Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

Sometimes I have an instinct, and it is not the most common feeling, but it’s one I pay attention to. “This book. This book. Hey, you listening, Deb? THIS IS THE BOOK.” At some point in some context, I don’t remember when and where, but I do remember the words, Catherynne M. Valente mentioned she was working on “a boy-Persephone novel.” My ears pricked up: “This book. This book! I’m listening…” So I started watching for updates. And when the book cover was released, I waited. My very kind contact at S&S mentioned an upcoming picture book which looked cute but not the kind I review, so I replied as politely and impressively as I could that I appreciated them thinking of me, but I’m actually looking for more MG content (Lord forgive me this mild lie, I’m always looking for simply books I adore, whatever the target age) and Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods looked like the sort of thing I’d be interested in. They kindly sent me a review copy and my instincts shrieked as I flipped it open: “THIS IS THE BOOK.” They won’t shut up even though I’ve finished reading and am running in circles waiting for it to be released April 26, 2022 and I want it so badly, so I’m telling you about it well before release day, even though I normally time things a bit more closely. I want to spread word in advance, and I’m telling you, now, to pre-order, because THIS IS THE BOOK. (The link I gave you is to her local book shop, so you can ask for it to be signed.)

I’ll give you the splashy blurb, first, and I’m gearing this towards teachers of kids in the Grade 4-8 range, more or less, though you can definitely find readers older and younger for this one. After that, we’ll get to the nitty-gritty. Blurby-splash: “This is the perfect book for the mythology-loving kid in your life or your class. Readers of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books will fall hard for Osmo and his journey, and any animal-loving reader of Kate DiCamillo’s books will be thrilled to head into the woods and meet Bonk the Cross and Never the Pangirlin.”

More, though, this is the book the teacher or the parent wants to read with the kids. I couldn’t put it down, and when the Spriggan, in his mischievous way, decided to wake up every time I thought, “I could read a chapter while he naps now,” much less touching the cover, I did an awful lot of reading-while-nursing (though he still grabbed the book) to get ahead. It’s smart, and it’s beautiful, and it’s fun, and it’s a real page-turner while grabbing your heart and brain.

Normally, these days, I don’t run books by the Changeling prior to reviewing. It would be too hard. She steals my books and doesn’t give them back. It’s very annoying, and when I ask for them (this happened with The Beatryce Prophecy— and “if your kid loves The Beatryce Prophecy they’ll definitely go for Osmo!”) she says in an injured tone: “But I let you read it first!” This one, I wanted to hear what she had to say. The first thing I noticed was her reading aloud. (You’ll understand when you get to page 3.) Then the giggles. Then quiet, rustling pages, giggles, and quiet again… Finally, when she finished and I got the book back, I saw her taking out a post-it page flag with a kitty on it, from page 123. “Well, I had to mark my favourite page,” she explained when I asked, “so I could go back and visit it. I liked knowing it was there.” (You’ll understand when you get to page 123. It was one of my favourite parts, too.)

The story begins with the love of the Forest and the Valley. And it continues, reaching people and animals, and it grows to the day that Osmo Unknown, who is very much not allowed to go to the Forest– no one is– has to go, and for less than pleasant reasons. Osmo goes not just to the Fourpenny Woods, but to the Eightpenny Woods, and he has to go on a quest to save his whole village. (“Describe Osmo! Why does he feel so familiar? Does Persephone feel familiar?” Teachers, I’m writing you so many companion questions here.)

This is the part where I’m giving any teachers reading this a REAL freebie question to explore with their classes. We all talk about heroes in mythology, right? What’s the heroic ideal, what’s the heroic quest, and so on. Maybe you talk about how modern retellings play with those ancient stories with ancient heroes! If that’s what you do, you could totally have a great unit about how it feels different to have an Osmo in place of a Persephone. But in modern fantasy books, kids get really interested in villains, we all know that and we talk about it a lot less– maybe we start to think about it when they get to university and read Milton, and we think about the Romantics and how they read Milton’s Satan, but we don’t talk about it in middle school even though they kinda sneakily like villains more than they like heroes.

