Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly. Grades 5-8. Greenwillow, September 2019. 304 pages. Reviewed from digital galley provided by publisher.
There are stories of extraordinary children who are chosen from birth to complete great quests and conquer evil villains.
This is no such story.
Sometimes, you are an ordinary child.
Sometimes, you choose yourself.
So begins Lalani's story. Lalani is about an ordinary a child as it gets. She's not especially smart or brave or hardworking. But times are getting desperate in her village. There's been no rain for weeks and weeks. The plants that they make into medicine are no longer growing, so the sick are dying. Lalani's father set off on a Sailing Day and never returned - just like all the sailors that leave their island - and her mother has just been been struck with mender's disease.
There's no hero showing up to save them. But maybe all it takes is one girl, stubborn or foolish enough to start things in motion. Maybe all it takes is one girl who will never, ever give up. One ordinary girl with an extraordinary will: Lalani of the Distant Sea.
This is an extraordinary story. Based on Filipino folklore, this is a layered look at a community on the verge of something and a girl with nothing left to lose. When Lalani's father didn't come home, she got a stepfather and stepbrother who are domineering and demanding. "The sky was clear, but a storm had entered their house." When Lalani's mother takes ill, she's finally desperate to break the norm and start looking for extraordinary solutions to save her own family and the village.
This story is set in a world of fantastic creatures, a menacing mountain that threatens the village's existence and a land of plenty that no one has ever reached (or returned from, anyway). Readers who are looking for a lush fantasy novel that's unlike anything they have read will want to pick up this book.
It's dark. It's scary sometimes. It's rich and layered and feminist. This is a book to watch.
Hand this to fans of The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin, 2016) by Kelly Barnhill for readers who like a rich fantasy story with a wholly original setting where you may not always know where it's going but things come together in a really satisfying way at the end.
Hand this to fans of A Path Begins (The Thickety) (Katherine Tegen 2014( by J.A. White for readers who like a strong heroine in a dark fantasy novel with scary moments.
Hand this to fans of Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond, 2011) for readers who love a strong everyday heroine who will stop at nothing to save her friends.