Here are two Cybils nominees with misty settings and strong characters.
The Turning by Emily Whitman. Greenwillow Books, 2018.
Aran (whose skin color is not mentioned) has lived all his life with the selkies. Even though he’s stuck in ”longlimbs” and can’t join the pack when they go on longer trips, his mother assures him that he’ll get his pelt one day and be able to transform into a seal like the rest of them. When he and his mother take a great risk that doesn’t work to ask the Moon for his pelt, he’s treated with derision and suspicion by the other selkies, who urge his mother to abandon him. His faith in the Moon deeply shaken, he nonetheless agrees to live with a human woman on a small island for a moon while his mother tries another means. But it’s really hard for a boy who’s lived all his life with selkies to live with regular humans, and especially hard to stay hidden on a tiny island. Will Aran ever find anyone he can trust again?
It took a while for me to figure out that this book is set in the present day – when Aran’s first human friend, a mixed-race girl named Nellie mentions the lack of internet connection on the island, probably halfway through the book. The presence of the sea and of lives lived at around it, whether human or selkies is always there and gives the book a timeless feel. This is a lovely book for those who look for character-focused books with a strong sense of place.
Strange Star by Emma Carroll. Delacorte Press, 2018.
The book opens with a frame story set in 1816. Felix and his mother had planned a new life in Europe, free from slavery, but his mother died on board ship. Now he’s in Switzerland, serving a house party with important English guests and hoping to be hired on as a permanent man servant. It just so happens that the party includes the Shelleys and Lord Byron, who are trading ghost stories on an unusually cold June evening. Then, a very pale and bedraggled girl collapses on the doorstep.
When she awakens, she tells her story – how her mother was killed by lightning in a freak thunder snowstorm, leaving our new narrator Lizzie scarred and blind. Even so, she’s determined to solve the mysteries of the scientist who’s recently moved to her small English village as well as the cause of livestock going missing around the village, being blamed on Lizzie. When her little sister Peg goes missing, she’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to save her. A strange, tailed star hangs in the sky over all of this, making Lizzie doubt assurances that it can’t be causing the series of strange events.
Readers of this book are unlikely to have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and though I have read it, I no longer remembered the Black servant boy and the blind village girl that the author says in her notes were taken from the original story. I wish we’d gotten to spend more time with Felix, who only got a little bit of space around Lizzie’s story. Also, we didn’t see how Lizzie managed to get from England to Switzerland on her own, another story well worth telling. All these ingredients made for a nicely chilling story and a worthy reimagining of Frankenstein.