A young groundling, or animal hybrid, escapes a horrible orphanage to discover his past.
The shy, foxlike groundling known as No. 13 has only the faintest memory of a song and the far-off sounds he can hear with his single furry ear to keep him wondering why he exists. He’s imprisoned along with dozens of other unwanted groundlings in a former monastery–turned–grim workhouse where food and comfort are scarce. The seemingly human headmistress has dark secrets, and her assistants are cruel to the orphans. When a clever and resourceful new friend springs Arthur, as she calls No. 13, and herself from the institution, the two embark on an epic journey that will eventually bring them back to free the other orphans. Bartók’s language is full of rich description and effulgent inventories of food and places. Her world includes Christmas and Beethoven, along with homes in hollow trees, clockwork beetles, police patrols on flying bicycles, and allusions to ancient magic, both good and evil. Arthur, sweetly innocent throughout his journey, must make his way in Lumentown, where groundlings are at best second-class citizens and High Hats control everything. Arthur’s harrowing encounters with cruelty, hunger, and filth are interspersed with gentle humor and kindness. Though the origins of the groundlings are never explored (perhaps saved for the planned sequel), the worldbuilding otherwise has an impressive level of conviction and credibility. Bartók’s lovely, detailed illustrations and drawings throughout support the sense of enchantment in this imaginative adventure.
Captivating and with great potential as a read-aloud. (Fiction. 9-13)