Call it kismet, but with the first female candidate running for the office of U.S. president, it’s no wonder that during this publishing season several authors have brought new meaning to the words girl power. Middle grade luminaries Karen Cushman, Karen Foxlee, and Jennifer A. Nielsen each take a look at a girl or young woman navigating a world that is less than amenable to her talents. These indomitable spirits are on quests that they may or may not survive, facing foes corrupted by power. Thoroughly of their times yet modern in their thinking, the three protagonists offer examples of courageous and awe-inspiring female leadership.
The lies and half-truths of a powerful politician feature in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The Scourge (Scholastic, Aug. 2016; Gr 5-7). A fatal disease that devastated the Kingdom of Keldan more than 300 years ago has returned, striking dread into citizens’ hearts. Anyone found to be infected is quarantined to Attic Island, purported to be a place where they can comfortably live out their final days. When Ani, a headstrong member of the secretive and much maligned River People, tests positive for the disease, her best friend, Weevil, convinces the guards that he, too, has the Scourge. Once on the island, the inseparable pair soon learn that something is terribly amiss. The medicine that they are given makes them worse, not better; they are guarded around the clock; and people who enter the hospital never return. Capable Ani and Weevil uncover the island’s secret horrors and the governor’s nefarious plans.
Astute readers will recognize Governor Felling’s malfeasance from her first foray onto the page; her untrustworthiness and seeming ability to give her political enemies the Scourge pegs her as a medieval precursor to J.K. Rowling’s Dolores Umbrage. Nielsen’s story illuminates the destructive power of prejudice and stereotypes, both in how the River People see outsiders (Ani is distrustful of the allies she desperately needs) and in the way the group is treated by others. When the governor’s plans are finally revealed in full, it is clear they rely on the population’s long-held stereotypical views of the River People. Though some of the novel’s events may require older readers to suspend belief, younger children will devour the never-ending plot twists in this tightly woven story of a plucky protagonist confronting absolute corruption.
The desire for power and its ability to corrupt also appear in Karen Foxlee’s A Most Magical Girl (Knopf, Aug. 2016; Gr 4-6). Mr. Angel, a dark wizard, has an evil plan for dominion over the earth and wants both magical and nonmagical people to bend to his will. In this Victorian London world, magic is kept alive by a loosely affiliated group of aging witches and wizards, but it will take the prophesied “most magical girl” to save it from the sinister wizard and his shadowy minions.
Raised in an affluent Victorian home, the sheltered Annabel Grey is not prepared for what she encounters when she is abruptly sent to live with two aunts she has never met. Shortly after her arrival at Miss Henrietta and Miss Estella Vine’s magic shop, the girl finds herself in an adventure featuring recalcitrant broomsticks, trolls hungry for the taste of human flesh, a magical map sung onto her skin, and Kitty, a girl more fairy than human. In this nuanced tale, Foxlee explores the power of love, friendship, and loss. Mr. Angel’s Dark Magic Extracting Machine, which grows stronger as it is fed sorrow, regret, and lost hopes, is a powerful metaphor for depression. Initially incredulous and unsure of the strange world she finds herself in, Annabel relies on her determination and growing ability to think on her feet to get her through a host of challenging situations. “Under London” and the world of the fairies are evocatively drawn, and the rising dread and tension that suffuse the tale will keep readers turning the pages long into the night, rooting for this charmed girl.
Magical girls and their ability to fight against corruption are at the heart of author Karen Cushman’s Grayling’s Song (HMH, Jun. 2016; Gr 4-6). Cushman, who excels at detailed re-creations of the medieval world, here takes her first foray into an enchanted realm, and the result is an intriguing blend of meticulously realized settings and adventure. Grayling is the daughter of a wise woman and healer named Hannah. The girl is mostly content with her life, helping her mother make potions and charms for villagers and completing the tasks the woman sets for her. But the day Grayling returns from her chores to find her mother spellbound and rooted to the earth, the girl is torn from the familiar comfort of her life and thrust into a wild adventure to reverse the spell. Singing a song the woman taught her, Grayling is able to draw the unrooted magical folk in England to her side as she searches for her mother’s grimoire, or book of spells. Though she is the youngest (and least magical) of the group, Grayling’s skills and her quick thinking turn her into the group’s leader. The eventual revelation of the villain pits Grayling and her calm practicality against a selfish, silly girl who attempted to grab power for herself and ended up casting a spell she couldn’t control.
Cushman’s magic is of the homespun variety, and her story emphasizes the importance of hard work and perseverance and the pitfalls of taking the easy way. It’s a quiet, comforting tale with a sturdy heroine at its center and a supremely satisfying ending with the promise of adventures to come.
Elisabeth Gattullo Marrocolla (@liswithanS) is the Assistant Head of Children’s Services and Collection Development Coordinator at Darien Library, CT. Her spring 2016 fantasy picks for middle grade readers can be found in her article “Magic in Our World.”
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