‘The Marvellers’ exclusive excerpt: Visit Dhonielle Clayton’s magic school in the sky

We could all use a little more magic in our lives, especially now. If real life won’t deliver, a book always will. Author Dhonielle Clayton (“The Belles,” “Tiny Pretty Things”) has just the remedy for escaping reality: a magic school in the sky. 

That’s the setting for her upcoming fantastical middle-grade YA book “The Marvellers” (Henry Holt and Co., 336 pp., on sale May 3). Arcanum Training Institute draws Marvellers from around the world to practice their arts – say, for instance, bartering with Irish pixies or brewing elixirs. Eleven-year-old Ella Durand is the school’s first Conjuror, and she discovers many at the school don’t trust her “unnatural” magic.

When a dangerous criminal known as the Ace of Anarchy escapes prison and her mentor disappears, Ella quickly becomes a suspect and must work fast to clear her family’s name and save her teacher before it’s too late. 

Clayton is COO of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization that advocates for greater diversity in the publishing industry and children’s literature. That mission is reflected in “The Marvellers,” whose global school celebrates a wide range of cultures and different forms of magic. 

On Instagram, Clayton calls the book “my love letter to kids who thought there might be nothing magical about them because they didn’t show up in those big worlds everyone is always talking about.”

Clayton’s got at least one very big champion in her book’s corner: Rick Riordan, USA TODAY bestselling author of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series.

“’The Marvellers’ deserves the highest compliment I can give a book: I want to live in this world,” Riordan says. “You can stop looking at admissions brochures for all those other schools of magic. The Arcanum Training Institute for Marvelous and Uncanny Endeavors is definitely where you want to apply!”

Read an exclusive excerpt of Clayton’s magical new book before it hits shelves May 3 here: 

"The Marvellers," by Dhonielle Clayton.

The ride to the Stardust Pier felt like a lightning flash. One moment Ella and her family were skimming across the Gulf of Mexico and the next they were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, standing on the Stardust Pier, awaiting the arrival of the sky-ferries for the next leg of their journey. The late September heat clung to her skin.

Plump star-lanterns drifted overhead like ginormous glow­bugs. Other water-zeppelins peeked their heads above the water, dropping more families on the ever-growing platform. Ella could’ve sworn she felt it expand under her feet little by little to make sure everyone fit.

Dressed in all white, her fellow Level One trainees were doves ready to fly off with their marvel-valises. She glanced at her floating juju-trunks, strange in comparison. But she took a deep breath, then smoothed the front of her new uniform and tested pulling the hood up around her long twists. The excitement made her fingers quiver. No more quilted aprons or conjure jackets or family crossing rings. Something new. Something different.

“I expect weekly starposts, little girl,” Mama demanded.

Ella looked up at her mama, the moonlight drenching her brown skin. She was still impossibly beautiful even when upset. “Yes, Mama.”

“It’s a huge responsibility to be the first. You don’t just rep­resent yourself, but all of us.” Papa put a warm hand on Ella’s shoulder.

“I know,” Ella replied.

Winnie tugged at her. “Who are those people?” She pointed at the back of the woman nearest them.

“Security coppers,” Mama whispered.

“What’s that?” Winnie asked.

“Like Fewel police.” Ella thought they looked like a bunch of angry toy soldiers. The liquid gold crests on their jackets glowed, and she wished she could reach out to touch the M symbol.

“Do they have to be with us?” Winnie leaned in closer. “I don’t like their weird dogs.” A few gripped the leashes of red-eyed wolves. “And their birds look mean too.”

They sent black ravens into the sky above, and they sur­veyed all the arriving water-zeppelins.

“Tsk. None of that. Mind your business. They’re here to make sure everything goes smoothly,” Mama replied.

Ella wouldn’t let herself think about what not smoothly looked like. She’d planned out every detail: choosing the out­fits her parents and sister wore, making sure Gran twisted her hair and threaded it with charm ribbons, and tucking her best friend Reagan’s trusty luck root into her pocket. She kept slip­ping her hand inside to tickle it, enjoying how its leaves reached up to meet her fingertips. It made her feel like Reagan was holding her hand.

The night had to be perfect. And she would be perfect.

Ella waved at onlookers on nearby platforms. She figured since they were staring so bad, she might as well say hello. People held up signs, but strangely she couldn’t make out the words on them even when she squinted. The night air thick­ened and turned hazier each time she tried. Weird. Maybe it was a Marvellian thing. She still had so much to learn.

“Can you see those?” she asked Papa.

“No,” he replied. “Must be nothing worth repeating.”

Author Dhonielle Clayton.

Ella gave the crowds her biggest and brightest smile and tried to hold the grin for as long as possible. The press-ferries flew overhead with their cameras incessantly flashing as they sent their news-boxes out by the minute.

Papa pointed up at the moon. “I’m excited to fly!”

The Arcanum Training Institute’s sky-ferries would arrive any minute. Ready to pick them up. Mama always said a watched pot never boils, but Ella was certain the thick clouds would erupt with light any second.

The excitement and anticipation bubbled up inside her.

The crowd headed toward a turbaned brown man on a dais.

“Welcome, welcome! What a glorious night . . . actually, a truly marvelous night if I do say so myself . . . and I do say so.” The man waved his arms around. “The line starts here. Right over here. This way. Last names, please!” A glittering scroll floated just above his shoulder, and she knew her name was on it.

“Ella, Ella.” Winnie slipped her hand into Ella’s free one.

“Look—there’s stars on your dress. When those things”—she pointed up at the floating star-lanterns—“get close, you can see them.”

“It’s not a dress, it’s a Marvellian Mantle,” Ella corrected, because big sisters didn’t let little sisters go around sounding foolish.

Winnie reached to touch her mantle again, but Ella dodged her little fingers. “You’ll get it dirty.”

“I don’t want to wear a white one.”

“All Level Ones do,” Ella informed her.

“I want blue ’cause it’s my favorite color.” Winnie’s eyes filled with tears.

“Blue is for Level Threes. Besides, you’re too little to come,” Ella reminded her sister, although this time she felt a little sad.

Mostly, Winnie irritated Ella, getting into her room or whining about playing or wanting to always do everything she was doing. But as Ella stared out at the other kids on the platform, she wondered how many new friends she’d make and how long that would take. She already missed Reagan, but deep down she thought maybe she’d miss her little sister too. She could always count on Winnie to want to be her best friend forever, no matter what.

A gasp startled Ella, disrupting her thoughts. Whispers crackled in hundreds of different languages.

Mama’s chubby alligator, Gumbo, slithered out of the water and onto the pier, slapping his tail with excitement.

“There you are,” Mama said to Gumbo. “Getting old, eh? That deep water tough on you, old boy? Got here just in time to see our girl off.”

Gumbo grunted.

A few kids scampered even farther away from them while others inched closer to have a look.

She’d read that most Marvellers had pets and sometimes monsters in their homes, but only Conjurors had companions, which were like your animal soul mates. It had always been so normal to Ella . . . up until this very moment. As she stood on the pier, all those regular things about her family seemed so different even among these very different people.

But she was ready to tell everyone about it all. She just knew everyone would love it.

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