Friday, November 9, 2012

Here where the sunbeams are green by Helen Phillips

Mad is the quiet one, Roo is the brave one. They're sisters and everything is perfect, living with their mom (a librarian) and their dad (the Bird Guy). Then Dad gets a special job working for La Lava, a "green" resort at the foot of a volcano in Central America. They all agree he should go; it's a wonderful opportunity and with La Lava's help, maybe no more birds like the Lava-Throated Volcano Trogon will go extinct.

But then the Weirdness starts. Dad hardly ever writes or calls and when he does he acts strangely. The representative from the resort, the annoying Ken/Neth, is getting way too friendly with Mom for Mad's liking. Roo is obsessed with deciphering the last code Dad sent, and Mad is lonely and scared and worried.

Mom finally decides to take Mad and Roo down to the resort and figure out what's going on, but the Weirdness just gets more weird. Mad and Roo meet a maybe-friend, definitely crush, Kyle, and they find themselves in the world of the jungle; beautiful, dangerous, and full of surprises. In the end, they have to find hidden strengths to rescue their parents and an exciting discovery.

The best part of this story is the character of Mad, the narrator. She often feels left out because she's not brave like Roo, has trouble learning Spanish, and generally feels in her little sister's shadow. Her worries about her parents are always spot on and her confusing feelings about growing up are genuine and realistic. I could have done without the crush and the first kiss, but that's just my personal bias. The author does a fairly good job of staying away from too many stereotypes. The reader is kept guessing about the villains' real intentions and loyalties until the end and there's plenty of suspense as the kids try to figure out who they can trust.

The fantasy elements come in the magical elements of the jungle, which, although beautifully written, are never really spelled out. Are the prophecies and legends really true? There are plants, flowers, and creatures that seem magical, but the jungle has a lot of amazing flora and fauna - who's to say these don't exist somewhere? References are made to Roo's "special" abilities, but they are never really explained in detail. The story has a fantasy feel, but it's as much the atmosphere and the writing as any actual events.

Although the book is 300 pages long, and the ending is rather abrupt and too-good-to-be-true, there are some loose ends left hanging, like the girls' mom's weird behavior. I would have liked to see more local/native inhabitants involved in what is supposed to be an environmental fantasy. Instead, Kyle's local grandparents' additions to the plot are mysterious drinks, retelling old legends, and complete helplessness. It's all on the (American) kids to save the day. The "evil corporation" trope is rather tired and I thought the "beautiful villainess" was a little too stereotypical. It's also hard to believe that, if the magical cure really works, everyone is just going to abandon it because of a few kids, an aging movie star, and a little volcanic activity.

Verdict: Despite some of the more unbelievable aspects of the plot, there are some really well-drawn characters in this story and the jungle descriptions are magical. I especially liked that, while Mad was able to overcome her fear in the end, she didn't suddenly become as brave and magical as Roo and accepted that. While I wouldn't hand this one to kids looking for fast-paced adventure or realistic stories about the environment, kids who like fantasies with strong characters will enjoy this story.

ISBN: 9780385742368; Published November 2012 by Delacorte; Egalley provided by publisher through Netgalley; Purchased for the library

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