So, think about this: ask your students who the villain is in Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods. Ask them to find a villain in mythology. What is a villain, and where do they even come from?

Do you see what I mean? This is a book for so many of us. I remember extremely well that when The Glass Town Game came out I thought, “Wow, this was for me, it was written exactly for me and I wish I could go back to Grade 7 and hand it to myself so I’d feel that sense of being recognized and loved.” I still feel that way, and I want someone to talk to about that, so go read Glass Town Game, too, please, and let’s have tea and cookies together.

But my feeling with Osmo was slightly different: I wanted to go back and give it to my friends. I wanted my teachers to put it on lists we could choose from for book reports so I could draw pictures of the characters. I wanted to dress up as Bonk and Never and Osmo for Hallowe’en with a group of friends– we could argue about who’d be who! (I would be Never, calling it. I’m the loner, I get to be Never.) I was listening to the Changeling try to figure out how to come up with a costume so the Spriggan could be Button and she could be Never and I was actually jealous and thinking about maybe I could get away with dressing up as a Quidnunk, even though I’m grown up?

And all of this excitement and absorption was intertwined with an awareness that at deepest level this book was thoughtful, beautifully written, and valuable. It’s a book with power, it pulses with it. It’s like Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s like Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books. It’s not smart despite being for young readers, it’s wise and delightful because it’s for them.

I’m telling you, get your pre-order in. Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods will be released April 26, 2022 and you want to have it on release day.

Valentine’s Day 2022, because this year we need that love!

One of the things I love best about my childhood, looking back, is the way my parents didn’t sweat the occasions for small celebrations– they just let us enjoy them, and helped us get there! Hallowe’en? Costumes all the way! Who will you be? Mother’s Day? Yes, of course, I really did want that poorly potted marigold you brought home from school, let’s plant it! Valentine’s Day? I never even heard of the angst I hear today about how painful it genuinely is to many adults from a romantic perspective, because I was under the impression that it’s a fun time to get chocolate and cinnamon hearts which I never even liked but was always excited about from my parents, and who doesn’t like a good story with hearts in it? I had a stuffy, Valentin (yes, pronounced in French, please), which was a crocheted heart. Today, thinking fondly of that much-loved-to-pieces yarny heart, I wonder what happened to him? (Yes, Valentin was a pink-and-red him of yarn, he was mine, I know these things.) I loved Valentin. And I loved Valentine’s Day, and even when, much much later, the guy I was seeing broke up with me the day before Valentine’s Day I loved the holiday because I had really, really nice memories from when I was a kid, and I was secretly (under the humiliation) glad that the jerk dude didn’t ruin the day for me by being romantic and THEN breaking up, that would’ve been awful…

These days, as a mother, I’m always excited to give my kids Valentine’s Day books and am still a bit baffled when people sigh and/or groan about romance, because I just don’t see it that way. And this year I’m feeling really strongly about enjoying the gloriously loving heart-and-hugs-and-chocolate day. Why let anyone ruin it? Grab it! But if you do have hesitations, I hereby present you with author Catherynne M. Valente’s history and philosophy of Valentine’s Day, why it’s such a great holiday, and why you shouldn’t let anyone take it away from you– with bonus birds (public Patreon post, and yes I subscribe to her Patreon, it’s awesome). YOUR definition of love, YOUR way, in YOUR life. Grab the joy!

And now? BOOKS! Fun, beautiful, love-filled books!

OK, this is a general list. Some were review copies, some were not, I’ll tell you what was what but, c’mon, you know me by now– I don’t review books I don’t love even if I get a review copy. And I will be linking to other books I’ve reviewed for Valentine’s Day in the past because they’re still good. That has not changed.

