Once again, a small selection of Cybils-nominated books united by a theme. Today we’re looking at kids forced to deal with change they’re not willing to accept, from a parent wanting to date again after the death of the other, to divorce and leaving the ancestral home. If you’ve read any of these, or have thoughts on others that would fit this theme, let me know in the comments!
Josephine Against the Sea
by Shakirah Bourne
Read from library copy.
10-year-old Josephine lives in a tiny Barbados fishing village. Ever since her mother’s death some years earlier, she’s had two missions: to make every one of her father’s dates a failure, and to join the all-boys cricket team. Her mostly unwilling ally in this is her best friend Ahkai, described as autistic. Usually, spilling fish guts on women as they come in is a good deterrent, but after her father comes home with an ornate comb, he also brings home a new woman. Mariss is strangely beautiful and imperturbable, just laughing at Josephine’s attempts to drive her away. It isn’t long before Josephine is putting together the stories from her school caretaker’s stories with Mariss’s strange actions – sometimes helpful, sometimes threatening – and realizing that Mariss is an ancient and dangerous sea deity. Compared to her, Josephine might even be willing to put up with her father dating Miss Alleyne, the only one of Josephine’s teachers who encourages her cricket ambitions.
Josephine’s unkind pranks put me off initially, but she is a couple of years younger than most middle grade fantasy main characters, and she had both good reasons for her lack of maturity a lot of growth. I loved the visit to Barbados, and Josephine’s adventures with Mariss. This is a natural match for fans of The Jumbies.
A Wilder Magic
by Juliana Brandt
Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021.
Read from library copy.
Sybaline Shaw thinks her family’s valley is the most beautiful place on earth. Besides that, her cousins live there, and their family magic is all drawn from the valley and stops working outside it. So when a government man comes to tell them that they have to move to the city because their whole valley will be flooded by the new dam, Sybaline is determined to resist. She and her cousin and best friend Nettle decide to find a way to use the magic to stay in their homes, even if the rest of her family decides to move away. The examples of what can happen if they use too much magic have always been right there in front of them – PawPaw turned to a tree next to his wife’s grave in the cemetery, and an aunt who has leaves growing out of her shoulders. But surely staying in the valley is helping to save the valley and wouldn’t count as using the magic for unnatural purposes – right? But life at what soon turns into the bottom of a lake isn’t quite what they thought it would be. And when a boy from outside the valley with no magic of his own gets involved, things get dire quickly. Though Sybaline learns that folks outside the valley consider her poor for going barefoot and having only her cousins for friends, the book shines with her love for her place, her family, and her connection to her culture – even as the place that has meant home for so long vanishes. Though the magic here is green and familiar, unlike the dark and mysterious magic of Brandt’s debut, The Wolf of Cape Fen, they both have heroines determined to do whatever it takes to save those they love and settings in small, tightly-knit communities.
Other stories of Appalachian magic include Cattywumpus by Ash Van Otterloo and Seven Wild Sisters by Charles DeLint and Charles Vess.
Elvis and the World as it Stands
by Lisa Frenkel Riddiough. Illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller
Amulet Books, 2021
Read from library copy.
As the story opens, kittens Elvis and his sister Etta are anxiously waiting for an adoption fair at the City Shelter of Care and Comfort. Elvis is horrified and heartbroken when the lady who picks him refuses to take Etta, too. She’s adopting him as a present for her daughter, Georgina, to help her adjust to her parents’ divorce. But Elvis doesn’t know anything about this. When he arrives at his new home and is welcomed by Georgina’s other pets, a hamster named Mo and a fish named Laverne, all he can think about is getting back to Etta. Mommy’s cranky cat Clementine would like Elvis to leave, too. It takes time to appreciate how Mo helps Georgina build elaborate Lego replicas of famous architecture, including the Twin Towers, which her parents visited early in their relationship. Slowly, Elvis realizes that everyone around him has suffered as well.
It’s very easy for talking pets to veer into the overly sweet or campy. I was worried about this for the first chapter or so. Gradually, though, I got drawn into the story and appreciated the characters and their journey. Even Clementine was not the jealous monster she appeared at first (although I am still very uncomfortable about Mommy and Georgina being responsible pet owners, keeping a fish in a bowl without a lid in a house with two cats!) Still, this was a look at “resilience and fortitude” – also Mo’s catchphrase – that’s softened by being seen through kitten eyes. The pets – and Olivia Chin Mueller’s illustrations of them – are adorable. It’s one I’d put on the upper elementary end of middle grade, though I’m convinced my cat- and LEGO-loving seventh grader would still enjoy it. On the not-quite-middle-grade end, so a bit younger, Wedgie and Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors is another book that looks at divorce through the eyes of pets with their own agendas.