I’ve long awaited a magical school that represented the myriad identities of the people I interact with. True to this wavelength, Dhonielle Clayton came to serve. The Marvellers is a middle grade fantasy equal parts integration, immersion, imagination, and aggravation.
A contemporary fantasy where even people with magical abilities—although they don’t use the word ‘magic’ to describe their powers—are segregated from each other, The Marvellers is an introduction to a world where acceptance means everything. At least that is what the main character, Ella Durand, and most of the Marvellers at Arcanum Training Institute think. As Ella, a Conjuror, continues her first school year at ATI, she begins to see that the violence she faces from adults and students alike tell more about those willing to go to extremes in the name of assimilation and adherence to the status quo than it does about any exemplary conduct by her or her less accepted peers. All she wants is to be embraced by this new world of wonders, yet she is rebuffed even by those who should keep her secure. Though she finds kinship with a few very special people, she continues to yearn for universal acceptance and is confused by the dismissal and hate she receives instead. Her tragic trevails mirror some aspects of the most outcast character introduced in the book, with Marvellian society having also pushed them, the series’ villain, to the outskirts because of her abilities. The villain also has a special group of people that she once belonged to during her time at ATI, which leads to deeper intrigue for this book and those to come.
It is clear through interviews and the writing itself that Clayton was influenced by the integration stories of children like the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges in constructing the arc for Ella’s reception in the story. For instance, a little known fact about school desegregation in the United States is that Black teachers petitioned to integrate schools ahead of Black students in order to build the supportive classrooms the students would need. Quite cruelly, administrators across the country decided not to support this strategy, leaving mobs of adults—including white teachers, administrators, and board members—spreading their hate at young children with no friendly faces to support them inside of the schools. In The Marvellers, Ella’s godmother is the institute’s first Conjuror teacher and is available to check in with her at various times throughout the story, especially after they’ve become targets of different attacks. She is also there to help Ella hold the importance of her Conjuror legacy within the same esteem as being a Marveller. The whole story is not all forbearance under duress, however. Ella’s closest friends, Bridgit and Jason, become a source of joy and understanding for Ella by sharing empathy through their own idiosyncrasies. This team up shows the strength within those who tend to actively avoid danger and confrontation in a deeply satisfying way during the greatest conflict in the book’s final act. Their shared energies showcase that great strength can come from moments of deep confusion.
If you’re in the market for a new magical world that showcases the nuanced ways in which darkness impedes the whimsy that only those who benefit from exclusionary policies can fully enjoy, The Marvellers may just be the best new world for you.