Here are two new middle grade fantasies that appear light on the surface, but address serious issues underneath. I have read several of Sarah Beth Durst’s middle grade books in the past, as well as a few of her adult books. Erin Bowman has written quite a few books for teens before, but this, her middle grade debut, is the first of her books I’ve read.
The Girl and the Witch’s Garden by Erin Bowman. Simon & Schuster, 2020. ISBN 978-1534461581. Read ebook on Libby.
Piper Peavey (pale and red-haired) has never before stayed at her grandmother’s grand house, Mallory Estate, even though she doesn’t live far away. She’s not excited to be there now, either – not because of the persistent rumors that her grandmother is a witch who makes nosy children disappear, which of course she doesn’t believe, but because she’s only there because her father is dying. At least, that’s the impression she’s getting from her aunt, though adults are ridiculously unwilling to tell a twelve-year-old what’s going on with her own father.
Once there, she is shocked and hurt to discover that the mother who left her when she was seven is now fostering several other children. Julius, Kenji, and Camilla (all various shades of bronze to brown) are all orphans pulled out of the regular foster care system because of their “affinities” or magical abilities, tasked both to doing household chores and trying to find a way to elixir of life hidden at the center of the garden in the back. Even though Piper’s mother isn’t kind to them right now, they’re still motivated to do what she wants by a chance at being adopted.
But they also tell Piper that she’s sleeping in the room that until very recently belonged to Kenji’s best friend Teddy, now missing. But is finding a missing kid, helping with her mother’s quest, or saving her father the most important? And will she be able to do anything if she can’t find an affinity of her own?
This summer story of magic lying just under and behind the boring and ordinary reminded me of the best parts of classic stories like E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (which I no longer recommend to children due to casual racism, though I loved it as a child.) We still have the large, mysterious estate and a group of children deciding how much they can trust each other and exploring their own magic.
But we also have Piper dealing with her feelings about her father – and having a parent dying over the course of the book rather than just before the beginning is pretty rare. (What other books do this? The one that pops to mind that also deals with a dying parent is The Wizard’s Dilemma, #5 in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series.) This huge issue creates some very real ethical dilemmas for her in dealing with her mother’s instructions and the other kids she’s with.
I really enjoyed this mix of mystery, action, and thoughtfulness. I would love to see more with these characters!
Catalyst by Sarah Beth Durst. Narrated by Cassandra Morris. Clarion, 2020. ISBN 978-0358065029. Recorded Books ASIN B088P85LN7. Listened to audiobook on Libby.
Just before her twelfth birthday, Zoe finds a tiny kitten on her back step, so tiny that she names her Pipsqueak. It’s mostly her mother’s new job and her older brother being about to go to college in Paris that makes her parents finally give her permission to keep the pet she’s been wanting for years. It’s the first of many recent changes that’s felt good to Zoe.
Then Pipsqueak starts to grow. Zoe is worried, but the vet she takes her to just thinks that Zoe is lying about her age. Within days, she’s big enough that Zoe has to hide her in the shed. When people start sharing videos of a flying poodle, Zoe and her best friend Harrison know it’s not safe for Pipsqueak to stay.
But it’s not easy to know what to do about a problem you can’t tell your parents about, especially when you can’t drive. They were able to bribe Harrison’s slightly older cousin, Surita, to drive Zoe and Pipsqueak to the vet only with the lure of the comic book shop across the street.
Then Zoe remembers her Aunt Alecia, now estranged from her practical mother because of Aunt Alecia’s firm belief in things like unicorns. It won’t be easy, but Zoe, Harrison, and a now talking and big enough to ride Pipsqueak set out towards the White Mountains of New Hampshire to find Aunt Alecia, hoping for a solution that will let Zoe and Pipsqueak stay together safely.
So many things to delight kids and horrify parents, including the keeping of large secrets and traveling for days tentless camping without telling the parents where they are going! At the same time, great thoughts of course on responsibility to pets, but also on it being more important to be yourself than to be who people expect or want you to be, and of coming to accept change. Cassandra Morris’s young-sounding voice is perfect for this, and my daughter is very much looking forward to listening to it as well.