Monday, July 16, 2012

The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi

Though I’ve been warned against it several times, I’m still prone to picking books based on their covers. I see a shiny, evocative cover image and next thing I know I’m fifty pages into a dry, formulaic fantasy novel that utterly fails to capture the vast wonder of the cover. But I keep letting myself fall for beautiful covers because now and then I get a book like The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi, in which the writing absolutely lives up to the promise of the richly-hued, inventive, and inviting art.

Eva Nine is twelve years old and has never met another human or been outside of the small underground apartment she calls Sanctuary. Her caretaker, a robot called Muthr, keeps Eva healthy, fed, and entertained. In spite of (or maybe because of) all this quiet comfort, Eva is anxious to see something or someone outside of her Sanctuary -- to put her toys, chores, and holo-shows behind her and go out into the world. Muthr’s been leading Eva through wilderness survival lessons, but they’re moving much too slowly and deliberately for Eva’s liking.

When an unexpected threat forces Eva out of her Sanctuary well ahead of Muthr’s timetable, she finds herself woefully unprepared. She’s not in the temperate North American forest Muthr taught her about. Instead, she’s in a fantastic world with herds of walking trees, strange animals her computer can’t identify, and nary a human to be found. With wits, determination, and a few new friends, she sets off to learn more about where she is and how she got there.

While The Search for Wondla may share some DNA with the current glut of YA dystopias, this book is aimed at younger readers and DiTerlizzi keeps things fairly light and optimistic. That’s not to say the book lacks for tension or high stakes adventure, but it is more about finding wonder in the world than in facing the hard truths of a grim reality. Eva faces a lot of difficult trials but neither she nor DiTerlizzi ever lose their sense of fun, hope, and innocence. I may play at being a sour old librarian who lives only to shush children and bemoan the sad state of popular culture, but I do love a wide-eyed tale of childhood adventure.

I imagine I would have taken to this book even if the cover were the only bit of artistic enticement available but, luckily enough, that wasn’t the case. DiTerlizzi, who was well-known as an illustrator before he started writing, has provided wonderful full-page illustrations at the start of each chapter and between sections of the book. They present Eva’s world as absolutely foreign but teeming with fascinating life and engrossing detail. They function not as a crutch for DiTerlizzi’s writing (which doesn’t need the help), but as a direct conduit into his imagination and, thereby, into the mind of Eva. The world would be an amazing place if all great authors were also talented illustrators, able to merge two media into a symbiotic artistry. Until such time, I’ll have to make myself DiTerlizzi’s second WondLa book, A Hero for WondLa, and hope he publishes more soon.


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