Review: Fear and Courage in Two Books

At the library I borrowed two middle grade/ YA books, both of which are astonishing. One deals with a realistic cultural issue frequently in the news, the other with nature rendered in a Gothic style. Each portrays a boy main character who is involved in something seriously scary, but who acts in courageous ways.

Imagine young Mateo Cortez, who lives in a makeshift blue house in Mexico with his Mami, Abuelita, younger brother Lucas, and big brother Julian. Like many Mexicans, Mateo’s older sibling Julian goes to el norte, the United States, in search of work. He is, unfortunately, undocumented. Julian writes letters home and sends money, but when these missives stop arriving, Mateo, who sounds to be perhaps between ten and twelve years old, decides to go and find Julian. And so begins Until I Find Julian by Patricia Reilly Giff, twice a recipient of the Newbery Honor Book award.

Mateo leaves home with almost nothing, merely a backpack and a notebook for his writing, and has to find his way through the dangerous border crossing. The hazards are many. He might drown in the river or be caught by la migra–the border police–or the coyotes, who are unscrupulous men who traffic in undocumented Mexicans. When he has trouble swimming against the current of the river, he might not have survived if a wily girl experienced in traversing this shady, dangerous borderland, hadn’t stumbled upon him. She calls herself Angel and has been living mostly with her grandfather. She takes on Mateo as her mission. The two make their way from one American state to another. They find an abandoned house  some Mexican workers had squatted in and Mateo discovers  evidence that Julian has been there. He is gone, however, and Mateo’s search continues. One night Angel and Mateo find a refuge, but they are soon threatened by a blaze. Just in time, someone important to Mateo arrives.

The staggering risks that undocumented immigrants face becomes the conflict that the young hero tackles in trying to hold on to the members of the family he loves. The travails that poorer people will endure to better themselves brings into clear focus the pitfalls of discussions we hear today. Building a huge wall to keep these people out of the U. S. would be a catastrophe for children like Mateo, though the author skirts this issue, focusing instead on Mateo’s concern for his brother. Mateo ignores major risks in his brave journey to find his brother Julian, who paints pictures of Mexico because: “he wants the world to know about our country.”

When I picked up The Nest by Kenneth Oppel and illustrated by Jon Klassen, it seemed to be a story about fictionalized nature told with magical realism and a touch of mystery. That impression arose in part because of the jacket design. The art is a sepia illustration of pale wasp-like insects against what seems to be a wooden wall with the art and the title typography dropped out in white. This sepia design is printed on translucent paper and the remaining text and the blurb on the back cover are printed on the layer beneath this translucent one, therefore it is hazy, mysterious. The blurb reads,

I thought, It’s just a dream anyway. I thought, It has no power over me. I thought, Why not? “Fine,” I whispered.

Certainly, a marvelously compelling hook.

The story begins with imagery as beautiful  and filmy as the paper of the cover: “The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels. What else could they be….” They who are surrounded by a subtle light and a kind of music.

Deep within the plot something much darker emerged, however. It was then I noticed that the classification information on the copyright page said 1. Wasps–Fiction. 2. Babies–Fiction. 3. Supernatural–Fiction. 4. Horror stories–Fiction. Horror? Yes, though beautiful horror in a truly satisfying story about a boy willing to risk his life for what he believes is right.

The main character Steve, whose age is not given, seems to be about nine or so. He has OCD, as evidenced by his frequent hand washing and other compulsions, and enough anxiety issues that he sees a therapist. But Steve’s dreams about the angelic-seeming white wasps lead us eventually into a darkly enigmatic state somewhere between reality and the imaginary in which Steve must make hard choices.

His family’s main difficulty is that his baby brother, who he is reluctant to refer to by name, has some kind of congenital abnormality that may take his life at any moment. Steve discovers that the angelic figure of his dreams is working to intervene in the baby’s fate. The presence of a mysterious knife-sharpener man missing a few fingers, Steve’s sister’s toy phone on which she has discussions with Mr. Nobody, and Steve’s severe allergic reaction when stung by a wasp all serve to crank up the tension. But the constant tug between what Steve experiences as real and what he sees in his dream world relating to the life and death struggles around him are what really drives the plot. Steve risks his life for his brother in a dramatic climax that is guaranteed to rivet readers.

Jon Klassen’s dark, richly textured, semi-abstract illustrations are a fitting counterpoint to this mysteriously gripping story of a boy’s courage. Like Mateo, Steve puts aside his fears to do what he believes is right.

Until I Find Julian by Patricia Reilly Giff, copyright 2015, Wendy Lamb Books / Penguin Random House LLC

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen, copyright 2015, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

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