Here are two stories of girls – one past, one future – leaving the safety of their homes for the first time, and the adventures that follow.
The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street
by Lauren Oliver.
Read by Reba Buhr.
ISBN 978-0062345073. Listened to audiobook on hoopla.
In late 19th-century Boston, Cordelia Clay (who, like all the other major human characters in the book, appears to be white) lives with her veterinarian father, learning everything she can of the monsters her deceased mother studied. Since her mother died researching a particularly rare monster in Brazil, her father’s regular veterinary practice has suffered. Instead, he and Cordelia spend their nights searching Boston for distressed monsters of all kinds, caring for them in their dilapidated mansion.
But when Lizzie wakes up after they’ve found a baby dragon with an injured wing, her father is gone, as are all the monsters in the house except for the two in the oven – the baby dragon and a stinky filch. She sets off to find her father with a street boy named Gregory, whose zombie puppy she saved, and a threatening note in handwriting she can’t quite decipher.
The resulting adventure involves multiple chases, train and hot air balloon rides, as well as circuses, international travel. On the intellectual side, it also involves Cordelia exploring what really ended her friendship with her former best friend Lizzie, who stopped talking to Cordelia and started wearing extravagantly ruffled dresses both around the same time. We also learn a lot about the big scholarly debate in which her mother had been involved between those who believe that monsters are unnatural and inherently evil and those who believe, like Cordelia’s mother, that they are just another expression on the tree of life.
The biggest downside of listening to this on audio is that it starts off with Cordelia’s mother’s guide to monsters – a full 30 minutes of them described scientifically, mostly explaining away their magic. I would probably have skipped or skimmed it in print – I find magical creatures interesting because of their magic. And when some of them are animals and some clearly sentient and intelligent, it gets even more confusing. However, once in the story, the magical creatures do still feel magical, and Ms. Oliver is making an important point about judging people by their actions and character, not their appearance, whether human or monsterish. Though I had been very impatient through the first section, once the story got going, I was invested and would recommend it to those who love stories of adventure, discovery, and magical creatures.
Cleo Porter and the Body Electric
by Jake Burt
Feiwel and Friends, 2020.
Read from library copy.
In a timely happenstance, this book, written pre-pandemic, is about a girl living in a post-pandemic world. In this future, humanity gave up on curing the pandemic, opting instead for permanent lockdown. The few remaining humans live in giant apartment buildings scattered across the country, with residents of each apartment sealed inside, receiving everything they need through drone-serviced delivery tubes, and socializing with people outside their apartments only through virtual reality.
Our young heroine Cleo is already in training to be a surgeon. But when the supposedly infallible drones misdeliver a package of life-saving medicine to her, she ignores the advice of her parents and AI teacher, Ms. VAIN, and decides to deliver it in person. But the building outside her apartment is meant for drones, not humans, including drones to expel vermin. And what will a girl raised inside a few small rooms do in the terrifying out-of-doors?
Cleo herself is a satisfyingly empathetic and courageous heroine, and I know so many kids feeling her terror at leaving the safety of her apartment, and one by one, all the other supports she’s been accustomed to. She attracts an adorable little drone along the way (whom she puts in her skull replica for safety), has to escape multiple terrifying large drones (as seen on the cover) and meets some interesting characters on the outside. There are some inconsistencies in the world-building, and it could have used some diversity in the characters, but overall, this is a compelling adventure with thoughts on what it means to be human in the face of pandemic.
These books have been nominated for the Cybils awards. These reviews represent my opinion, not that of the committee as a whole.