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Vermont author M.T. Anderson garners Newbery Honor for middle grade novel about magical dog

Author MT Anderson of Calais was just awarded the Newbery Honor for his latest middle-grade book, "Elf Dog & Owl Head." The book follows a young Vermonter who befriends a magical dog during the pandemic.
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Author M.T. Anderson, of Calais, was just awarded the Newbery Honor for his latest middle grade book, "Elf Dog & Owl Head." The book follows a young Vermonter who befriends a magical dog during the pandemic.

Earlier this week, the American Library Association announced the Newbery Honors, one of the most prestigious prizes in children's literature, for Calais author M.T. Anderson.

His latest book, "Elf Dog & Owl Head," follows a kid stuck in Vermont during a global pandemic, who happens to befriend a magical dog, and adventures ensue.

It's among a long list of kids' books by Anderson, but he's also written stories for readers of all ages, tackling topics ranging from internet connections that feed directly into your brain to life during the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalinist Russia.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke to Anderson about the honor, the long walks with his dog that inspired the book and writing for younger readers.

On his book, "Elf Dog & Owl Head," winning the Newbery Honor and a Caldecott for Junyi Wu's illustrations:

"Well, I mean, for me, this is a very special award. I grew up reading these Newbery books and Caldecott books, and to be part of that legacy is just kind of incredible for me. So it was very, very moving to hear about this."

On how taking long walks with his dog during pandemic lockdown formed the basis for "Elf Dog & Owl Head":

"I mean, I had this dog who I had originally gotten kind of against my will, but I had come to love over the years, and the pandemic started. And I was sort of trapped in a little 18th century house for six months. No companionship but this dog.

Candlewick Press
"Elf Dog & Owl Head" was given the Newbery Honor this month.

And the intense bonding is what led to this. So as the spring progressed, and I was isolated in this house with her, we were spending hours a day walking, because what else you're going to do?

And so we were walking, you know, 5 or 6 miles a day. And I was just thinking, obviously about like, what it means, this connection between a human and an animal. It's such a beautiful thing.

And you start to realize, "Wait a second." Like, yeah, I might be directing which path we take or whatever. But at the same time, your sense of the natural world is so heightened by having this animal that has senses that you don't have. And can kind of tell that there are features of the forest that are hidden from you.

So I started to think about like, "What would it be like to have a dog that literally can reveal to this boy, kind of the hidden worlds that lie around him in the forest of Vermont?" So you know, in this case, it becomes a sort of a magical story. It's a story about like, yeah, there's this dog that has escaped from a kingdom under the mountain, and starts to lead this boy sort of to see the sort of hidden sights and gems and dangers in the forest that he'd never known were there. But at the same time, that dog's original owners from under the mountain are still watching out for it and trying to kind of get it back."

On capturing the imaginations of younger readers:

"I think that a lot of it is that writers for children tend to be people who still are children in part of themselves. And so you know, I mean, I'm not sure I get along with children any better or worse than anyone else. There's some of them are great. There's some of them are jerks, but, but I definitely know that I still have that strong presence of a child within me. And in this book, in particular, I could kind of feel the 10 or 11 year old me sort of directing which way the book should be written. And I would, you know, I would write the book after going on these, on these walks. So it was sort of like, I ended up being sort of the boy and his dog falling into the role of the character himself, as I walked."

On how finding letters written to ghosts who are said to occupy his 18th century home informs how he writes for younger readers:

"I love the fact that this little girl, as she was then, is writing a letter to this ghost about, you know, "Dear ghost, I love you. I think you're cute." In a way, what she's doing is producing a ghost that is palatable to her. A ghost that won't be as frightening to her. I love the fact that it's soothing the ghost and herself at the same time.

That's, I think, one of the things about writing for kids: the ways that they're interacting with a world that is still in some ways magical because, like, the cause and effect — you get used to as an adult. They don't necessarily make sense when you're a kid. It's that beautiful moment where you can be logical about things that are entirely illogical. That's the kind of magical moment of childhood that I love to write about."

M.T. Anderson's next work from Pantheon is solely for grown-ups and titled, "Nicked." Anderson says it's a bit of a heist novel based on a real, historic event: that time when a bunch of Italian sailors actually stole the corpse of St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus. "Nicked" is due out this summer.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.