In today’s Author Spotlight, Jo Hackl chats with author Landra Jennings about her new middle-grade novel, Wand (Clarion Books, October 31). She’ll share her inspiration behind writing it, the works of literature that influenced it, and the surprising muse for the bird characters! Plus, there’s a chance to win a finished/signed copy of Wand if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details.
A dazzling story of grief and found family wrapped in a spellbinding fairy tale, perfect for fans of Anne Ursu and Jodi Lynn Anderson.
Eleven-year-old Mira wishes everything could go back to the way it was. Before she changed schools and had to quit gymnastics. Especially before Papa died. Now she spends her days cooking and cleaning for her stepsisters and Val—who she still won’t call mom and still won’t forgive for the terrible thing she did.
When a mysterious girl named Lyndame appears out of the woods wielding a powerful wand, she makes Mira an offer she can’t refuse: she will grant Mira three wishes.
What if magic isn’t just pretend after all? What if these wishes could fix everything? But in the quiet town of Between, Georgia, where secrets lurk and rumors swirl of strange creatures, nothing is as it seems, and everything comes at a price.
Rising talent Landra Jennings weaves together an enchanting, modern fairy tale with eloquence and compassion about finding hope after loss—and finding belonging in the places we least expect.
Interview with Landra Jennings
JH: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Landra! Thanks for joining us today.
LJ: Thank you so much for having me.
JH: First I have to tell you how much I loved Wand. The story felt gothic and suspenseful, like your first book, and I loved the adventure. I enjoyed the fairy tale elements. Can you please tell us about your inspiration to write it?
LJ: Thanks so much! You’re right about the fairy tale elements. I’d say I had three areas of inspiration. Firstly, this is my take on Cinderella for middle grade. I wanted to figure out what a happy ending looked like for eleven-year-old Mira, whose story starts in in modern-day Georgia. Her father has passed away, leaving her with a stepmother and two step sisters, and she’s still grieving. Similar to other modern interpretations of Cinderella, I wanted Mira to figure out her happy ending for herself versus finding a literal ‘prince.’ Secondly, I’ve also realized in the process of writing that I start stories with some big emotion and build from there. My first book was focused on the difficulty in detaching from that one friend (or sibling) that you’ve become too dependent on and learning how to become an independent person. Wand is about grief; how once we’ve experienced the pain of losing someone, whether it be through death or some other way, we can build those walls around ourselves to protect from future pain, and how that can isolate us from the world. We might really want something magical to fix everything and take our pain away versus facing the pain head-on. I wanted to explore the process of breaking down those walls from the perspective of a child. Finally, while I was editing Wand, I read The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, an amazing YA portal fantasy and that book started me on a binge of reading and re-reading portal fantasies, mostly middle grade works. So those other fantasies were also influential as I developed the plot.
Portal Fantasy Influences
JH: Why a portal fantasy? Please tell us more about that.
LJ: Portal fantasy is a very broad category, really. A character travels from one world to another through a “portal,” a passageway of some sort, whether it be a tornado as in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, or a mysterious wooden door, as in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
Sometimes the characters stumble onto the portal as in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Sometimes they deliberately seek it out, as in the Hogwarts Express train in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Or sometimes (and this is really fun) they create the portal themselves as in Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife or in Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.
I’ve mostly been reading about portals where characters travel from our ordinary world to the fantasy world. Sometimes they’re escaping a bad situation or boredom, and other times they’re searching for something specific. As readers, a book can be an escape to begin with and I love the function of a portal in taking the reader that much further away from their reality. It’s a very different world readers enter and they can work out their big emotions in a place far removed from their own problems. In Wand, the portal to the other world is a pond. My main character, Mira, is searching for her true family and a place she can belong. Mira has built up those emotional walls, protecting herself. Leaving the modern world and going to a new one by jumping into the pond is a way of avoiding confronting her powerful emotions.
The Role of the Wand and Magic
JH: Let’s talk about the wand. It’s in the title obviously, and I noticed its significance in the story. What is the role of the magic wand in the book?
LJ: The wand in my book represents the wish to “magic away” your problems. And the use of the wand in the narrative tracks along with Mira’s journey of processing her grief. In many versions of Cinderella, like Disney’s version, the heroine does not have the ability to use the magic wand herself. She is dependent on powerful others, such as a fairy godmother, who can wield it. The fairy godmother character in Wand is a teen named Lyndame who offers to grant Mira wishes, misrepresenting the power of the wand and her purpose in offering the wishes. Once Mira figures that out, she does get the wand for herself and she can wield it. Even though Mira’s intuition tells her that she shouldn’t use it, she does use it, to disastrous effect.
