When Clay Smith, Kirkus’ features editor, asked me to think about a list of underappreciated books, I hardly knew where to start. After all, my reading history is jampacked with books I love unreservedly that for some reason the rest of the world hasn’t found. Obviously they haven’t found them, because if they had, they would immediately see the genius that I had.
Of course, sometimes the world and I are in perfect agreement from the get-go, as with Jerry Pinkney’s stunning The Lion and the Mouse. When I opened the package containing an advance copy of the book, I sucked in my breath, walked out onto the deck and told my husband, “Here is the next Caldecott winner.” Everybody else had pretty much the same reaction (including, happily, the Caldecott committee). Sometimes validation takes a little while, as with Claire Vanderpool’s luminous Moon over Manifest. All that fall, when people asked me for titles to add to their mock Newbery lists, I told them about it. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they said. Then it won the Newbery. Neener, neener, neener.
But committees like that can only award one gold medal a year, and every year there are great books and great authors that don’t get the attention they deserve. One such author I’ve been paying attention to for a number of years now is Ellen Booraem, whose debut novel, The Unnameables, I called the “most tragically overlooked book of 2008.”
In this wholly original American fantasy, an orphan named Medford lives on Island, a place that feels like 18th-century New England and takes as its legal foundation a 1680 book called A Frugall Compendium of Home Arts and Farme Chores. Only useful things and useful people are tolerated on Island, so much so that there is no word for things that are not useful; the catchall term Useless Object describes everything that fits into this category. At Transition, Islands 14-year-olds determine their future occupations and take as their last name the appropriate description: Carpenter, Tanner, Learned. Medford’s Useless last name—Runyuin—marks him an outsider; if his ornamental carvings were to be discovered, he would be cast out entirely: Art is not only Useless, it is Unnameable. Into this highly regimented society blows the Goatman, a horned-and-hooved force of anarchy that tests both Medford and Island almost to their limits.
There are many things that are devilishly clever about The Unnameables, which displays a mastery of prose style and meticulousness of worldbuilding that bespeaks years of practice at craft. But what is perhaps most mind-blowing about it is that Booraem sets it in the present day, dropping copious clues, from the Useful outboard motor on Island’s boat to the many chapter epigraphs from diaries and Island law that give readers insight into Island’s history. This present-day setting is just plain fun to wrap your head around, but more important, it coaxes readers to consider both the place of art in society and the terrifying consequences of unmitigated orthodoxy.
Seemingly different in all but its freshness is Booraem’s second book, Small Persons with Wings, a fizzy contemporary fantasy about a family that must cope with a severe infestation of fairies—er, Small Persons with Wings. Mellie Turpin, 13, has distrusted her imagination ever since she boasted about Fidius, her tiny winged friend, to her kindergarten class. Taunted and isolated for her faith in fairies, she declares her allegiance to “addition and subtraction, order and alphabets, geography.” But when her Grand-père dies, her family inherits both his moldering inn and its Small Persons through the Obligatio Turpinorum—her family’s 1,200-year-old obligation to care for the Parvi Pennati whenever they needed a home. In return, the Small Persons gifted the Turpins with a magical moonstone that enables them to see past lies to the truth. That’s handy around the Small Persons, whose magic overlays reality with glorious illusion. But centuries after the establishment of the Obligatio, the Small Persons’ magic is failing them. And no one knows where the moonstone is.
Booraem creates in the Small Fairies a tiny society that is almost the obverse of Island’s. Where Island reveres Use and rejects Art, the Small Persons venerate Art (particularly in its most florid incarnations) above Use. A splinter faction has decided that for the Small Persons to survive, they must reject the Magica Artificia and embrace the Magica Vera, and in order to help them Mellie must embrace the imagination she has been suppressing for years. For all its thematic heft, Small Persons with Wings is funny and fast-paced, one absurd situation leading to the next in Mellie’s wry narration until all is, remarkably, resolved.
I don’t have access to sales figures, so I can’t say categorically that The Unnameables and Small Persons with Wings are underappreciated. But I do know that the world doesn’t seem to appreciate them as much as it should, darn it. Which is why I’m pulling out all the stops on Texting the Underworld, which has only just come out. Here Booraem moves, as Kirkus said in its review, “from art to another great human endeavor: death.”
Map-loving homebody Conor O’Neill is an unlikely hero. He is afraid of spiders, he doesn’t want to play hockey, and he’s working hard to fail the placement test to go to Boston Latin, across town. So when a banshee shows up ready to keen a Death in his family, he decides that “he’d rather be teased than dead” and wears a bike helmet to school. On the bus. When his beloved grandfather, Grump, has a fall and lands in the hospital, Connor realizes that the Death may well be imminent and resolves to venture into the uncharted Underworld to bargain with the Lady.
Booraem gives Conor some stalwart allies: Grump himself; Glennie, his bratty, indomitable little sister; Javier, his uber-nerdy best friend; and Ashling the banshee, who was murdered in the Iron Age and has not been able to move on to rebirth in the World for centuries. Conor is desperate to prevent the Death, but he also sees that Ashling deserves life, too.
As in Small Persons with Wings, Booraem balances her heavy theme with humor, from Grump’s willingness to feed his grandchildren Honey-Glazed Nutsos in violation of Conor’s mom’s house rules to Charon’s wistful recollection of the good old days, when the Dear Departed came to the Underworld with coins for him. But she refuses to give Conor an easy out, forcing him to engage with a choice no child should have to struggle with but that kids are witnessing daily as their parents and grandparents grapple with end-of-life decisions. Her resolution is as honest as Conor is and as brave as he becomes.
So here’s your chance to appreciate Ellen Booraem and her funny, heartfelt examinations of life’s Big Questions. You won’t regret it.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.