I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of the best uses of fantasy is to provide an entirely new perspective on a real-life issue, a shift that is both more interesting and more illuminating than a straightforward facts-only discussion. Here are two new middle grade fantasies that look at generational trauma through a fantasy lens, while being entertaining stories in their own right.
Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa
by Julian Randall.
Henry Holt, 2022.
Read ebook on Libby.
Audiobook also available.
Pilar is a fast-talking 12-year-old Dominicana growing up in Chicago, sprinkling her English with frequent small words in Spanish. Many things are making home feel less homey lately, though – her Papi’s death in a car accident, and her older sister Lorena going to college. Pilar has also grown up hearing the story and sharing the sorrow of how Mami’s prima and best friend Natasha went missing in the DR decades earlier. Though nothing has ever been found, Pilar is determined to use her camera skills to make a documentary about her cousin’s disappearance. But this search leads her through a portal to the magical land of La Negra. There, an ominous white prison has been imposed on the magical black sands, where the dictator of the Dominican Republic and the monster El Cuco cooperate to imprison anyone they can catch who resists, in either country.
Right away, Pilar is surrounded by cucitos – smaller monsters – and has to decide whether or not to trust the ciguapa girl with backwards feet who offers to lead her to safety. The plot moves as quickly as Pilar and her new maybe-friend Carmen swing through the jungle trees, trying to get to the leadership, the Mariposas, to stop the rising evil. Meanwhile, we learn a little more about the Dominican Republic’s troubled history and a lot about generational trauma and healing along with Pilar. The fantasy setting and Pilar’s irrepressible humor and drive to hunt for the truth make the story more empowering than overwhelming. This is another one to recommend to fans of Rick Riordan’s books. The sequel, Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon, is due out in February 2023.
A Comb of Wishes
by Lisa Stringfellow.
Quill Tree Books, 2022.
Read from library copy.
“I say crick, you say crack.
This is a story.”
This refrain – a traditional Caribbean story opening – begins the book, as Ophidia, a beautiful dark mermaid, is enraged to discover that her treasure box has been washed away from its hiding spot. Meanwhile, 12-year-old human girl Kela is having a hard time enjoying her life on the Caribbean island of St. Rita, since her mother died in a car accident a few months ago. She hasn’t gone diving with her father, can’t find the inspiration to work on her sea glass jewelry, and her best friend, Lissy, is getting frustrated that Kela still doesn’t want to spend time with her. But on a rare trip to the beach with Lissy, Kela sneaks into a forbidden coral cave and hears a box singing to her. It contains a beautifully carved comb.
Before Kela can decide what to do with the comb, she’s visited by Ophidia, who offers a wish for the return of the comb – or vengeance. Or possibly both, depending on Kela’s wish. Kela doesn’t tell this to Lissy, but does take Lissy with her to the university library where her mother was a researcher to learn more about the comb’s history – which involves the painful legacy of slavery on the island, one involving Kela’s own family. There’s still some life-threatening danger, but overall, this is more slowly building tension, rooted in the pain of loss, the difficulty of rebuilding trust, and the stories of a small and close-knit island village. Ophidia’s perspective is seen in alternating, but much shorter chapters. The ending is bittersweet and perfect. I look forward to reading more from Ms. Stringfellow!