If you are an avid Nerdist reader, then you’ll know we’re huge fantasy fans. We also adore all ages books that we can lose ourselves in and share with the kids we love. That’s why we’re so excited about Jesse Q. Sutanto’s middle grade debut Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit. The awesome fantasy features spirit companions, summer camp, and self-discovery. So we’re really happy to be able to share an exclusive excerpt from the novel. But first here’s a quick description to tell you what you need to know.
Theo Tan doesn’t want a spirit companion. He just wants to be a normal American kid, playing video games, going to conventions, and using cirth pendants to cast his spells like everyone else. But, when his older brother dies, Theo ends up inheriting Jamie’s fox spirit, Kai. Kai isn’t happy about this either. Theo is nothing like Jamie, and the two of them have never gotten along. But, when they realize the mysterious journal Jamie left Theo is filled with clues and secret codes, it’s clear that something strange was going on with Jamie’s internship at Reapling Corp. But the only way onto the campus is the highly competitive “Know Your Roots” summer camp program, a celebration of Chinese and Indian cultures designed to help connect students with their heritage. Theo and Kai will have to put aside their differences long enough to honor Jamie’s last wishes, or the mystery he died for will remain unsolved forever…
As the summary teases, it sounds like an absolutely delightful tale. Not only will it introduce younger readers to Chinese mythology but also likely to their new fave hero. And it already has fans. Xiran Jay Zhao, author of the #1 NYT Bestseller Iron Widow shared their thoughts.
“Heart-felt and heart-pounding, this book will have you cheering Theo on as he sets out to find the magic of his heritage! (Both figurative and literal!)”
They’re not alone though. Booklist enthused, “Sutanto blends Chinese culture and history to build a world of dragons, demons, spell casting, and code breaking…. This is a natural choice for kids who like Rick Riordan’s brand of mythology-fueled fantasy adventures, and it will be an especially good read-alike for Laurence Yep’s classic Tiger’s Apprentice series.” So get ready to get your first taste of Theo’s world.
An acrid smell fills my nose. I try to get up, but my journey has shaken me like a wet towel and wrung me dry. Every bone’s broken, I know it. Such woe! Searing pain seizes my tails, and I would cry out if my throat didn’t feel like it’s been torn to shreds.
Water splashes over me, and the pain in my tails recedes. Gradually voices float into my consciousness.
“—is that?” someone says in Mandarin.
“A yāoguài!” someone else cries.
Excuse you, it’s most definitely not a yāoguài, I want to say, but I’m too out of breath.
“What went wrong? Where’s my goldfish?” someone says in English.
My ears perk up. The last speaker—I recognize his voice. It’s the one that called to me while I was in the spirit world. I open my eyes.
Oh no. NO. Not him. I nearly died getting to the human world for him? Buddha wept.
Jamie’s little brother—it takes a while to recall his name; I’ve always secretly thought of him as that chòu xiǎozi (little brat)—is about as different from Jamie as any human can get. Jamie is—was—made of gentle patience and ferocious hugs. Theo has no hugs to give, not that anyone would want a hug from this horrible thing anyway.
“I performed the ritual as usual . . . I don’t understand,” a man says in Mandarin, scratching his forehead. He’s garbed in the usual wū-summoning getup—garish crimson-and-blue silk robe, black satin hat, the works. He clutches a ritual scroll to his chest like a shield.
I sit up slowly. Theo doesn’t seem to recognize me, which is strange, but then again, humans have such weak, blobby minds. The room is small and dotted with summoning paraphernalia—pots of incense alongside clementine and chrysanthemum offerings, mandala, a phurpa, and other knickknacks of celestial bureaucracy that humans have convinced themselves are necessities for such rituals.
“Should I eliminate the yāoguài?” a boy says. He’s wearing an equally gaudy robe that threatens to slide off his narrow shoulders. I’m momentarily distracted from the robe as the boy nocks a peach-wood arrow into a bow and aims it straight at my head.
“Point that thing somewhere else!” I cry. “I’m not a yāoguài. I’m a shén.”
The disciple looks unconvinced. “You don’t look like a shén.”
“I’m very clearly a shén.” I try to get up, and the arrow follows my movements. It takes an effort for me not to bite his face. “Look, there must’ve been a mistake. I thought I was being summoned, but I was wrong. I’ll just go back to the spirit world, eh? No harm done.”
“Why would you think you were summoned?” The shaman runs his finger down the ritual scroll. “See, we called for one that is called Yangwei. Usually found in the form of a carp.”
“A goldfish,” Theo says.
“Right, a goldfish. Which you are not,” the shaman adds.
“Oh, well done for being able to tell the difference between an intelligent, exquisite fox and a fish,” I mutter.
Five pairs of eyes stare at me. Then the shaman pulls a pocket mirror from his robe and holds it out to me.
“I don’t see why it’s so difficult for you to see that I’m not a—” I catch a glimpse of my reflection. Ah, this would explain why Theo hasn’t recognized me. My unplanned journey to the human world has left me somewhat worse for wear. If one were kind, one might say I’m not looking my best. If one weren’t, one might point out that I’m a terrible, monstrous mishmash of all the forms I’ve learned over the years. Fish scales, a forked lizard tongue, a murky goat eye, a human belly button—let’s just say I would’ve given Chao a run for his money.
I focus my qì and summon the last of my energy. There’s a flash, and the fish-goat thing is replaced by an elegant orange fox with two bushy tails.
Theo’s mouth drops open. His hand twitches like he’s about to grab the peach-wood bow from the disciple to shoot me.
Mrs. Tan lets out a little gasp. “Kai?”