Candlewick kindly sent me two unbelievably beautiful board books, one very cute, one simply exquisite. The cute one is Peekaboo Love by Camilla Reid with art by Ingela P. Arrhenius, and is one of those gloriously sturdy Nosy Crow board books which somehow stand up to toddler love better than any other board books, and get tested more thoroughly because Nosy Crow does amazing board books, I’m always impressed. (Another Ingela P. Arrhenius book Where’s the Puffin? has been the Spriggan’s favourite non-music book since September, which is when I bought it, and it’s still intact. Incredible.)

And, yes, the sturdiness and cute art are just wonderful, in themselves. But I’m about to blow your minds here: the text is good. I know, I know, board books, with the exceptions of those written by Sandra Boynton and select others (I personally adore Whose Toes Are Those? and Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Asim and LeUyen Pham, if you’re searching) just don’t get good text. This one is written with care. Let me prove it:

Peekaboo rainbow, Peekaboo bugs / Peekaboo cactus, Peekaboo hugs.

What do you notice? If your answer is “it rhymes,” you’re my mortal enemy. Metre!!! Screw books that rhyme, seriously, rhyme is and almost always has been irrelevant. Metrics matter. I’ve mentioned this before with other books for wonderful read-alouds: Jamberry and Atticus Caticus are two that spring to mind. The beat in this book goes: dactyl, spondee; dactyl spondee catalectic (just means shortened to drop the unstressed beat) / dactyl, spondee; dactyl, spondaic catalectic. It is thoughtfully chosen to be a perfect bouncing rhythm. Yes, it rhymes. That’s a necessary and important secondary detail, which reinforces the easy-feeling bounceability of the read. The effect is: “PEEK (bounce!)- a-boo, RAIN (bounce!)- bow (and here you slide the slidey bits while the baby or toddler chuckles and squeals),” etc. The things that make your lovely, joyful reading experience with a toddler so very memorable are really worth recognizing and celebrating. So I bid you welcome to the joys of prosody! OK, fine, you don’t have to study prosody, I’ll do that bit. But, please, believe me when I tell you that rhyme is basically incidental to a good reading experience with your kiddo, while metre is profoundly important. I feel so strongly on the subject that I will prove it via the magic of Helen Oxenbury’s classic and perfect book, All Fall Down:

Singing all together, running round and round, bouncy, bouncy, on the bed, all fall down.

That’s the text. That’s it. I read it three times in a row to the Spriggan today and he’d have been happy to keep it up forever. Please note there is what my Changeling would tell me crossly is “ALMOST a rhyme, it’s ALMOST there, Mummy!” But the magic is not in that “well, c’mon, it’s ALMOST there,” it’s in the perfect affinity between the metrics and the text. You lose that, you lose everything.

I hope we now have a perfect understanding on this topic, and if you’re still awake and I haven’t killed the joys of Valentine’s Day for you, you can feel free to excerpt those paragraphs and share them with all authors, editors, publishers, etc., and once we’re having parties again you can read them aloud at parties and people will find you as charming as they find me! Next? OK. I know, I feel relieved, too.

I’m not going to tell you much about the exquisite pop-up book LOVE by Robert Sabuda (also sent to me by Candlewick, thanks folks!) because, honestly, there’s not much to say about it except that the experience of going gently through it is beautiful.

I frequently puzzle over the purpose of pop-up books. They’re often designed with very young children in mind, it seems to me: cute animals, cartoonish funny jokes, designed to elicit squeals of joy while you’re singing, for example, “The Wheels on the Bus” or something. Toddlers, however, do not often engage with pop-up books in a fashion designed to preserve their longevity. This one is not designed for toddlers. It’s the sort of book you open carefully with an older child, admiring the artistry and beauty and reading the tender descriptions of what love is to you, and musing over what it might be–

And, indeed, What Is Love? asked Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis.

