With the help of Tasman, a singular boy with a troubled history, Val, a good-hearted, well-grounded sixth-grader, tries to harness ancient forces in order to help her best friend, Lanora, whose attempt to “begin again” has gone seriously awry.
In this meticulously designed tale, Kelley takes an ordinary, realistic situation—upon entering middle school, a girl decides to start fresh and jettisons her longtime best friend, who is unwilling to let matters rest—and imbues it with layers of poignancy and enchantment. Readers will instantly know that there’s magical realism afoot, as the story begins from the point of view of Mau, a cat. Mau guides Val, who is genuinely altruistic and concerned about Lanora’s new path, to an antiques store. There, she meets Tasman, a boy who is smart and intuitive but emotionally scarred and essentially alone. What gives the material its otherworldly power is the way these three very different children (and a quartet of classmates that almost acts like a chorus) use ritual and magical thinking to find the faith they need to persevere and mature. Although the story is sometimes opaque and takes a while to jell, it’s evocative and ultimately hopeful.
Readers with patience and the willingness to work with the story will find its rewards ample and lasting. (Magical realism. 9-13)