Andre Norton Award Winner, multi-time Hugo and Nebula finalist, and, most importantly, Official GeekMom Pet, Fran Wilde has brought her imaginative worldbuilding to YA and adult audiences over the past few years, but April 9 sees the release of her first upper-middle-grade fantasy novel, Riverland.
Twelve-year-old Eleanor and her little sister Mike live by the rules of House Magic: the rules that keep the house appearing perfect while things break or disappear when rules are broken. In truth, Poppa has a terrible temper and Momma covers for him, and admitting anything in the household is wrong will make things worse. But when Poppa breaks the Witch Ball, an antique fishing float and family heirloom, he unwittingly breaks a contract between reality and the Riverland, a place where dreams (and nightmares) grow. It’s up to Eleanor and Mike to repair the cracks and leaks between the worlds before all the nightmares push through to reality at full force, and to do that they will need to learn to trust and speak their truths.
I have two fantasy lovers aged almost-ten and almost-twelve, so Fran hooked us up with a preview copy of Riverland to read together. Here are all three of our impressions:
12yo: I think this is a really good book for kids my age. I really like the idea of it, the storyline and plot is good. I really like the character Pendra, who’s really nice and adventurous. But the dad is a jerk. [Mom’s note: he wanted to call the dad much worse names than “jerk,” but we compromised]
10yo: I think it’s a good book for kids who like magic and things like that. The best characters are Pendra, Mike, and Eleanor because they have kind hearts, unlike the dad, and are very brave and adventurous. I was kinda sad at the part when the mom told the girls to go with Pendra’s family even though she wouldn’t go with them. [Mom’s note: I am leaving that minor spoiler in because it doesn’t actually reveal much of the plot, but gives an idea of her emotional investment in the story]
Mom/Children’s Librarian: I won’t lie: this is one of those books that is hard for a parent to read. While kids feel the injustice of the emotional abuse the girls experience throughout the story, it gives them an empowering sort of rage as they root the characters on; but all my Mama instincts are screaming out to jump into the story, scoop up the characters in my arms, and make everything All Better. Perhaps you’ve experienced this phenomenon, too: you read and watched and loved all sorts of Kids in Horrible Peril stories growing up, then suddenly you became a parent and were unable to handle it anymore. I want to be clear about this so gatekeepers don’t get the wrong impression and think the abuse in the story is too intense to expose their own children to. The kids can handle it, in a story. It’s less extreme than the abuse that, say, Roald Dahl characters go through, and slightly better off than Harry Potter with the Dursleys. Kids understand it. You shouldn’t think you need to shelter your kids from reading such stories, because for them, it’s a safe way to empathize. And for kids who are unfortunately already well aware because they live this peril, books like this are both a way for them to feel seen and a source of hope and encouragement: they can be strong and brave, they shall overcome.
Or as Fran herself puts it on the Barnes and Noble Kids blog, “Eleanor and Mike are sisters who—instead of being rescued—have to learn how to help each other. I wrote Riverland so that, maybe, a young reader who needs to see it most will find it on a shelf, and maybe they’ll feel less alone. Maybe others would see and understand a different kind of narrative. I wrote it hoping that someday, they get to tell their story too.”
There’s an excerpt of the book you can read over on that blog, too.
Eleanor does not trust people easily, which puts each new character in a gray area. While the inhabitants of Riverland might seem easily divisible into good (on the side of raising dreams) and evil (on the side of letting nightmares break through full force), they’re more complicated than that, and Eleanor doesn’t know who to listen to. The inhabitants of reality are mostly benevolent, outside her own home, but she holds them all at a distance for fear of “bringing trouble,” even her best friend. My kids were offended that I left Pendra out of the summary at the top of this post, because Eleanor’s best friend is truly a good influence in her life, even if it takes Eleanor far too long to let her guard down. Eleanor’s real quest is much more about her internal growth and healing than it is about fixing the cracks in reality!
That isn’t to say there’s not lots of magic and drama for those who want more plot with their character development. Any time an entrance to a magic realm opens up under your own bed, you’re in for an adventure. But in this book the magic realm keeps trying to leak through everywhere—causing actual water leaks, much to the adults’ dismay. The denizens of Riverland each have their own unique origin stories, often not entirely spelled out, giving a sense of the breadth and depth of the world that Eleanor and Mike only partially become aware of.
And then there’s glass magic. I am partial to unusual glasswork as it is, but I’m fascinated by witch balls now through description alone. Working with the glass shards and hoping to use them to help repair the cracks inspires Eleanor to research glass for her science project. You will get to learn through her! Read more about Fran’s own exploration of glass for this book over at SteaMG, here.
If you’re in the area of Doylestown, PA, you could get a chance to win your own witch ball, just by attending Riverland‘s launch party at Doylestown Bookshop on April 9 at 7 PM. And no matter where you are, if you preorder your copy of Riverland through Doylestown Bookshop before the 9th, you’ll get some bookmarks, stickers, or other swag along with it!
Riverland will be on the shelf April 9, 2019, for the thoughtful middle-grade magic lovers in your own life.
Stay tuned later this week for a video chat with Fran Wilde, and a chance to win a one-hour Skype visit with Fran for your own classroom!