Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Wednesday, March 8, 2023: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Elf Dog and Owl Head

Candlewick Press (MA): Elf Dog and Owl Head by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Junyi Wu

Candlewick Press (MA): Elf Dog and Owl Head by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Junyi Wu

Candlewick Press (MA): Elf Dog and Owl Head by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Junyi Wu

Candlewick Press (MA): Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson

Elf Dog and Owl Head

by M.T. Anderson, illus. by Junyi Wu

National Book Award-winner M.T. Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) fabricates a heady, inventive and waggish escape into a parallel magical world in Elf Dog and Owl Head, dreamily illustrated by Junyi Wu. During an unnamed global pandemic, Clay makes friends--and enemies--from marvelous and sometimes terrifying corners of the multiverse.

Everything has been shut down, including school. Lonely Clay, frustrated with his family and online schooling during the "worldwide sickness," ventures into the woods with a Frisbee even though "there is no dumber game to play alone than Frisbee." He crosses paths with a "wyrm" (a monster with blue scales, crooked claws and a toothy mouth) and a thin white dog with red pointed ears and a "glitzy" collar. Both creatures have accidentally escaped their own world. After the dog--whose name, Clay learns, is Elphinore--saves him from the wyrm, she follows him home. In the days that follow, Elphinore walks in the woods with Clay; when he lets her lead, she chooses to introduce him to "the magical paths or the tracks that [lead] through time," which are hidden all around him. At the end of one such path is a town inhabited by strangely formal, old-fashioned folk with owl heads on human bodies. When an owl-headed boy named Amos comes to Clay's house late one night, the two form a friendship based on mutual cultural curiosity and an eagerness to connect with someone else interested in chatting, exploring and throwing sticks for the dog. But as so often happens when bored young people get together, they soon stumble into more adventures than they counted on.

There's the time Elphinore awakens an eons-old depressed blue giant by digging in his nostril. Another time the boys decide to experiment with the folds between the worlds and Clay is attacked by the same wyrm he encountered the day he met Elphinore. Meanwhile, Clay is determined to claim Elphinore as his own, even once he learns that she may be a royal hunting dog belonging to the vengeful People Under the Mountain. Amos does not approve, but he's not the kind of person who tries to force his opinion on another. Clay's mulishness about the dog, as well as both boys' insistence on continuing to meet in the woods, despite Amos's elders' cultural edicts against interacting, lead to serious repercussions.

As the boys venture into each other's cultural and physical landscapes, their perspectives on their own lives expand. When Clay asks why it's important for Amos's people to stay hidden from his people, even if the human-heads just want to walk near their villages, Amos says, "The human-head people never simply walk somewhere. They always burn and flatten." Irritated, Clay asks Amos to stop calling them "the human-head people." Amos is baffled: "But you have the bodies of people with the heads of humans."

The straight-faced humor of Elf Dog and Owl Head balances gentle messaging about the risks and rewards of one group of people insinuating themselves into (or storming) another's domain. When they meet for the first time, for example, Clay politely offers Amos some peanut butter crackers. "Among my kind," Amos explains, "the polite thing is to lead your guest first to your basement. It is dark and cool there, and it shows you are willing to offer the pick of all your rodents." Clay graciously complies. On the "risks" side of things, though, Clay takes a shaker with magical powder from the owl-head people when he sees that it makes plants grow. He hopes to help with his family's garden since the "sickness" has made money tight this year. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the magic misfires. Soon, a catfish is swimming in Clay's sister's bath, a wheat field is growing out of his other sister's sandwich and his father's polyester-blend work shirt has been transformed into a tiny dinosaur with sleeves and "Barry" sewed in cursive on its hip. Things get really rough on Midsummer's Eve, though, when the gates to all worlds open and beings "usually hidden from the eyes of human-head people" are visible as they celebrate with music, dance, games and food. Clay and Amos decide to meet at the festivities even though Amos's people have expressly forbidden their friendship.

In her pencil drawings, Junyi Wu (illustrator of Newbery Honor book Scary Stories for Young Foxes) evokes the darkness and mysteries of the woods as well as the wonder of the worlds Clay and Amos visit. Her use of varying depths of field and partially obscured characters is thrilling, and she is as adept at generating a sense of the swirling chaotic motion of a party (or an attack) as she is at conjuring the waiting stillness and menace of unseen monsters.

