Culture

The Lost Staff of Wonders and Cultural Rediscovery

Raymond Arroyo (portrait via Twitter)
The Will Wilder adventure series is a creative treasure for children.

Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders is the second book in a best-selling adventure series for children by Raymond Arroyo. The books are about a boy who can see demons, and they are packed with good and evil, suspense, family, fun, and manners, as enjoyable for adults as for younger readers. Arroyo, host of the long-running “The World Over” news program on EWTN, talks about Will’s world of Perilous Falls.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: You dedicate the book to your wife and your mother, for reading stories to children. Why is this so important? How hard is it to do this in the world today?

Raymond Arroyo: I dedicate it to the one who read me my first story and the one who read my children their first story. Sharing stories is an important part of passing on our humanity, our values, and our culture. As literacy rates plummet, it becomes an ever more urgent task. I meet kids every day who don’t read, but they crave good stories. If you want a child to read — read to them. The example of a parent or loved one reading is a powerful one for a child. Part of the reason that I wrote the Will Wilder series was to excite kids about the adventure of reading and to give them a tale to get lost in.

Lopez: There are flying demons in the book! This is intense stuff! Do you worry that it might be too much for young ones who already have enough intensity — and uncertainty and fear — to deal with during such young and tender years?

Arroyo: One of the first things I learned from reading specialists, librarians, and teachers was that boys — all kids really — like adventures that make them jump a little bit. They like to be scared. Just ask R. L. Stine! There’s a reason his Goosebumps series is a perennial. I have talked to tens of thousands of kids about the books, and not one has told me that the books were too intense for them.

I labor to depict the true nature of good and evil in the series. To paraphrase Chesterton: I am not telling kids that dragons exist. They already know dragons exist. My job is to let them know that the dragons can be killed. Young readers completely understand this. Frankly, it’s the adults who are likely to find the monsters and demons frightening — since they haven’t thought about those dark forces for quite some time. It’s good that the kids are there to console them.

Lopez: What are you hoping to show young people about friendship?

Arroyo: Will Wilder and his friends are not perfect by any means. They make mistakes, there are misunderstandings, but in the end, they need one another. As one of Will’s older mentors says somewhere: “Don’t be afraid. If we stick together we got this covered.” That’s true of so much of life. One of the things I have enjoyed is getting letters from aunts and uncles, grandparents, and parents who like the multigenerational aspect of the series. It’s not just kids having all the fun; it’s the whole extended family.

Lopez: Who are the Sinestri and the Brethren, and why should non-twelve-year-old boys care?

Arroyo: In the series, the Sinestri are a confederation of demons that have been battling with mankind since the dawn of time. The Brethren is a group of people who are committed to stopping the Sinestri and have been resisting them for centuries. They are outnumbered but determined. The titanic battle between good and evil is at the core of every great story. These are the opposing camps in my tales. Last time I checked, the temptations to good and evil rage within people twelve years old and a good deal older. Why wouldn’t they all care?

Lopez: What are young readers learning about the Book of Exodus through The Lost Staff of Wonders?

Arroyo: I don’t know what they learn about Exodus, but they will discover a great deal about the staff of Moses and the man who wielded it. I actually learned a lot about the staff reading the Midrash, early Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament. It suggests that the staff was sapphire and studded with lettering describing the plagues. There is some disagreement about whether there was just one staff or two: the staff of Moses and the staff of his brother Aaron. I solve this in a fun way by the end of the book. But here’s the bigger point: The staff of Moses set a lot of literary and cultural precedents. King Arthur’s Excalibur, every magic wand or wizard’s staff you’ve ever read about all owe their existence to the staff of Moses.

Lopez: Who is the character Pothinus Sab supposed to be?

Arroyo: He’s a self-help guru and soothsayer from Egypt who comes to Perilous Falls promising “regeneration.” Pothinus turned into a great character filled with mystery, drama, and secrets. He’s Pothinus Sab! Who do you think he was supposed to be?

Lopez: Max is in a wheelchair. Why? (He’s a funny fella, too, isn’t he?)

Arroyo: I get more beautiful letters about Max Meriwether — and he is really funny. Max is a friend of Will Wilder’s who has a very special gift and an important role in the series. People make assumptions about those with special needs. Just because a boy is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he can’t have incredible adventures and play an active role. Max, who struggles with muscular dystrophy, actually sees beyond the surface of things. He often sees more clearly than Will Wilder or any of his peers. He is in real danger in this book . . . 

Lopez: Why did “Great bladders must think alike” make me laugh? I’ve never been a twelve-year-old boy!

Arroyo: I hope you laughed because it’s funny! Humor is a big part of the Will Wilder series. There are a lot of very serious things going on for Will. He’s battling fear and all kinds of dark forces. But how do we deal with things that endanger us? We laugh. We use humor to connect with one another and let in a bit of light. For me, these are real people, and sometimes they say hilarious things I never intended to write. It’s one of the joys of writing a series like this: I’m as surprised as the readers.

Lopez: “Hats shouldn’t be worn indoors,” one character says. You’re teaching manners, too? Why are such details important?

Arroyo: Because it’s important to this character. Ann Hye, the character that says this to Will, has a good reason for saying this at that moment. Again, I’m really not trying to teach via the lines. I’m simply being true to what this character would say and do in that moment. Just as we rarely blurt out what we mean in life, characters behave in a similar way. We veil, we hedge, we charm, we dodge, we joke, but we rarely bare our souls. This is not a manners lesson, but it does reveal something about Ann Hye.

Lopez: There’s something intentional about moms and dads and grandparents and others in the series, isn’t there? Can that help children who don’t come from such familial situations, without imposing shame and judgment on them?

Arroyo: The trope in kids’ literature to have a protagonist who is abandoned or orphaned has always annoyed me. My experience is that whether a child has their mom and dad with them or is in the care of a relative or grandparent, kids need elders to help them through life. I had a rich assortment of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and mentors in my young life — why shouldn’t Will? And you know what I’ve found? Kids love the older characters in the series.

Even if they are not in a nuclear family, they all identify with the idea that we need family around us to go on this adventure of life. Will doesn’t always listen to his elders in the series, but they are there and in the struggle together. The young need the experience of age around them, and the old need the wonder of youth. This is one of the reasons that Will Wilder has caught on with people eight to 88. They all see themselves in these adventures and the stories awaken the kid in all of us.

Lopez: What is the most important thing Will Wilder has taught you, so far?

Arroyo: Will has taught me that [former National Review religion editor] Father Richard Neuhaus was right: “The world is wilder and more wondrous than we imagine, miracles happen even now.” Will has also allowed me to meet the greatest readers: passionate, smart, open-hearted young people who truly love a good story. To have spent time in their company and to have them read my work is one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given. Thank you, Will.

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