Out of the Woods. By Lyn Gardner. Pictures by Mini Grey. David Fickling Books. $17.99.
The Owl Keeper. By Christine Brodien-Jones. Illustrations by Maggie Kneen. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Star in the Forest. By Laura Resau. Delacorte Press. $14.99.
“The woods are lonely, dark and deep,” wrote poet Robert Frost, and the woods have been a place of both literal and metaphorical loneliness, darkness and depth for many, many years. Fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm and others take place in the woods and depend on them for all or part of their effect. Even in the modern age, a time of urbanization and deforestation, there is something primeval about the woods, or about what we imagine the woods to be – and they still make an effective setting for all sorts of stories, for adults and young readers alike. Out of the Woods is particularly attuned to the history of woodlands as places of mystery, adventure and – not to make things too serious all the time – humor. This is a sequel to In the Woods, and brings back the Eden sisters, Aurora, Storm and Any, who have escaped from Dr. DeWilde for good – or have they? “Aurora had always been scared of the woods, and her fear had increased after she and her sisters had been chased through the trees by evil Dr. DeWilde’s wolves.” But the sisters – Storm in particular – seem oblivious to danger now that it seems to be past, with Storm skating down the frozen river through the center of the woods. The fact that she skates, she thinks, makes it safer; and Any (who is not yet two years old but has been talking since the day she was born) agrees: “‘Wolves can’t skate. They can never find boots to fit all four feet.’” So with all this in the background, there comes into the foreground the sisters’ self-proclaimed new stepmother, Belladonna, who happens to be a wicked witch. Let’s see…there is an enchantment meant to deprive Aurora of her heart, and there is a frog rescue (the frog being Any), and a lion named Zeus who loves madeleines, and a sort of county fair brimming with traps, and much of this new-plot-every-minute story revolves around Storm’s all-powerful pipe, which Belladonna covets and which the sisters must return to the land of the dead to make everything right again. Lyn Gardner’s story is a great deal of fun, and Mini Grey’s illustrations are wonderful, although at times Out of the Woods seems to be trying a little too hard to pull in the threads of the previous book and of as many fairy tales as Gardner can press into service. Readers who missed Into the Woods really ought to start with it before trying to follow this sequel, and readers not immersed in fairy tales (and even some who are) may well find Out of the Woods rather overdone. But parts of it are very amusing indeed (a picture of the Underworld Booking Office, chapters called “Out of the Forest Into the Frying Pan” and “Squashed!” – and the menu of a fine establishment called The Legless Frog). There is also a delicious bonus at the end: a recipe for “Granny Ridinghood’s Double Chocolate Brownies with Hot Fudge Sauce.”
Although also targeted at preteens and young teenagers, The Owl Keeper is as dark and complex as Out of the Woods is light and complex. Christine Brodien-Jones’ novel is a mystery/post-apocalyptic SF/fantasy story whose 12-year-old protagonist, Maxwell Unger, is said to be allergic to “sun particles,” so he must remain all day in a darkened room with the shades drawn close. This turns out not to be much of a problem for Max, who has always loved the night – but what is a problem is the absence of his Gran and the stories she used to tell Max about the time before the Destruction. Max used to hear those tales with wonder, and used to be brave enough to go into the forest at night with Gran. Now Max is scared of the dangerous forest and the things within it, and his favorite story – about the Owl Keeper, who would appear in dark times to unite the forces of good against those of evil – seems at best a thin legend. These are the elements of a fairly standard find-or-rediscover-your-courage story, complete with ancient prophecy sure to be fulfilled by the time the tale ends (although perhaps not exactly as expected). And indeed, the main weakness of The Owl Keeper is that it hews so closely to the story arc of so many other “discover who you really are” books for young readers. There is even an organized group of repressive characters squeezing the light out of everyone’s life: “They lived in constant fear of the High Echelon and its tedious rules.” And yet The Owl Keeper, even when it smacks of formulaic plotting, is often gripping and intense. A mysterious girl who appears sometimes – but not all the time – under what Max calls “the owl tree” is an important element in Max’s self-discovery. And there is genuine evil in this book; even the words, such as skræk and Misshapen, communicate it. And although there is little doubt from the start that apparently helpful characters such as Mrs. Crumlin and Dr. Tredegar will turn out to be evil, the depth of their betrayal and intensity with which they pursue their designs nevertheless prove shocking once revealed. Indeed, The Owl Keeper is a bit much to take at times. Very near the end, Max comments, “‘This is all so … well, I just can’t quite believe it. It seems incredible.’” Readers will likely agree; but there are plenty of thrills and lots of excitement before Brodien-Jones knits the plot strands together.
The use of the woods in Star in the Forest, a story set in today’s world, is different. Intended for ages 7-10, Laura Resau’s book is about Mexican immigrants and their difficulties in the United States. It is not overtly preachy about immigration reform (although Resau tackles that issue after the story ends); instead, it stays focused on family issues. At the book’s center is an 11-year-old girl named Zitlally, whose undocumented-immigrant father has been arrested and deported to Mexico – and then is kidnapped and held for ransom. The “forest” of the book’s title is not a woodland but a scrap heap of rusty car parts behind the family’s trailer home. The “Star” of the title is a dog that Zitlally finds and that she believes may be her father’s “spirit animal,” which means her Papá will be safe as long as the dog is. But then Star disappears…. Could the dog have been kidnapped? Can Zitlally and her friend, Crystal, find Star and rescue him? Eventually everything works out just fine – somewhat unbelievably, but every reader will be rooting for things to go just the way they do. And the book ends with a folktale about a forest – the real kind, filled with trees – and the admonition, if you ever find yourself in the deep and magical woods, to “be kind to whatever creature you meet there.” Kindness is not entirely simple in Star in the Forest, or in real life, but the book’s happy outcome is tied as closely to the impulse to be kind as it is to the desire to be free.