I have two middle grade novels to share with you today.
In some ways, they are utterly different stories. One is set in the 1920s on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The other is a contemporary story taking place in the mountains of Norway. One is swathed in a foreboding sense of mystery, watery darkness, brooding unease, while the other fairly sparks with fierce vivacity, reckless abandon, sharp-tongued directness.
Yet at their core both of these stories explore some similar, profound elements of the human condition — our deep need for connection, community, family, belonging; the wounds caused by rejection, abandonment, injustice, greed; and the measure of healing and hope that can be found through honest attempts at reconciliation and restoration.
Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk
published in 2017 by Dutton Children’s Books
Wolk spins us back in time to a tiny, fictional isle set among the Elizabeth Islands, jutting off like vertebrae from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. On this small outcropping of land, we meet a mysterious, ungainly threesome: a 12-year-old girl named Crow who washed up here as a newborn, utterly alone in an old rowboat; an old, reclusive fellow named Osh, who rescued and raised her; and the spirited, feisty Miss Maggie, the only islander free from suspicious, recoiling attitudes that confront Crow at every turn.
Crow, naturally, is intensely curious about her origins, eventually becoming convinced she is connected in some way to an abandoned leper colony on a neighboring island. Her story of searching for identity, family, and answers, tumbles into a series of wild nautical adventures, poignant, melancholy discoveries, and seriously-scary dangers before emerging into the light with a reconfigured recognition of who she is, who her family is, what binds them together.
Excellent writing and pacing make this a joy to read. It’s a story shrouded in pain and longing, yet undergirded by love and loyalty as solid as the ancient New England bedrock. Eccentric characters, a host of questions hanging in the air like seagulls around a fishing smack, the thrill of sailing in a squall, plus some hardened criminals bashing about, all make for a unique, exciting, thought-provoking read for ages 9 or 10 and up.
Astrid the Unstoppable, written by Maria Parr, translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey
first English edition 2017 by Walker Books Ltd.
I snatched this book up the moment I realized it was by the author of Adventures with Waffles, which I loved and reviewed here.
As in her earlier novel, Parr plunks us down amongst the towering mountains and idyllic glens of Norway and introduces a little spitfire of a heroine. Astrid Glimmerdal, age 9, is a redheaded bundle of careening recklessness, blistering along with speed and confidence, songs and strong opinions.
Her family’s long history in this neighborly community of farms and ski slopes means that Astrid is known and loved by all — excepting the curmudgeonly owner of the new Wellness Retreat who demands quietude for his paying guests, quietude that is daily broken by the hullabaloo left in Astrid’s wake.
Astrid’s best friend is her godfather, Gunnvald, age 74. “She is so fond of Gunnvald that her heart creaks and groans at the thought of him.” That affection is reciprocal. Even so, it would be nice if Astrid weren’t the only child in the glen.
And lo and behold, one day a small family does come to stay for the holidays. This looks to be a thoroughly happy turn of events…for about five minutes. Because a domino sequence of arrivals and disclosures, troubles and repercussions, reveals a long-held secret of Gunnvald’s and some deep wounds that bewilder and rattle Astrid’s young heart. Her unflinching honesty and zeal are key elements in the recovery of a number of badly broken bits, though Parr swerves away from a too-tidy ending.
Breakneck sledging and skiing, sharp-tongued interchanges, endearing relationships, massive affection, and an honest reckoning with the wounds we give and bear make this another zesty, satisfying read for ages 9 and up.