Author Jessica Townsend speaks with fans about her new book “Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow” at an after-school meet-and-greet at BookBar in Denver, Colorado. (Marilyn Robbins/BookBar/Marilyn Robbins/BookBar)

Jessica Townsend loves enormous cats, umbrellas and chandeliers.

So she put them in her first novel, "The Trials of Morrigan Crow," which is also the first book in her fantasy series Nevermoor.

Just as the main character, a girl named Morrigan Crow, is about to meet a terrible fate, a red-bearded man, Jupiter North, spirits her away to a strange city called Nevermoor. He gives her a special black umbrella and finds her a room in a whimsical hotel, which is presided over by a giant feline. From the ceiling in the lobby, a chandelier seems to be slowly sprouting, like a weird flower.

Jupiter wants Morrigan to take a series of odd tests. If she passes, she will become a member, like him, of the Wundrous Society and receive additional training. The problem: Out of 500 candidates, only nine will be chosen. They are the "few and special," the artists, inventors, scientists, athletes and explorers who help a society to flourish.

One of the funniest aspects of the book is the difference between Jupiter and Morrigan. He is highly optimistic and colorful, in lavender shoes and lemon-yellow suits. Pessimistic Morrigan favors outfits as plain and dark as the feathers of the bird whose name she bears.

Morrigan is sure she will fail these tests. All the candidates have an amazing knack or skill that helps them stand out. One girl sings beautifully. A boy communicates with dogs. Morrigan's best friend can ride dragons. But whenever Morrigan asks Jupiter about her knack, he changes the subject.


HANDOUT IMAGE: "Nevermoor" is the latest middle-grade novel by Jessica Townsend. (Photo from Little, Brown)

As time passes, Morrigan grows frustrated and worried. If she fails, she will be forced to leave Nevermoor and return to her cursed home.

It took Townsend 10 years to write this imaginative tale. She started it on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, in Australia, where she grew up and now lives. But she got many ideas for the "magical, dangerous city" of Nevermoor when she moved to London, England, at age 22, she said in an email from her home.

Although she doesn't own a magical item like Morrigan's umbrella, Townsend hangs on happily to something almost as amazing: her grandmother's worn, 70-year-old copy of Townsend's favorite book, "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott.

"I've always loved stories about sisters," she said.

Townsend herself has two sisters and two brothers. Her older sister Sally taught her how to read at the age of 4.

As a kid, "I pretty much constantly had my face in a book," Townsend said.

When asked about her knack, Townsend says she may have three: "muddling through life . . . in a slightly slapdash way," typing more than 100 words a minute and falling asleep quickly.

"Not sure any of those would get me into the Wundrous Society, unfortunately," she added.

Townsend plans at least three books in the series. She just finished the second, which should be published in November.

When she visits schools, Townsend likes to encourage young writers by telling them about her process, about the decade spent writing and revising her first novel.

"I think one of the most important things for kids to learn about writing is that all their favorite books started out as much lousier first drafts, and that it takes hard work, patience and perseverance to turn a first draft into a finished product," she said.

Perseverance. This may be Townsend's fourth knack — and the one most appreciated by the Wundrous Society.