The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi
Eva Nine has never met another human being in her twelve years of life. She lives in an underground Sanctuary with a Multi-Utility Task Help Robot—”Muthr” for short—who has been training Eva in preparation for an eventual journey to the world above. But when a beast of a hunter invades her home, Eva is forced to flee earlier than planned and discovers that the world she is thrust into is nothing like the one depicted in the holo-chamber and her trusty Omnipod. Bizarre flora and fauna greet her, and without Muthr to guide her she clings to the one clue she has about her past: a scrap of paper depicting a girl with a robot and an adult, and the word “WondLa.”
Tony DiTerlizzi, perhaps best known for The Spiderwick Chronicles, has created an amazing world and populated it with fantastic beasts, dangerous plant-life and a host of otherworldly beings. Eva Nine, though young, proves to be very resourceful (though having an ever-so-useful Omnipod doesn’t hurt). She meets up with a blue-skinned creature named Rovender Kitt on her journeys, and together they run from the hunter and search for answers.
One of the most impressive things about The Search for WondLa is the sheer size of the thing. It’s recommended for middle-schoolers, ages 10 and up, but it’s about 470 pages long. The chapters are fairly short, though, and it is broken up into four main parts, each of which is the length of a typical kids’ chapter book. I’m glad that the publisher Simon & Schuster didn’t opt to break it up and release it in trickles because it was an amazing journey and I would’ve hated waiting for the next part. As it is, it’s the first in a planned trilogy so there is a lot more to come.
WondLa does rely on some classic sci-fi tropes, like intelligent robots and holo-chambers, and Eva’s Omnipod (note that “iPod” is in the name) bears more than a passing resemblance to an iPhone in its functionality. (Though of course it uses holograms instead of a Retina screen and its shape seems a bit unwieldy—definitely not designed by Apple.) However, DiTerlizzi’s story doesn’t feel like it’s derivative or just cobbled together from bits and pieces of other things. It is its own world and you can sense a rich background beyond what you’re seeing in the story.
DiTerlizzi also did all the artwork, and if you’ve seen his other books you’ll know that he’s great at coming up with some wonderful beasts. (And I’m sure his childhood obsession with “The Dark Crystal” and Dungeons & Dragons was helpful, too.) In WondLa he also gets to show off his talent drawing plants, and he seems to have a fondness for carnivorous plants. For this book he wanted illustrations that captured this futuristic, science-fiction world, yet also called to mind nineteenth-century fairy tale illustrations. The final outcome, achieved through a mix of traditional and digital techniques, is beautiful. Each chapter starts with a two-page spread, and then there are spot illustrations throughout.
One of my favorite creatures is Otto the water bear. He’s a giant six-legged behemoth, based on the microscopic (and very real) tardigrade. If you haven’t heard of those before (and I hadn’t), go read about them—they’re fascinating and it’s hard to believe they actually exist.
The story has a good deal of action but there’s also plenty of time for the characters to develop and grow; by the end I was very attached to them. There’s also a few tragic moments—I won’t give too many spoilers here, but suffice to say that some major characters die. Only two scenes, though, prevent me from reading it to my second-grader, and they’re just a bit gruesome: in one the hunter kills and slices up an animal for food, and in the other involves an animal in a sort of laboratory. Both are pretty vivid scenes that parents may want to preview before giving it to their kids.
Visit the WondLa website for lots more: info about the book, an excerpt of the book, a few online games, and WondLa-Vision, an augmented reality feature that takes a few special images from the book and turns them into an interactive map via your webcam. You can also read my wife’s take on the book which I posted last month.
Pick up a copy of The Search for WondLa today. You might as well—in a couple years your kids will be begging to see the movie, no doubt.
Wired: A modern-day Wizard of Oz about a girl, her gigantic water bear Otto, her tin Muthr, and the friendly blue biped, as they try to figure out how to get her home again.
Tired: I liked the two-page illustration spreads, but not the fact that they typically depict something that’s coming later in the chapter. Also, if I had a quarter for every time DiTerlizzi calls Rovender Kitt a “lanky creature,” I could buy another copy of the book.
Disclosure: Simon & Schuster provided a review copy of the book.