Finally, my friends, I am bringing you my reviews of the last two of the finalists from my middle grade speculative fiction Cybils panel last year. And in case you missed it, the round 2 panel just announced the winners this past week – Mirrorwood was this year’s winner in my category, and Freewater in the realistic middle grade category.
Children of the Quicksands by Efua Tratore
Read by Tyla Collier
Scholastic Audio, 2022
Listened to audiobook on Hoopla. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.
Simi has grown up in the busy city of Lagos, Nigeria. Her mother has never even talked about her grandmother – but when her mother has to do training in London while her father is busy with his new wife, Simi is sent to stay with her grandmother in a remote and tiny village. The culture shock is enormous – with no electricity, no running water, and no internet, Simi doesn’t know what to do with herself. It’s also shocking to learn that her grandmother is a priestess of the goddess Oshun, following the old religion that her mother looked down on as nothing but harmful superstition. She’s also thrown into the middle of the village story – children disappearing into the quicksands in the forest, never to be seen again. As Simi learns how to survive and help her grandmother with the daily work, she is also drawn further into the magic. Together with the son of a local chief – who lives both in Lagos and in his village – she investigates this mystery and determines to stop the disappearances.
This is a fascinating look at two sides of Nigeria in both the real-life and the magical aspects. Simi grows in so many aspects- in her personal self-reliance, in joining the community in the village, and in strengthening the relationships between her mother and grandmother. The magical part – with children trapped in childhood in a world through the quicksands – is also captivating. It’s interwoven with goddesses like Oshun, whom I’ve read about before, as well as aspects that are new to me. I especially appreciated that while mistakes were clearly made and very bad things have happened, there were no villains here. I listened to this on audio, which I highly recommend for capturing the full feel of the transitions between worlds with the shifting accents. For more fantasy set in Nigeria, try Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tọlá Okogwu and Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor.
by Karen Strong
Simon and Schuster, 2022
Read from a library copy. My library system doesn’t have it through Libby, but it is available for purchase there, so your library might have it.
Eden and her father decide to visit the tightly-knit island community her mother grew up in only after her death. There, she meets the extended family and learns about the history of their island, where whole Black communities purchased the land they had worked while enslaved after emancipation. In her mother’s childhood bedroom, Eden finds an old journal, with pictures of people in a place called Everdark.
Though her mother must have found her way out of Everdark, Eden stumbles through a doorway and finds herself trapped in an Everdark that hasn’t changed in the intervening decades. There, two other Black girls from different eras live in the plantation house, overseen by Mother Mary. Though they dress in elaborate clothes and eat delicious food, they aren’t allowed to leave, and dangerous creatures stalk the ever-twilight woods outside. Eden can feel herself being more and more tightly bound to this shadow world as time passes, knowing that if she can’t find a way to escape, she’ll die in the real world. This is an atmospheric story with multiple strong and memorable characters. I loved that it covers Black history from multiple eras, and that while Mother Mary keeps the girls captive, she genuinely cares for them and believes she’s doing the right thing. It’s a powerful blend of history, horror, and personal growth that was one of my favorites of 2022. If you haven’t read it yet, Strong’s 2019 book Just South of Home is one I’ve been adding to my lists ever since I read it in 2020.