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Author M.T. Anderson's new novel for kids imbues magic into the landscape

A closeup portrait of a white man with glasses.
Sonya Sones
National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson's new book is called "Elf Dog & Owl Head."
"Elf Dog & Owl Head" features illustrations by Junyi Wu.
"Elf Dog & Owl Head" features illustrations by Junyi Wu.

In M.T. Anderson's new middle grade novel, Elf Dog & Owl Head, the author takes readers on a grand adventure through the wondrous worlds that exist deep in the woods. Anderson is a New York Times bestselling author and a National Book Award winner. In Elf Dog, a curious dog leaves a magical world and enters our own. He teams up with a little boy, and the two journey together through a forest that holds more than meets the eye.

Anderson speaks with host Mikaela Lefrak about being inspired by his canine companion, the inspirations behind the book's mythical world, called Mount Norumbega, and his haunted farmhouse in Calais.

Our guest:

  • M.T. Anderson, author

The following partial transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: The main character in your new book is named Clay. He's facing a global pandemic that has brought the world to a halt, and he's trapped inside with his family and his sisters. Wherever did you get that idea?

M.T. Anderson: Well, I was indeed stuck here in this little house, up in the hills of Vermont, alone with a dog during the pandemic. It was just such a gift to be able to have that creature wandering around with me. There are around 100 miles of roads in the town I live in, and we walked all of them during the pandemic. I was thinking of how great it is that there are these pets that can extend our families and provide a connection with us in a time of difficulty. Even if you just come home from school, or you come home from work, and you feel like people didn't appreciate you, and there's this animal jumping up and down with joy to see you — just to say, yeah, you're the one.

Lefrak: I read on your website that you live in what you call a "small, haunted 18th century house in the hills of Vermont." Can you tell us a bit more about this house and how it inspires your work?

Anderson: It's a fun story. I had previously written an 18th century novel, so I was very excited to find an 18th century house. It just squeaks in, at 1796. But I was told before I bought it by locals, "Oh, you should know that it's haunted. There is a child that screams with an unworldly wail outside the window at night." I was like, well, if it's outside the windows, it's not really the homeowners’ problem, is it? That's it's not within my walls, so I don't care!

I moved in and the house hadn't been lived in for a few years — it was a mess. Under the floors, I found these letters from kids who'd lived in the house in the 1970s. My favorite said something like, “Dear Ghost, I think you are cute. Will your mom buy you a corgi so you can ride on it? Do you like skating?” I thought this was so charming. I posted it on Facebook and Vermont is so small that within an hour and a half, those quote-unquote kids — who were like my age, they're in their 50s — had contacted me. They came back and told me all sorts of stories about the house and the ghost. It was just an amazing, very Vermont experience.

Lefrak: It's truly most Vermont story that they appeared within minutes of your post!

Anderson: Of course. Because there are only like seven people in this state. It’s why you have to look over your shoulder when you're gossiping in the diner.

Lefrak: One of the other things that I loved about your book is that there are a couple of little nods to Vermont life and culture. It included a kind of faux-Front Porch Forum, Fireside Forum.

Anderson: Yes, yes, I love Front Porch Forum, who doesn't? All sorts of great gossip. My favorite spot in our town's Front Porch Forum were people really getting angry about the fact that, like, ‘why do we call a Fisher a cat when it's not a cat? It's more like a weasel.’ People were really getting upset about this. I love conversations like that.

Lefrak: Right, where it's just evidence of how much people care about the place that they live.

Anderson: Right, exactly. And, how crazy we all are, because you know that we're stuck in our houses all winter, of course.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, April 5, 2023 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.