The premise of Adam Gidwitz’s Unicorn Rescue Society is, indeed, the quintessential stuff of legends. When fictional Professor Mito Fauna heard rumors of a unicorn in danger in the mountains of Peru, he instantaneously founded the Unicorn Rescue Society and set out to save the creature. Though disappointed to find not a unicorn but a qarqacha, the legendary two-headed llama of the Andes, Fauna valiantly rescued it anyway. Entitled The Creature of the Pines, illustrated by Hatem Aly and released by Dutton in April 2018, this saga launched the series recounting the professor’s various quests (aided by his student sidekicks) to protect creatures of myth and legend worldwide.
In The Chupacabras of the Río Grande, due from Dutton in April, Fauna and his team embark on their fourth mission, traveling to Laredo, on the U.S.-Mexican border, to help another mythical creature in need: the chupacabras. Gidwitz, whose previous novels include the Grimm trilogy and the Newbery Honor-winning The Inquisitor’s Tale, wrote the novel with David Bowles. This collaboration is Gidwitz’s third in the series, after penning The Basque Dragon with Jesse Casey and Sasquatch and the Muckleshoot with Joseph Bruchac.
The Unicorn Rescue Society had its roots in what Gidwitz flippantly describes as “a traumatic experience from my childhood”: his inability to find a book that interested him as a second grader. “I remember walking up and down the aisles of the school library and being so frustrated that there was nothing I wanted to read,” he recalled. “What I wanted was a book that was funny and exciting and part of a series—and if it had animals in it, even better.”
That’s an apt description of his latest series, the bare-bones idea for which Gidwitz shared with his longtime friend, Casey, cofounder, with Chris Lenox Smith, of Mixtape Club, an audiovisual creative studio that creates narrative-driven films. “Throughout middle and high school, Jesse and I did lots of projects together, including writing movie scripts and building a car powered by a mouse trap, which never moved!” said Gidwitz. “He and Chris and I began developing the idea for the Unicorn Rescue Society, and they created some tie-in animated shorts for YouTube.” Casey and Smith became co-creators of the series, and Casey cowrote the second book.
To write the third novel, Sasquatch and the Muckleshoot, which involves the rescue of Bigfoot in Western Washington, ancestral home of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Gidwitz partnered with Joseph Bruchac, a prolific Native American poet and storyteller, to ensure the authenticity of the novel’s voice and backstory. “There were several passages that I wrote that Joseph said were ‘lovely and empathetic,’ but not factually correct,” Gidwitz explained, “so he rewrote them to make them accurate. His historical and creative input made this novel much stronger.”
Expanding Cultural Landscapes
The idea of asking Bowles to coauthor The Chupacabras of the Río Grande came out of a conversation that Gidwitz had with author Matt de la Peña, a mutual friend of his and Bowles. De la Peña immediately mentioned Bowles when Gidwitz said he was looking for a Mexican-American author to collaborate with on a novel.
It was a smart call. Born into a Mexican-American family, Bowles currently teaches at the University of Texas, Río Grande Valley, and is author of numerous critically acclaimed titles for children, including The Smoking Mirror and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poem, both Pura Belpré Honor Books. “I had established myself in a small way as purveyor of border legends and myths,” Bowles said, “and that dovetailed nicely with the series’ focus on mythological milieus. When Adam asked me, I immediately said ‘yes’—it didn’t require any thinking on my part at all!”
Their collaboration proved smooth-going. Once the two “hammered out the story,” Bowles said, it became a process of backing-and-forthing, which each author writing two chapters before passing the manuscript back to the other. “It was a good way to ensure the flow of the story,” Bowles observed. “Adam would correct the voice if I was straying away from the rhythm of the series, and it was fun to see how, no matter how well you plan, the story grows organically in ways you can’t anticipate. It was important to me to break stereotypes and make sure that the Latinx characters represented in the book accurately reflected the rich diversity of the people of the Río Grande Valley.”
Gidwitz praised his co-author for the vision and depth of information he brought to the novel—and for his patient rewriting of what he called “my horrible, broken Spanish.” Like Bowles, Gidwitz is pleased with the diversity of the novel’s characters in the book and their differing views on a border wall. “Once we decided that we couldn’t ignore the controversy surrounding the border wall, we knew we had to meet it head-on,” he said. “We found a way to face the issues in a way that is respectful and edifying for kids. And we found a range of feelings on the border that I didn’t expect. Characters cropped up and expressed their opinions in a way that was beautiful and moving to me.”
Julie Strauss-Gabel, president and publisher of Dutton Children’s Books, who has been Gidwitz’s editor for almost a decade, jokes that the shifting collaborative partnerships on the Unicorn Rescue Society books, along with input from Casey and Smith, “makes for a cast of thousands, that’s for sure!” Yet she welcomes the challenge and the fluctuating tides. “I am always game for whatever creative project Adam proposes,” she said. “This series is ambitious, and he has brought different talent to the wheelhouse. It has been great to work with all the guest authors who have come on board.”
Gidwitz explained that the series’ fifth installment, centering on a Cuban-American family and a Caribbean mythological sea creature, will be coauthored by Emma Otheguy (whose Silver Meadow Summer is due from Knopf in April). Though he has a six-book contract for the series, Gidwitz mused it may have to extend beyond that number, since the sixth book is already planned out—and no unicorn has been rescued. Gidwitz is cagey about its whereabouts, noting, “The unicorn might show up in book seven—or in book 80! I know where it is, but I’m not telling.”
The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Chupacabras of the Río Grande. Adam Gidwitz and David Bowles, illus. by Hatem Aly. Dutton, $14.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-7352-3179-5