M.A. "Call me Mitch" Larson wages battle against life's insidious cynicism, finding allies in cartoon ponies, in a community of fans known as Bronies and in feisty princesses in a quest to let kindness reign throughout the kingdom.
When Larson left Burnsville after high school — first to New York City, then to Los Angeles — he found actual employment doing what he always wanted to do: writing.
Granted, it was writing episodes for "SpongeBob SquarePants," but it was writing. And, like many who write for that genre, he wrote with the obligatory winks to the grown-ups, with a sense of parody, with a confidence of knowing just how cool to be in school.
Larson's life now is pretty cool, mostly because he made an about-face into sincerity. The result is his first novel, "Pennyroyal Academy" (Penguin, $16.99), which the New York Times has called "ridiculously compelling."
Larson will talk about his work and sign books Feb. 26 at Burnhaven Library in Burnsville, where he used to check out copies of "Garfield" and "Bloom County," before moving on to books such as his favorite, "Watership Down."
"I read that before I could really understand what was going on. I've always liked reading above my level," he said from his home in Los Angeles, sounding just a tad sleep-deprived now that a 2-month-old daughter has joined her 3-year-old sister.
"Pennyroyal Academy" is a fantasy written for middle-graders, which is "on the young end of young adult." Evie, his heroine, attends an academy where princesses and princes train to fight witches and knights. This is not your usual Sleeping Beauty.
Nor is Larson, 37, your usual princess fantasy author. He grew up playing "football, baseball and basketball in the greatest hockey state in the country," he notes in his website bio at www.malarson.com.
From parody to sincerity
A snarky reference to "princess fatigue" made him wonder about making a parody of the pop cultural obsession with all things glittery. He set about pitching a TV show about a princess boot camp — to no takers. Stymied, he began researching princesses, delving into "The Uses of Enchantment," a 1976 book by a disciple of Sigmund Freud that analyzes fairy tales.
"It's amazing," he said. "It analyzes Grimm's fairy tales and the positive benefits of reading these dark, violent stories. You go through these horrific things, but you come out OK on the other side. What's lost when — for lack of a better term, you Disney-fy this — you lose those coping skills."
Larson isn't sure how princesses became so prissy and so pink.
"It's bizarre because there are plenty of princesses who are more interesting than that stereotype, princesses who are heroes, or who are evil," he said, then chuckled. "But yeah, there are lots who sit in towers and wait to be rescued."
It's not even fair to blame Disney, he added, "because when you watch those old movies, there's a real kindness and genuineness in the princesses, not what 'princess' means now with the word written in glitter on the back of someone's sweatpants."
King of the Bronies
While "Pennyroyal Academy" will raise Larson's profile, he's legendary for his writing among Bronies: adults, particularly young men, who are huge fans of the animated TV series "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic." If you harness "bro" to "pony," you get "brony."
Vice, the global media company with an intense youth vibe, has called Larson the "Brony king."
So, uh, what's up with that?
Larson had to stop laughing before he answered: "I honestly don't know. If I had to guess, it's that these guys grow up in a media environment so saturated with the horrible events of the world on a daily basis, with a media that is so cynical and postmodern, that they're watching these episodes ironically at first, but then find that the show is actually kinda nice. It's sweet. It's gentle and good."
It's a discovery curve not unlike Larson's own: "We were a 'Transformers' household."
"I've gone to a lot of their conventions, and there's just a joyous spirit there," he added. "It's just a bunch of friends getting together over a cartoon they like."
His second "Pennyroyal" book is done, but draws on the Brony ethos. "I want to show that genuine earnestness, to show that kindness is a good thing."