Book: Willa of the Wood
Author: Robert Beatty
Age Range: 9-12
Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty is the first book that I've felt compelled to review in quite some time. Honestly, not many books are capable of making me stay up late to finish these days, but this one did. It is suspenseful, beautiful, and thought-provoking, while featuring unique and memorable characters. The end brought a little tear to my eye. Willa of the Wood is set in the same Great Smoky Mountain region as Beatty's Serafina series (see reviews here and here), but features a brand new protagonist.
Willa is a Faeran, or night-spirit. She lives with her clan, most notably her grandmother, Mamaw, deep in the wood. She's been trained to be a jaetter, which is basically a thief, stealing money, food, and artifacts from the humans who are starting to populate the area. But unlike most of the jaetters, Willa possesses ancient abilities once common among her people. She can change skin color, and blend in with the forest. She can speak to plants and animals. She can ask a tree for help as she climbs, and find branches bending to help her. She knows little about the "day-folk" (homesteaders), but much about the problems that have arisen within her clan over her lifetime.
The home of Willa's clan, and her abilities, reminded me a little bit of the world in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy. Here's a description:
"She was part of this clan, and it was part of her, as inextricable as root and soil. Willa looked up, beyond the throng of the Faeran that surrounded her, toward the ceiling. The hall had been built for many thousands of people to gather here, but far fewer than that remained. The walls of the great hall rose up all around, vast expanses of dark brown woven sticks reaching to a large gaping hole broken to the sky above. What was left of the decaying ceiling and walls was held aloft by the ancient, massive woven-stick sculptures of giant trees, the columns of their trunks soaring upward to spreading canopies above. Thousands of hand-curled leaves glimmered with emerald green, and brilliant kaleidoscopes of ornately woven birds of all shapes and sizes and colors seemed to be flying through the branches of the trees." (Page 93, ARC)
I don't want to give away anything about the plot. Suffice it to say that Willa finds herself in peril on several occasions, and has to call on both her inner resources and special skills to survive. Parts of the story, as with the Serafina books, are quite dark. Although this book is certainly middle grade, I will personally wait until my eight-year-old is a bit older before recommending it to her.
Other things worth knowing about the book:
- There is diversity. In addition to the Faeran, the humans include both white homesteaders and Cherokee tribe members.
- There are also loggers, and quite chilling depictions of the evils of clear-cutting old growth forests (as seen from the perspective of someone who knows the trees personally, and thinks of them as if they were people). The loggers were a bit one-note as villains, but I doubt most kids will mind that.
- A caring adult (human) plays a major role in the story, as he and Willa help one another. I found this refreshing - in so many children's books adults are either absent or presented as villains or buffoons. Beatty offers a nuanced treatment of the different viewpoints of Willa (who would never harm an animal) and the man (who has cut down trees to build his home, etc.). She is baffled, for instance, over the idea that he can own land.
- Animals also play important roles in the story.
In short, Willa of the Wood is wonderful, and has my highest recommendation. It is not necessary to have read the Serafina books to read this one. Though I certainly recommend those, too, Willa tugged more at heart.
Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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