A 10-year-old girl with “hearing-before-hearing” discovers the truth about her powers and her absentee dad.
Penelope loves living with her mother and Granny Elizabeth in their little house on the outskirts of the swamp forest. In their seemingly all-white village, Penelope stands out: She has gray hair, she smells like fire, and she sometimes answers questions she hasn’t yet been asked. But one evening, after Penelope’s mother has spent several weeks in the hospital following a bad traffic accident, just before falling asleep, Penelope notices she doesn’t smell fire—and when she wakes up, her hair is bright red. Penelope learns her mother has been painting her hair gray with some kind of paste to protect her, and it has something to do with her long-vanished father. He also had red hair, and he could do a little magic. But he walked out on them when she was a baby, and now he’s stopped sending money. Slightly surreal touches that include a talking road keep the action light. Penelope’s concern with color extends not just to the magic of hair color or morose gray envelopes, but to the everyday: her house, speckled red and green like a dragon; a blue shoelace; a bottle-green dress. It’s a cheerfully childlike perspective, adding warmth even when Penelope is angry or frightened.
The charming, comforting, and enjoyable tale of a magical girl discovering her (family and hair) roots. (Fantasy. 8-11)