--watching these kids learn to become a companion to a wolf. That wouldn't just be an inherent, natural thing. It's not like these relationships formed super-easily or naturally. The spirit animal bond happens automatically, but that doesn't mean that you guys understand each other.
Bookish: You set up the arc of the series, and then other authors pick up the plot and rules for future books?
BM: Yes. I created an outline for the series and took the kernel of the idea and developed the mythology, history and rules of the world. I did outline out the whole [series]; there's a lot of daydreaming involved to outline seven books…. The strength of having seven authors is that every individual author can bring their best talents to the series. The weakness is making sure we keep the continuity.
Bookish: Tell us about the multi-platform aspect of the Spirit Animals series.
BM: What's fun about the multi-platform is that a kid can participate in this story world in a really unique way. I've never written a book where the kid can read [it] and then go online and get their own spirit animal and have adventures in this story world. I'll be one of those people that logs on and tries it out! It'll be cool to see digital versions of the characters I write about--how [the artists] visualize it.
Bookish: Over the course of your life, what's the book you've most often recommended to people, and why?
BM: To high school kids, I recommend "Ender's Game" a lot, because it was my favorite book in high school. I really connected to that boy genius trying to learn to become this commander. I thought it was written authentically; I really believed that this kid was who he was supposed to be. It was tense and the opposite of boring.
When I was younger, the book that made me love to read in the first place was "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." It was the big imagination of that story that lured me into daydreaming about fantasy and writing fantasy. I still recommend that even though there's so much middle grade that's been written now. I'm not sure it's the most reader-friendly of all the middle grade stuff that's out there, but it still has such a special place for me because the imagination of it taught me what fantasy could be.
Brandon Mull is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fablehaven and Beyonders series. As a kid, he had a dog, a cat, a horse, some goldfish (won at a school carnival), and briefly a tarantula (captured in his neighborhood). He now lives in Utah with his wife, four kids and the family dog.