I've been thinking a lot about Louisiana lately. Haven't we all? Growing up in Mississippi, I often visited New Orleans and southern Louisiana with my family. Later, my daughter lived there, married a native, and we visited even more. Once New Orleans speaks to you, it doesn't shut up.
When I was a working school librarian, in at least five schools over my career (hey, what can I tell you? We moved a lot...), I tried to help teachers find relevant books to share with their students. A big part of a school librarian's job is to match books with kid readers. Maybe that's the most satisfying thing we do. And it's something I can't let go of as a writer and a book reviewer. I keep thinking about whether what I'm reading and writing would appeal to actual kids, would help them understand the world, would entertain them, introduce a place they might not know. All those good things.
I especially love it when a book helps readers make sense of what's going on in the larger community. What better way to do that than through a good story.
That's why Kimberley Griffiths Little's new novel touched me so.
The Healing Spell centers around young Livie and her family who live in what we always thought of as Cajun country. Her father makes his living fishing. Her relationship with her mother has always been strained. Livie is what was once called a tomboy-- she likes fishing with her daddy a lot better than she likes shopping for Sunday School shoes with her mama. When an accident sends her mother into a coma, her dad insists on bringing her home, hoping for a miracle recovery. The entire family is impacted, but especially Livie who fears she was somehow responsible.
There's a lot for young readers to wrap their minds around in this novel. The magical realism near the end presents a good talking point that an adult might want to explore, or perhaps that kids will accept with the thrill of a shiver up their spines.
Kimberley Griffiths Little has done an amazing job making her characters believable. They are complicated and confused. Just like a lot of real kids we all know and love. Livie's guilt, her relationship with her sisters, her love for her dad, her ambiguous feelings for the aunt who moves in to help and sets the family off kilter-- all great characters, well done.
But truly the amazing thing about this story is the setting, the Louisiana it evokes. There's a little bit of voodoo magic, there's music and dancing, there's the swamp. After reading The Healing Spell, you understand how wrecking this one very important part of our environment will change so many lives.
Right now over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, where I congregate with a whole bunch of really excellent southern writers, the optional blog topic is setting. A lot has been said by greater authorities than I on the topic of setting as character, and I really can't add much to that subject except to say how true it is.
But I like the way Man Martin ended his blog post over there last week:
I’m thinking of a line from C S Lewis or somebody that a fish does not believe in water until it’s pulled out of it. Lewis meant to suggest by analogy the existence of God, but I wanted to apply it to the concept of setting, that setting is not only background, but foreground, above-ground, and underground. That it envelopes, surrounds, and infuses us.
That's exactly how I feel about this new middle grade/ young YA novel: the setting surrounds, envelopes and infuses. Which brings me right back to how important, right now, this book should be to teachers and librarians trying to help their readers make sense of southern Louisiana, the Gulf Coast, life in a fisherman's family.
And what an unexpected treat- it has one of the best trailers I've ever seen in a book for young readers. Great music, well done. Check it out: