In Doug Cosper’s recently released young adult novel, On Wings of Wonder, Case is a twelve-year-old boy from Colorado whose lepidopterist mother has inexplicably disappeared. He has deep roots in the state: The boy's grandfather — a character based on the real-life Scott Harrison — is the man who restored the famed Carousel of Happiness in Nederland and carved its magical wooden animals. But when neither his father nor his grandfather can reassure him about his mother’s whereabouts, Case sets out to find her, accompanied by a wise blue butterfly named Flinder, who becomes his transportation, guide and mentor.
Cosper himself has led a peripatetic life. The story of his novel began many years ago, when he and his family lived in Holland and he read bedtime stories to his two now-grown daughters — one of whom, Anna Cosper, is an artist and provided the cover and illustrations for his book. Case, then a little Dutch boy, and Flinder “were the vehicles for the stories that might have included a visit to an ancient Asian temple or a thousand paper lanterns rising into the night sky. But they always included gross food like eyeball soup or fried worms,” Cosper recalls. “I wanted my daughters to nurture their sense of wonder.”
Cosper is a Fulbright scholar who spent 27 years working as as a journalist and foreign correspondent, winning several awards; he spent thirteen more years training fellow reporters in several developing democracies. “In many of these countries, the primary task was to introduce the concept of fact-based reporting, and to say, ‘No, you can’t just write to please your boss and leaders,’” he says. “Just this one change suddenly made the job a lot more dangerous.” On Wings of Wonder is set in three of the countries where he worked, Cambodia, Myanmar and Botswana — “where the people like fried caterpillars so much they put them on their currency,” he observes.
Early in his journey, Case meets Mira, a Rohingya girl with a vivid scar across her face. She wears ragged clothes, carries a large knife and at first shows him nothing but hostility. Finally, she tells him about the massacre that killed her entire family, including her beloved father. Mira, too, has a butterfly companion, and the four of them set off to find Case’s mother together.
Cosper’s writing is rich in description, bringing to life landscapes from snowy mountaintops to parched desert, glittering waters to sacred temples. In telling his story, he provides information — historical, archeological, anthropological, geographical — that will be new to many young readers. Yet there is nothing pedagogical in his approach, and the novel is also filled with adventure and pure fantasy.
Case’s education and understanding are deepened with each encounter. At one point, he meets Toma, a Bushman, in the Kalahari desert, and Toma describes to him a poison extracted from the grub of a beetle. Case asks about the poison’s origin and how Toma learned its use. “A people can learn a lot in a few tens of thousands of years,” Toma responds.
The text continues: “Case tried to imagine tens of thousands of years, not an easy task for one who had been alive for not quite 12 of them. He summoned what he could of human history. The United States is about 240 years old. The kingdoms of Angkor and Bagan were 1,000 years old. The pyramids in Egypt, about 4,500 years old. The Wall of Jericho was the oldest human-made thing he could think of. About 10,000 years. He stopped. He couldn’t imagine 10,000 years.”
In this age of safe spaces and trigger warnings, the suffering of the youngsters in the book may be difficult for Americans to take in. But “I think that middle-grade readers deserve a chance to know some of the bad things that happen in the wider world,” says Cosper. “The tragic recent story of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and the ancient and continuing story of the oppression of the Kalahari Bushmen. Here’s a white kid from Colorado being introduced to the unpleasant realities of the world through the eyes of twelve-year-olds who tell him their stories. They ask him, ‘What about your stories? Who are your people?’”
In the book, Case responds that he isn’t sure “that he has a people.”
Cosper continues, “The story offers a new way to understand these horrific events and what young readers can do about them — guard their wonder.”
As for his own reading preferences, Cosper refers to “an unpublished gem called Milo and Biscuit’s Guide to Evolution written by my friend George Blevins. George is a former Freedom Rider and taught himself quantum physics to write the book, which traces the evolution of the universe from before the Big Bang up to the first amino acids through the eyes of a precocious little boy and a Bowery bum.”
Another favorite: “Among my treasured possessions is a first American edition of Peter and Wendy, later Peter Pan, that I picked up at a garage sale. I think it’s brilliant, timeless. It went straight to the heart of the child in adult readers.”
Cosper is clear about what he wants readers to take away from his own book. He hopes they “will see butterflies in a whole new way and feel the power of their wonder, even if for a moment. And for adult readers, my hope is that they might pause at the sight of a butterfly and search inside for their wonder that may have been misplaced along the way.”
Cosper is living with cancer, and rather than the diagnosis inspiring the book, he says that writing On Wings of Wonder helped him shape his response to the diagnosis and make peace with the illness: “Immersing myself in wonder while writing has helped me appreciate more deeply the wonder around me, and to be ever more grateful for the time I have had to participate in this miracle of life on this wondrous planet.”
Doug Cosper will read from On Wings of Wonder at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, October 23, at Second Star to the Right, 1545 South Pearl Street. Find out more here.