When Utah author Brandon Mull received a call from Scholastic Corp., it brought back memories of book orders and Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. The company, whose mission is to “encourage the intellectual and personal growth of children,” asked Mull if he would help with its new series titled Spirit Animals.
“That alone made it almost kind of magical,” Mull said during a phone interview. “Scholastic to me just screams kid-friendly book.”
David Levithan, publisher and editorial director of Scholastic, said the company had wonderful success with other multiplatform series. Spirit Animals will be the first fantasy adventure in book and online game form. To build the fantasy world, Levithan knew they needed someone who could take their concept and run with it. That is when they thought of Mull.
“He is the king of kid-friendly fantasies,” Levithan said by phone. “We knew that he could bring this world to life.”
Mull, best-selling author of the Fablehaven and Beyonders series, is the architect for Spirit Animals. He also wrote the first book “Wild Born” (Scholastic, $12.99), which is scheduled to be released on Sept. 10.
The story is in the fantasy world Erdas, which is similar to Earth. Four children from separate lands each discover they have a spirit animal, “a rare bond between human and beast that bestows great powers to both.”
But these children don’t just summon a regular animal. They each summon a Great Beast of legend.
There are 15 Great Beasts from Erdas' history. Four of those Great Beasts gave their lives to defend the world. Now the four have returned as spirit animals.
The new heroes, along with their spirit animals, must join together to save Erdas from a dark force from the past. Conor’s spirit animal is Briggan the wolf. Abeke calls Uraza the leopard. Meilin has Jhi the giant panda and Rollan summons Essix the falcon.
For Conor, a sheepherder, a wolf is something to defend against. Meilin is the daughter of a great military general. So the panda seems like a great disappointment and in no way helpful as spirit animals are supposed to enhance one's abilities. But that is how the characters learn, and it creates an engaging story.
“It is almost like maybe not what you want but what you need,” Mull said. “The spirit animals that these kids called are helping compensate for some of their weaknesses.
“What we want in a story is to see our characters, through everything they go through, we want to see them learn something,” he said. “We want to see them change and grow and learn. That is part of what the spirit animals will force these characters to do.”
Levithan said that when reading an adventure book, kids may not want to feel like they are being taught. But, he said, it is important that there be a very solid lesson and meaning to the story.
“That is one of the things that Brandon is so great about,” Levithan said. “It is that amazing thing that a book can do. It draws kids into a world that while they are in that world they actually learn valuable things that help them out in our world.”
Mull also hopes that those who read the story will learn things along the way. In “Wild Born,” the four main characters must learn to interact with their spirit animals. This is sometimes funny and teaching.
“As each of these characters try to bond with their spirit animals, they end up having to face some of their own strengths and weaknesses,” Mull said. “I think for everybody as we go through life, with relationships, you have to figure out how to get along with people. In this case, these kids are compelled to get along with their spirit animals.”
The four heroes must also learn to get along with each other. The main characters come from very different backgrounds, and sometimes that causes tension between them and the people they meet.
“That sense of coming together is such a strong message, especially in this time and world,” said Levithan. “That they are overcoming differences and going on the quest together is really important.”
The online game is very much a quest. Zach Clark, Scholastic assistant editor, said the game, online at spiritanimals.scholastic.com, is in sync with the book. He said those who play the online game are a fifth hero and able to do the same things as the four main characters in the book.
“It is a way to immerse yourself in the world even further and to make it customizable,” Clark said. “This is our most customizable game today where you are creating your own hero, you are choosing your spirit animal and you are really jumping into the story in a first person way.”
“A great book is one that you can get lost in,” he said. “The great thing about the game is that you can stay lost in it.”
As the 208-page “Wild Born” is about stopping a dark force from taking over the world, there are scenes of war and some described violence. In the beginning chapters, a city is invaded, set on fire and a character is killed by an arrow. There are a couple of paragraphs in the middle of the book where normal animals are given fluid to drink, which makes the animals whine, convulse and mutate into a larger, fiercer form.
Throughout the book there is hand-to-hand combat between characters either for training or in actual fighting. Some animals fall off a cliff while fighting and one ally dies by the sword. Other animals and people are injured in the fight. The book does not go into graphic detail. There are no language problems or sexual content.
The book is geared toward middle readers, ages 8 to 12, but the series can also be enjoyed by adults. In fact, that is something that Mull hopes will happen.
“I love the idea of parents reading the same book as the kids and then talk about the book with them” Mull said. “For me that has led to really good conversations in my house.”
He recalled talking about the Harry Potter series with his mother and also other children. That interaction between the generations and a book that is accessible to a broad audience is important to him in his writing.
“My whole goal was to write a book that a 10-year-old would love and that I would also like,” Mull said. “My highest aspiration as a writer is to take kids on a really fun ride. I think that is because it is an age where kids are ready to discover that reading can be fun.”
Scholastic assembled what Levithan called a “dream team” to tackle the seven-book series. Each book will be penned by a different author. The second book will focus on the return to Conor’s home and the noble he served. According to Clark, the noble will “get in deep with the bad guys.” Local author Shannon Hale will write the fourth book, which is due out July 2014.
It would seem the transition between books and authors would be difficult, but Levithan said it was pretty seamless. Mull said working as a team was pleasant.
“Usually writing is a very solitary effort where it only lives in one head,” Levithan said. “But here it is great. It gets to live in all these different heads and they get to do different things with it. That is what makes it so unique and innovative.”
As for Mull, he admits that he is “off the hook for the heavy lifting” in regards to writing Spirit Animals but he will help in promoting the series. He will also keep busy as his next series, Five Kingdoms, is set to release in March 2014.
If you go ...
What: "Spirit Animals: Wild Born" book launch
When: Tuesday, Sept. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Provo City Library, 550 N. University Ave., Provo
Note: Hosted by The King’s English Bookshop
What: Brandon Mull book signings
When: Wednesday, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.
Where: The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
When: Thursday, Sept. 12, 6 p.m.Comment on this story
Where: Barnes and Noble, 1780 N. Woodland Park Drive, Layton
When: Friday, Sept. 13, 6 p.m.
Where: Deseret Book, 1110 E. Fort Union Blvd., Midvale
When: Saturday, Sept. 14, 10:30 a.m.
Where: Costco Wholesale, 648 E. 800 South, Orem
When: Saturday, Sept. 14, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Costco Wholesale, 11100 S. Auto Mall Drive, Sandy
Also ... When: Thursday, Sept. 19, 6 p.m.
Where: Hastings Logan, 50 E. 400 North, Logan
When: Friday, Sept. 20, 6 p.m.
Where: Hastings Ogden, 340 E. 525 North, Ogden