Elf Dog and Owl Head is an elaborate fantasy adventure and balm to bored readers' souls. At heart, it is a story about friendship: Clay and Amos's relationship is a hard-won triumph over cultural divisions. And what Clay and Elphinore share is pure, sweet boy-and-dog love, regardless of the worldly folds from whence they came. Anderson and Wu's collaboration has the spellbinding aura of Diana Wynne Jones's the Chronicles of Chrestomanci series, the boy-meets-world charm of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and the distinct brand of humor and creativity that Anderson brings to every literary endeavor. --Emilie Coulter

Candlewick Press, $18.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 8-12, 9781536222814, April 11, 2023

Candlewick Press (MA): Spring Reads from Candlewick Press and Walker Books US

M.T. Anderson: The Logical Results of a Completely Absurd Premise

(photo: Sonya Sones)

M.T. Anderson is the author of many books for children and young adults, including the National Book Award-winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing; National Book Award finalist Feed; and Symphony for the City of the Dead. Elf Dog and Owl Head (Candlewick Press, April 11) is a touching and hilarious magical adventure tale about the hidden worlds that exist just "beyond our knowledge," though not beyond the knowledge of our beloved pets. Anderson lives, dances and walks his dog in Vermont.

Why was it important to you for Elf Dog and Owl Head to be set during a global pandemic?

The story came right out of my experience during the pandemic shutdown: living alone with my dog in a house in the woods of Vermont for five months. She was my only companion for all that time. We explored the hills together and sat on either side of the fire and I talked to her because there wasn't anyone else around. That was about it. For a long time, I had wanted to write a book about the deep love between people and the animals who live with them. This was my opportunity. I wanted to describe how our beloved pets change our lives and show us a hidden world that lies right around us--the world of things they can smell and see beyond our knowledge. 

I wrote the first draft of the book at exactly the time of the events described in it--finishing on Midsummer Night 2020. Nonetheless, I don't think of it as a pandemic book any more than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a London Blitz book. The boy in the book, Clay, feels more isolated than usual because of the shutdown--but we all feel isolated sometimes. The book is more about the forest than about the world of the sickness. Still, I do hope that it will speak to kids who felt stranded in that weird time that touched us all.

Clay and Amos are from different worlds but manage to fall in with each other in that natural way of kids. Still, there are cultural misunderstandings. Do the adults really know better in trying to keep them apart?

Amos and Clay learn so much from one another! So, I hope that somehow their friendship can continue.

Having said that, if you take Amos's elders to be the voice of the nature world, you can kind of understand their point: It never ends well when humans discover new species. We tend to kill them for their teeth or glandular secretions. Think about whales, elephants, otters, pigs: there are whole alien cultures living right among us with their own traditions, their own structures, their own affections, their own pleasures, their own lore. We slaughter them for parts.

We're really not a great animal. 

The blue giant Vud is hilariously gloomy with his "poetic, tragic" proclamations. ("Laughter is the sound you make when you're trying to hide choking on tears.") Is there a Vud in your life?

Yes. He is within me. (See previous answer.)

"Death is always invited... When he calls, we must go. But knowing that the night may be cut short is what makes it so sweet. It is the reason we must dance." Zowie! Is this a philosophy you share with the owl-head people?


Recently I went to a 9 a.m. rave in Brooklyn. Many of the people there had been up dancing all night. There were dazzling lights and lasers and the roar of music and hunky trapeze artists doing stunts over the surging crowd and a violinist was lifted up on a crane and rocked out "The Carol of the Bells" while swinging over us all. Most of the people there were in their 20s and 30s but there were a couple people hurling themselves around onstage who must have been pushing 70.

I was just about to make a joke about how it was a very different scene from my home in rural Vermont, but back in October, we had a contra dance in our little town hall, and there we were, perfect strangers, locking arms and swinging each other in cosmic circles while fiddlers from age 25 to 75 played onstage. It was a fantastic night--chilly out but thumping with rhythm inside that ancient meetinghouse. One of the musicians, a remarkable local treasure named Pete Sutherland, was up there playing keyboards even though he was dying of cancer at the time. Literally: a few weeks after that night in October, Pete passed. 

We've only got the one chance to live. Part of the urgency of living is the urgency of joy. Joy is real.

Do details like a steampunk-esque underground gondola, owl math and a sweater-sheep come to you in an orderly fashion as you write or have you socked away tidbits like these over the years, to be pulled out at the right moment?

I was taking a friend for a hike near where I live in Vermont, and she noticed there was a hill called Owl's Head, and she asked where it got the name. (Story is not actually interesting: it looks like an owl's head.) I told her that in the 19th century, people had reported seeing owl-headed people lurking in the woods there. We passed some ruined foundations, and I pointed them out and told her that's where they'd lived. Then we kept making up stories about them, the owl-heads.

The sweater-sheep was a logical (I think) extension of the idea of some magical force that takes everything back to its natural origins: a wooden table starts to grow oak leaves again, a bathtub grows into a swamp and a wool sweater, obviously, would start to turn back into a sheep.

I guess the secret with this kind of plotting is figuring out the completely logical results of a completely insane premise. Which really is kind of the key to living life in this world anyway.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about anything?

I hope so, or else my career is going to be very short. --Emilie Coulter

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