Maile Meloy’s middle grade books mix adventure with historical fiction, scientific curiosity and a hefty dose of thrilling, mysterious magic. They also feature extensive artwork that helps to tell the story, so Meloy’s fans won’t be surprised to learn that she considers herself a visual thinker.
In fact, Meloy says in a call from her Los Angeles home, it was her habit of using clip art to organize chapters that sparked the idea for publishing the books as illustrated novels. Her middle grade debut, The Apothecary, came about after two screenwriter friends told her their idea for “a movie about a magical apothecary, set during the Cold War.” They eventually decided it should be done as a novel first, with Meloy as the writer. “They provided a beginning and some general ideas. It was fantastic to have that push. . . . And part of the reason why I used art to organize it was because they’re such visual thinkers, too. Over time, it became a great way to make sure I had the right focus, so I’d make sure I had a title and image to go with each chapter.”
The illustrations in her books certainly enhance the story, such as when she wants to “build suspense, or illustrate a samovar or Samoyed dog.” Ian Schoenherr’s artwork is detailed and vibrant, achieving whimsy without being cutesy. Even better, his line work evokes depth and darkness when something scary or sad looms, and it’s just plain fun to turn a page and encounter, say, giant frogs’ eyes calmly contemplating the reader.
The magic in her books, of course, lends itself well to fantastical artwork, and it also provides her characters with the adventure of their lives. After the events of The Apothecary, Janie, Benjamin and Pip have been scattered to the far corners of the world at the beginning of The Apprentices. The year is 1954, two years since they’ve all been together. They’re all dealing with often exciting, sometimes disturbing new realities: Janie has returned to America, where she’s diving into the intellectual challenges at a New England boarding school . . . but a jealous roommate and her sinister father just might upend everything. Benjamin and his father are working together in the midst of war in the Vietnam jungle, and Pip is swanning about Europe enjoying his new TV-star status.
Despite their geographical separation (and lots of hazy memories), they find new, strange ways to communicate and eventually start making their way back to each other as they become embroiled in a race against time to maintain world peace (and perhaps foil a few bad guys along the way). Readers will pick up some fascinating historical information, too, and they’ll be intrigued to encounter kids who sometimes know more than adults, scientists who believe in magic and birds that might not be just birds.
Meloy, who has also published four books for adults, all critically lauded, says she didn’t have to make a concerted effort to change her writing for younger readers. “I did say to myself at one point, I have the Invasion of Nanking in a children’s book—what am I doing?” she says with a laugh. “But I feel like kids do deal with big issues, so that was really the only thing where I decided to tone down the description a bit.” She explains that Janie, who narrates the books, “is writing as an adult, and everything is how she experienced it at 14, so that determined the register, and she can explain things she knows now but didn’t know at 14. Plus, she’s an intelligent kid.”
This isn’t the first time Meloy has worked on stories for children. After graduating from Harvard in the mid-1990s, she moved out to L.A. and worked in what she describes as a “funny little corner of Disney, where they did direct-to-DVD animation of things like sequels to big movies, and fairy-tale-based projects. It was great storytelling training . . . really smart people telling universal stories about love and loss and home.”
Considering her successful career thus far, it’s safe to say she took that training to heart. The Apothecary and The Apprentices have at their heart a group of characters that readers care deeply about, judging by the wonderful letters Meloy’s young fans send her. She says, “You don’t get that when writing books for adults. You don’t get letters with illustrations in the margins, or pleas for a sequel. So that’s really fun.”
Meloy also loves that the covers for both books are gender neutral. “When writing novels for grown-ups, I’d get a cover design and say that no guy will ever pick up this book, and they’d say men don’t read novels. It made me so sad,”she recalls. “With these books, they’re told by a girl, boys have a major part in it, they’re adventures. . . . I’ve really found a lot of the kids that connect to it are boys.” Mother-daughter book groups are particular fans, too.
Boys, girls, young, old: If readers loved The Apothecary, they’ll be thrilled to get their hands on The Apprentices—and to learn that Meloy is now writing a third book about Janie and her cohorts. We can’t share too many details, but she did reveal that Book 3 begins soon after Book 2, and there will be plenty of magic. Let the anticipation begin!