Arnett (Dreamtime, 2019) offers a middle-grade fantasy about a boy who gains access to a magical ream through his library.
Twelve-year-old Billy Bear with Claws thinks that his parents are dull. His father, Frank, is a Lummi Native American geologist, and his mother, Anna, is a Danish paleobotanist. Every summer they leave California to conduct research elsewhere in the world. The rambunctious Billy never joins them; instead, he stays with friends or relatives. This year, while his parents visit Ecuador, he stays with his grandmother on a Lummi reservation near Bellingham, Washington. There, he reunites with his 12-year-old friend Lew Wood; Lew’s 13-year-old sister, Lily; and his grandmother’s dog, Beastie. Once Billy is settled in, he learns that he’ll be volunteering at the Whatcom Library, run by Dr. Julius Jones. Jones has a formidable voice and presence that remind Lew of Darth Vader. Soon, the stranger reveals to Billy that there’s a portal in the library called “the Gateway.” After passing through it, they enter the Imaginary World, where one’s wishes can become reality. Billy meets gnomes who act as guides and help him develop his ability to use “mindspeak,” or telepathic communication. Jones tells Billy that he’s looking for a new Gatekeeper and that Billy and his friends are candidates. Treachery lurks nearby, however, in the form of someone who seeks to profit from the Imaginary World’s endless possibilities. Arnett celebrates diversity, and Lummi culture in particular, in this irreverent middle-grade adventure. Lummi words, such as “Ts’emekwes,” meaning “bigfoot,” help to immerse readers in Pacific Northwest lore. Suki, a Japanese girl who lives inside the Imaginary World, is a late addition to the cast; the outgoing Billy also befriends CC, a shy, unpopular girl whose considerable painting skills aren’t immediately apparent. Robbie Redhawk, a dreamy older boy who fronts a rock band—and who’s won Lily’s heart—adds teenage drama to the proceedings. However, numerous scenes centered on wacky gnome-related shenanigans keep the plot from catching fire until the novel’s final third. In the end, Billy must summon the traits of his namesake—strength, determination, and courage—to tackle the unthinkable, and greater dangers await in a sequel.
A warmhearted, if sometimes overly silly, middle-grade fantasy.