Scholastic has announced the fall 2013 launch of Spirit Animals, the company’s first multi-platform series in the fantasy genre. As with the publisher’s 39 Clues and Infinity Ring series, the Spirit Animals books will be written by different authors and will be linked to a simultaneously released online game. The story arc for the seven-book middle-grade series was created by Brandon Mull, author of the Beyonders and Fablehaven series; he will also write the debut novel, Wild Born, due out September 10. YA series maven Maggie Stiefvater (the Shiver trilogy, The Scorpio Races, and the Raven Cycle) has signed on to pen the second installment, scheduled for January 2014. Subsequent authors and pub months will be announced at a later date.

Spirit Animals is set in the world of Erdas, where children go through a coming-of-age ritual to determine if they have a “spirit animal,” which represents a bond between human and beast that bestows each with great power. The story centers on four children from different cultures who undergo the ritual and discover they have been chosen for a greater destiny.

“We were thinking about what our next multi-publishing step would be, and we realized we wanted to move into a fantasy world,” says David Levithan, v-p, publisher, and editorial director at Scholastic. “When we decided what kind of fantasy we were looking for, we went to Brandon and asked him to use his imagination and turn the idea into something real. He knows well how to write the adventure side of fantasy, and I love his humor. And his books appeal to both boys and girls, which is something we were looking for.”

Mull says he was happy to step up to the task. “I was flattered and excited to be asked,” he says. “I liked the premise; my head lives in the fantasy world. Scholastic gave me a nugget, a starting point – not much more than a writing prompt, really. They told me there was a world where kids bond with animals, and four main characters, and then said, ‘Go!’ I was able to invent the mythology and to bring a lot of other things to the project. I had a ton of control.”

For Mull, who has never written what he calls a “team book,” Spirit Animals entailed “almost a whole new way of thinking.” He likens the story arc he developed to “a playbook that the other authors will use. For me, the heart of it was getting the world and the story right. It was exciting to know that the story would cross over, not only to the online game component, but also to other storytelling styles. That’s the strength of a collaborative project like this: creating a unified story, working out of the same playbook, but having different authors bring different strengths to installments. I’m very excited to see how other authors run with it.”

Stiefvater, slated for book #2, says that she was pleased to join the Spirit Animals team for several reasons, one of which is making her first foray into middle-grade fiction. “I had been kicking around a lot of ideas for middle-grade books,” she says. “I have two kids – ages seven and eight – and they are always begging to read my novels, and I’ve told them that they could, possibly, when they’re 30! When I was approached about doing this, I was thrilled, since I liked the thought of jumping into middle grade this way – testing the waters by holding the hands of people who have already done it.”

The premise of Spirit Animals also has high appeal to Stiefvater. “I love the concept, largely because I love Celtic mythology, which animals have a big role in,” she says. “I know that mythology will be a big part of my contribution to the series.” Her eight-year-old daughter, also a big mythology fan, fed the author’s enthusiasm. “When I first talked to her about the premise and plot line, she was absolutely thrilled – her eyes were glowing. She had always wanted a puppy and was finally old enough to get one. Now she empathizes with that dog so much and loves the concept of having her own spirit animal.”

Game Time

Scholastic, which broke new ground with the launch of the multi-platform 39 Clues in fall 2008, has had solid success with this publishing model. Integrating books, collectible cards, and an online game, that series (along with its follow-up, The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers) has upwards of 15 million copies in print worldwide, and the online game has attracted more than two million registered users. Infinity Ring debuted last August with James Dashner’s A Munity in Time, which was followed in November by Divide and Conquer by Carrie Ryan. The two novels currently have a combined in-print total of 750,000 copies. The third installment in the series, Lisa McMann’s The Trap Door, will be released in February.

Levithan says that the online game component of Spirit Animals, created in-house through “a huge collaborative effort,” offers kids an immersive experience that surpasses that of the games linked to Scholastic’s earlier multi-element series. “Unlike in the Infinity Ring game, where you see Notre Dame and other historic landmarks, this is a newly created world,” he says. “The best gaming follows the lead of the story, and as game designers, we get a chance to illustrate the world that springs from the authors’ imaginations. And instead of playing the roles of characters in the books, here kids customize their own hero and choose their own unique spirit animal.”

Stiefvater and Mull are both enthusiastic about the online game element of Spirit Animals. The former recalls that her encounter with one of the first computer games she ever played – one based on Robin Hood – coincided with her reading of that novel in school. “The game made me even more passionate about the legend, and I was able to bounce back and forth between the book and game,” she recalls. “I’m excited about the visual aspect the game gives to Spirit Animals. I think it always helps to attract readers when a novel is enhanced by visuals – be it illustrations, a movie, or a game. This series is quite fantastical, not just in its magical premise, but in its landscape, and the game captures that.”

Mull, who estimates that he has made a plug for reading as fun entertainment during more than 1,000 school visits over the past seven years, believes that Spirit Animals’ online game component will edge kids toward the books. “That’s a huge part of this series’ goal,” he says. “There is so much in the media today that can distract kids from reading, why not use some of those things to draw kids into reading? I am a big advocate of finding ways to get kids reading, and I think this game is a very smart way to reach reluctant readers and to lure them into giving books a chance.”

Spirit Animals Book One: Wild Born by Brandon Mull. Scholastic, $12.99 Sept. 2013 ISBN 978-0-545-52243-4