JH: Who was your favorite character to write?
LJ: Lyndame, the antagonist. She’s so independent, yet so angry. She is processing her grief very differently than Mira, becoming a cautionary tale and demonstrating the emotional wreckage that can happen if an individual can’t work through grief and move on.
JH: What was your favorite scene to write?
LJ: I think one of my favorites is the girls together, upstairs in Mira’s bedroom. Mira’s been sent to her room without dinner and her stepsisters bring up a board game and some mushy microwave pizza. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue and it’s not a complicated scene, but there’s a lot of sub-text about demonstrating care for someone else.
Inspiration for the fascinating bird characters
JH: Can you tell us about the inspiration for the bird characters in the book? I noticed there are actually two in the main cast!
LJ: I love birds of all sorts. That love started as a child. I remember when I was 10 years old, using my last 50 cents to buy a used bird cage at a garage sale and begging my mother to let me have a parakeet. She didn’t! (I now recognize the wisdom of this decision). As an adult, I was finally able to get a parakeet: Momo. He became a tiny and beloved member of our family, moving with us from Chicago to Greenville, and living for 11 years.
Lately, I’m fascinated by wild birds, like hummingbirds and crows. I loved the idea of a crow to support Mira in her journey. As Bandit the crow is from the ordinary world, it was important to me that he be an ordinary crow. However, there’s no reason to enhance crows from the way they actually are. They are extraordinary to begin with, very intelligent, and there is so much research available from which to draw. I read about some crow species using found objects as tools and I knew I had to include that behavior in the book. Source: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/08/like-humans-crows-are-more-optimistic-after-making-tools-to-solve-a-problem/. I had a little more leeway with the character of Edwin, the golden bird who made it into the cover art. He’s from a magical land so I could make him a little more human-like. Overall, I enjoyed the parallel of having both the protagonist and the antagonist having bird companions.
To the Heart of Wand
JH: What would you most like for readers to take away from the book?
LJ: At its heart, the book is about family. However, you define family—whether it be the family you are born into or the one you find along the way. About recognizing that your family might not be perfect (can’t be perfect) but might be what you need to support you in your life, anyway.
No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so. . . .
Favorite cities (besides the one you live in):
Chicago. My kids were both born there.
Scale of 1 to 10—How good of a driver are you?
Eh. Maybe an 8. I’m very cautious and slow (careful about distracted driving!) but my reflexes aren’t what they used to be.
Would you rather be able to speak every language in the world or talk to animals?
Talk to animals!
Favorite ice cream?
Mint chocolate chip.
Dawn or dusk?
Dusk. Such a gorgeous and mysterious time.
Favorite childhood TV show?
Well, that really dates me. My favorite was Space Giants. When I look back on that now, it’s kind of an embarrassing choice because the scripts and special effects weren’t exactly top notch.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Be accountable. Follow through on what you’ve promised and if you make a mistake, apologize.
JH: How can readers obtain a copy of the book? And for our educators and librarians, do you offer reading guides?
LJ: The book can be preordered at your local independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or any place books are sold. Personalized copies can be preordered at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC: https://www.fiction-addiction.com/quicksearch/author/landra%20jennings. And yes! I have an amazing curriculum supplement, with tons of fun and educational activities, to accompany my first book, and a curriculum supplement is soon to come for Wand. My multi-talented and multi-credentialed (EdS and M.Ed.) sister, Kinla Nelson, created both of these. And both will be available on my website.
And now. . . .
For a chance to win a signed copy of Wand, comment on the blog—and, if you’re on Twitter/X, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter/X account, for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends September 18, 2023, MIDNIGHT EST.) U.S. only, please. Book will be mailed after publication. To enter, click here.
About the Author
Landra Jennings is a Greenville, South Carolina-based writer, author of middle-grade fantasy novels The Whispering Fog and the forthcoming Wand (October 31, 2023) published by HarperCollins Clarion Books. She holds an MBA from Northwestern University and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University in Minneapolis where she won the Anne Tews Schwab Scholarship for Excellence in Critical Writing and the Walden Pond Press Scholarship in Middle Grade Fiction and Non-Fiction. She is passionate about encouraging a love of reading and writing in children. You can learn more about Landra on her website. You can follow her on Instagram and Goodreads.