Withering by Sea, written and illustrated by Judith Rossell
originally published in Australia in 2014; first U.S edition 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Set in Victorian England, in the gloomy spa town of Withering-by-Sea, populated by three Roald Dahl-esque aunts, an evil J.K. Rowling-esque magician, one plucky orphan, a showman and his musical cats, an ever-loyal girl named Gert — this tale coming to us from Australia is a tantalizing, spine-tingling adventure!
Stella Montgomery, age 11, lives with her dour aunts — Aunt Condolence, Aunt Temperance, and Aunt Deliverance. All three are about as pleasant as boiled cabbage. Their lodgings are at Hotel Majestic, where residents spend their days “wrapped up and propped in cane chairs in the long sunroom, sipping glasses of murky water.” Nasty stuff, according to Stella.
Confined to a dreary existence, constrained to dullness as though by an iron corset, it’s little wonder that Stella creeps out of her rooms by night, ventures into the Conservatory, and pores over her tattered world atlas, dreaming of Places Beyond.
It is there, surrounded by dripping ferns and hissing steam pipes that Stella witnesses a crime. And is entrusted by a most mysterious gentlemen with something very peculiar. A thing that creepy Professor Starke desperately craves. He’ll stop at nothing to snatch it from her, and as he’s an evil, powerful magician…that’s saying something!
Gloriously eccentric characters and delightful, period prose kept me smiling through this book even as the tension ratcheted up higher and higher! It’s a complete lark for those stout enough to manage the danger-and-fright levels of the first Harry Potter volume. Great read-aloud for a wide age span as well.
Rossell has illustrated it in quintessentially-Victorian, ink-and-watercolor pictures and the whole book is simply beautiful. Almond pages with blue ink. Mmmmm…nice touch. Three cheers for Stella!