All too often, being tender-hearted is seen as a weakness to overcome. Here are two recent books – one fantasy and one realistic – where kindness is the secret strength that wins the day.
Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls
by Kaela Rivera.
Read from library copy. Also available as an ebook and audiobook on Libby.
Cece Rios lives in the tiny town of Tierra del Sol, surrounded by a desert full of criaturas – some malevolent, all of them dangerous. When she was young, she had an eventful meeting with Tzitzimitl, the criatura of Stars and Devouring, who “cursed” her with a soul of water, rather than the soul of fire all the other residents of the sun-worshipping town follow. But when her fierce and beautiful older sister, Juana, is kidnapped by the dark criatura El Sombrerón to be his bride, Cece decides she’s done trying to fit in and follow the rules. She’s going to do whatever it takes to get Juana back.
The other traditional villains in the area are the brujas – powerful and cruel humans (both male and female) who have stolen the souls of criaturas and use them as their enslaved soldiers and in battles and to bolster their magical power. That’s the surest way to power and getting close enough to rescue her sister that Cece knows. But can she become a bruja and keep her heart of water, with its tendency to make her cry whenever she sees someone in pain?
Along the way, she is helped by the priestess of the sun, Dominga del Sol, who still talks about the other three gods – Moon, Ocean and Desert – and tells stories of the curanderas, who once knew how to use magic for healing rather than harm. Cece also meets the legendary Coyote, the Namer, whose human form is currently that of a boy just a year older than she is. Must Cece become a true bruja, or will she be able to rediscover the lost art of curanderia?
The Mexican-inspired world-building felt really strong here, both solid enough to hold up the story without the rules being so tediously laid out that there was no room for breathing. Cece of course is a very strong character, one struggling with what those around her consider both curse and weakness. Her mother wants to wash and charm the curse out of her, while her father runs away to the bar and whose brief attempts at parenting turn out more abusive than helpful. This isn’t easy by any means, but I loved the message that came throug the adventure loud and strong: kindness requires even more strength than cruelty, and it has enormous power.
Flight of the Puffin
by Ann Braden.
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2021.
Read from library copy.
In the modern-day United States, four kids from four places are all having a rough time. In a city in Vermont, Libby tries to express her feelings and add cheer to the world with art – on paper and on the walls of the school. But the school interprets this as part of her family’s history of bullying, while her family takes it as a sign of weakness.
Jack, in a tiny nearby community, goes to a two-room school that looks like it’s about to be closed, as it can’t afford to follow new state regulations. He’s also mourning the death of his younger brother some years earlier, and has a close relationship with a boy about his brother’s age.
In Seattle, Vincent loves triangles, puffins and mathematician Katherine Johnson, and is tired of being bullied for not fitting into any of the triangle sides he sees making up his school’s social circle. He’s charted out his days at school to avoid the popular bullies who like to steal his clothes and push him into lockers, but so far, none of this is working.
Also in Seattle, on the sidewalk in front of the church that offers free meals, is T, who’s run away from home and is trying to survive with just a sleeping bag and their dog for company. T’s story is told in verse and very short segments, so that T is the character initially most closed-off to the reader. But though we don’t know much about T, their thoughts on passing through days being hungry, willing to give up nearly everything to live true to their identity, is hugely expressive.
All these stories start out separate and slowly inch their way to connection. Libby sneaks out of her house to spread postcards with positive messages. And as people receive postcards, they start sending them as well, creating an increasing circle of kindness and allowing all of our main characters to take important steps in growth that improve their own lives as well as that of those around them. Though the message of kindness is apparent from the start, a message of the importance of understanding and loving kids and teens who don’t feel that they fit into the standard boy and girl gender boxes comes to the surface as well.
As in Braden’s The Benefits of Being an Octopus, the issues here are gut-wrenching while feeling absolutely grounded in reality. The first three-quarters of the book, with all four main characters suffering so much before they came together, was really tough for my sensitive maternal heart, though I think kids are often less bothered by this than I am and I cared enough about the characters and trust Ann Braden’s writing enough that I was never tempted to give up reading. And the ending came together gloriously. I could see this making a great classroom read-aloud, with kids making their own inspiring postcards to pass out in their communities, or as Braden herself has done, to mail to communities in need or impacted by hate crimes.
I am easily coming up with more desert fantasies – Paula Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia, or The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas (this is also when I realize that I still haven’t written up my notes of that last one into a full review) – but am having a harder time thinking of fantasies with a focus on kindness. Please let me know in the comments if you know of any! Flight of the Puffin might also pair well with A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan, which also has themes of different people getting to know and help each other.