Arts & Culture
1:00 am
Tue May 6, 2014

Novel Sends Middle Grade Readers Steaming Into a Distant World

Jaleigh Johnson sends her middle-grade writers to a different world and back to the era of big steam engines in her new fantasy novel.

The Mark of the Dragonfly takes place in a fantasy world called Solace - an Earthlike place at a pivotal juncture in its history.  "I always say the book is a combination of an Industrial Revolution and an Age of Exploration," Johnson says.

Writer Jaleigh Johnson
Writer Jaleigh Johnson
Credit Mark Jones photo

It's influenced by Johnson's interest in "Steampunk," the subset of science fiction marked by Industrial Age machines, embodied in classic stories by authors such as Jules Verne.

The book's heroine is Piper, a young teen who lives on her own in a "scrapper town," in which people make their living collecting debris that has crashed to the ground during meteor storms.  It's following one of those storms that Piper discovers a mysterious, injured girl named Anna.  Anna's arm bears a tattoo, denoting her as an important and protected member of the Dragonfly Territories.  But Anna herself cannot remember anything about her own history.

Piper, who is gifted at fixing machines, discovers she can also help people.  And as Anna regains her health, the two girls set off on a steam train - the 401 - bound for the city of Noveen, where they hope to discover the truth about Anna.  

Piper, Anna, and Gee, depicted on the back cover of Jaleigh Johnson's "The Mark of the Dragonfly."
Piper, Anna, and Gee, depicted on the back cover of Jaleigh Johnson's "The Mark of the Dragonfly."
Credit Random House books; artwork by Nigel Quarless

Along the way, they try to elude the dangerous characters who appear set to harm Anna.  They're helped by the train's chief of security, a boy named Gee.

But while the setting will be exotic to young readers, it is the developing friendship between Piper and Anna that Johnson believes will reel them in.

"I loved writing the banter back and forth between them," she says, "because they can fight like sisters and they have that relationship.  But to see the bond that grows stronger as the story goes along - that was one of my favorite parts of the writing."

Johnson, who lives in Illinois, also has written novels for a Dungeons and Dragons-themed line of books.  This was her first published fiction to feature a world entirely of her devising - and that was a huge appeal for her.

"I got to decide what the magic was like - the different species and creatures that inhabit it," she says.  "I created a whole world guide for myself where I sketched a map and I had lists of the food and drink that the characters and species [ate and drank.]"

And she believes it's all perfectly matched to a middle-grade audience, such as the kids she recently spoke at schools in Elm Grove and New Berlin.

"I like their sense of wonder," she says.  "I have heard my writing described as kind of quirky, maybe a little bit romantic, maybe kind of odd.  And kids, for whatever reason, seem to respond to that.  They like the quirky characters, the detailed fantasy worlds.  They like to get lost in them."

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