This is my last review from the Cybil shortlist for Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. Though it wasn’t one of my top contenders, it’s an enjoyable and well-written fantasy set in the Bayou Bon Temps on the Gulf Coast. And it has African mermaids
Nearly ten-year old Maddy Lavalier Johnson is the last of her family to leave New Orleans for a bayou summer with her grandmere. Unlike her prissy older sisters, she loves running through the bayou, getting dirty, and becoming friends with Bear, a neighborhood boy. As they airboat around the swamp, her grandmother’s mystical tales of her ancestors start to come to life, and when tragedy strikes, Maddy is able to realize her dream of being a hero.
There’s an excitingly rich stew of ideas in here: Nature vs. the city, what being a friend means, environmentalism, African culture, and family lineage. But because it’s a short book, I think some of the ideas get a bit short-changed. The plot makes some jarring leaps, and it feels a bit over-stuffed sometimes, with the characters talking in shorthand.
And there’s a equally enticing stew of characters. Maddy at age ten is characterized by “Change. Energy. Luck.” and Bear at eleven is “Patient. Sensitive.” These two, along with wise Grandmere make an appeal central trio, and there’s a whole bunch of support characters that feel authentic without getting into Southern Whimsy. Maddy and a majority of the characters are African American, and the evocation of the community as well as its physical and spiritual roots make this a truly diverse book.
The writing is sensitively done – it feels crafted without being over-written; and the foreshadowing of the environmental tragedy is really well done. There’s an occasional slip into didacticism, particularly when Grandmere is demonstrating an oil spill, but it is useful information and will appeal to environmentally conscious kids.
The first third of the book worked really well for me, but after that it gets a bit too hurried and crammed. Nonetheless, this unusual blend of magical realism and real life tragedy should have a wide audience.