Neftzger (Confessions from a Moving Van, 2012) makes a promising entry into young-adult fantasy with this sincere, whimsical allegory that’s built on the trope of the hero’s quest and explores themes of freedom, creativity and teamwork.
In a country where a sorcerer confuses perceptions so deeply that the people don’t know whether their war against him is even real, young Kelsey, hoping to help her family, begins a journey to find the rumored Orphanage of Miracles. Kelsey purchases a jar of bad memories as a shortcut to building character; a mishap with the jar brings her a silent but wise boy, whom everyone naturally loves, as a traveling companion. A talking leopard they meet in the woods agrees to be their guide to traverse changing lands and evade guardians who seem to block their way. Meanwhile, deep within a forest no one dares enter, the orphanage hoards sparkling, jewellike miracles in a locked garden for the king, while the children in the strange boarding school have lost the ability to even read. Friends Jovan, Maggie and Nicholas spend their days trying to catch miracles in butterfly nets, mine them from underground or create them in a laboratory. They also anxiously cultivate the individual plants they have been assigned, knowing that if a child’s plant dies, he disappears from the orphanage as if he never existed. But they long to solve the mystery of why, despite the elaborate systems the adults have built, they have never seen the discovery of a miracle. The presentation of morality lessons at the story’s end is uncharacteristically heavy-handed but in line with the stylized nature of the story, offering the reader a happy ending in which the seekers are enlightened, the misguided corrected, all wrongs are righted and generosity and wisdom prevail. And although the final message may feel mundane, the road by which Neftzger approaches it is playful and creative.
An earnestly optimistic and uplifting fairy tale.