Here are closer looks at two books that are eligible for the Cybils award in my middle grade speculative fiction category, but not yet nominated. They are both stories of friendship that ask the reader to take a new look at the past. I first read about The Forgotten Girl on Charlotte’s Library, and have been following the Dactyl Hill Squad from the beginning.
The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown. Scholastic, 2019. ISBN 9781338317244. Read from library copy.
Iris suffers from nightmares that neither her mother’s practical suggestions nor her best friend’s grandmother Suga’s folkloric ones have any effect on. So when it starts snowing at bedtime one night, sneaking out with her best friend Daniel to play in it seems like a logical solution.
But while they are making snow angels in a clearing in the nearby woods, they discover the grave of a girl their own age, Avery. And what starts as easily explainable shadows or night-lights flickering out gets more sinister as Iris hears her little sister Vashti talking when there shouldn’t be anyone in her room and she starts seeing a girl in a blue dress with blank black eyes. Avery didn’t like being forgotten, and Avery is willing to do whatever it takes to have a playmate….
Meanwhile, Iris and Daniel have decided to research this tiny cemetery, which turns out to have been a segregated Black cemetery, for a local history assignment at school, even as a white girl, Heather, brags that her family’s Confederate sword will be much more interesting. But though Iris tries to work on this while balancing her duties as captain of the step team and trying to join the school’s Cleanup Club, she has a hard time focusing as Avery becomes ever more present and insistent.
Like Karen Armstrong’s Just South of Home, The Forgotten Girl builds a spooky story out of suppressed history. They’d make a great seasonal pairing, too – Just South of Home has a strong summer setting, while this is set around Christmas. You could mix in Spirit Hunters for a fall feeling, too. All of these books contain strong cultural elements, too. Here, Iris’s hair care, her step team, Suga’s stories, and their holiday feast are all part of the story, as are her relationships with Daniel and her little sister.
My daughter has told me that she thinks everything I like is usually boring, but was intrigued by the cover and premise of this one. She didn’t make it all the way through, but I think that’s more to do with her current obsession with the Warriors series, which has over 80 books filled with non-stop action, where this starts more quietly and slowly ratchets up the fright factor.
Thunder Run. Dactyl Hill Squad Book 3 by Daniel José Older. Scholastic, 2020. ISBN 978-1338268874. Read from library copy.
12-year-old orphan Magdalys Roca explores New Orleans, helps the Union Cause in the Civil War, and even makes her way to Mexico in this third installment of the Dactyl Hill Squad. If you haven’t read the first two, you’ll want to start there, as characters and events from the first two books are mentioned frequently whether or not they are present in this one. We jump right into the action as Magdalys, Mapper, her brother and his squad are holed up in an old house in the swamps of Louisiana and have to escape a much larger Confederate force.
I continue to enjoy the pairing of real Civil War events with the improbable delight of dinosaurs and Magdalys’s growing connection to them, here combined with a look at the beginnings of New Orleans culture. While there’s lots of action, Magdalys also has time to reflect on how being a soldier has changed her brother, and how even though she wants the Union army to win to end slavery, she doesn’t agree with their war against Native peoples – especially as her friend Amaya is an Apache. My son would probably say he’s too old for this now, but it has a lot of the same appeal as his favorite Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. There are lots of loose ends even at the end of this book, and I’ll definitely be on board for the next one.