Well, I want you to imagine, just now a package of the picture book by Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis and the above pop-up book by Robert Sabuda. Share it at the morning table as a family, and it would be sooo perfect and I need one of you readers to do that because I spoiled the whole thing by getting the books ahead of time, dangitall.

Finally, here’s a post with three other recommendations, all for picture books that are appropriate for readers ages about 3 and up, and they will all last for reading well beyond then!

And, parents? Don’t forget to read something lovely for yourselves on Valentine’s Day, too! Maybe go get yourself a blind date with a book at your local indie…


There’s a special pleasure and a special anxiety in reviewing books from a small Canadian press. While certainly not inaccessible, there’s an impression that maybe they’re harder to get, they’re not Big Five (or whatever it is now that PRH is acquiring S&S?) so they’re somehow odd or have to prove themselves in a way that Books from Big Publishers Don’t– I don’t really know. What I do know is that Urchin by Kate Story (you can buy from that link in the USA) from Running the Goat (or you can buy direct from the press in Canada!) in Newfoundland could not have achieved what it did with the dexterity and rough beauty it did, the jaggedness and windiness it did, without the attention to atmosphere and the honest understanding of the Newfoundland history a publisher who lives right there could give, so I’m glad that it was done in Newfoundland by Newfoundlanders who know the history and the ground. And it’s beautiful.

Just look at that cover design. There, right there, you see the power of a publisher, editor, and designer who get it. That’s the book. When I saw the cover design, I knew I needed it, and I have never been so right. (Look at the crow. I love the crow.)

I’m going to say something that may sound like I’m overstating things, but I really don’t think I am: If there’s a novel that expresses the trapped dual-and-unreal feeling of living through this pandemic, this is that novel. Yes, it’s local, and yet the local focus has universal appeal. I think Kate Story’s book, written before but out now, is the closest I’ve come to the living-in-two-spaces feeling of the pandemic in a novel, though. (As I said in another post, Brian Selznick’s fractured and non-linear Kaleidoscope also has the feeling of time and space being fluid.)

One of the issues with encapsulating what makes this book so particularly special is that I want to tell the story, but I also want to convey the atmosphere. I want to pin down the protagonist, but also tell the history. Basically, I want to give you the full reading experience, which you can only get by reading the book (which I highly recommend). It’s very tricky! But I’m enjoying the process of revolving my mind around this beautifully readable and yet original and experimental book.

The book is told in the first person, which is decidedly never my preference for a novel, yet Kate Story makes it work. The limitations of this point of view get us into protagonist Dor’s mind, letting us see through Dor’s eyes, hear through Dor’s ears, and, most importantly, feel with Dor’s heart and body. It’s intimate, but it’s limited, which works to the book’s advantage. We start in the future: a pandemic is raging (hahah yeah don’t stop there, please, it’s worth it), we aren’t sure where, exactly. And Dor, at the bedside of someone sick and beloved, is being begged to write down the story they lived. So Dor does.

Back to Newfoundland. We see Dor as an uneasy girl. At that point Dor is seen exclusively as a young woman, but is already and increasingly uneasy in that skin. And here’s where that first person perspective so clearly comes through as the right way to do things: today, and hereafter, I’m going to use they/them as Dor’s pronouns, which is accurate– but the book is never in that position since Dor is doing the talking. That intimacy is exactly the lens that allows them to elide any need for a clumsy category. Dor, we slowly discover, is nonbinary, but I see in Dor’s story, which doesn’t use that term and doesn’t use those pronouns (though, to be clear, I will and we certainly should), something more intimate and deeper in our appreciation of them: not what they’re not (“Dor is not binary”) but what they are (Dor is Dor, and Dor is unique and beautiful and vivid and brave and sometimes timid). After learning from a number of friends how frustratingly limiting the standard vocabulary of gender can be, I found this plunge into perspective of a human, a person, a brain and a soul, frankly liberating. I felt Dor’s liberation in “boy’s clothes” and I likewise felt their humiliation and loathing in being called “young lady.”

You, the reader, feel this, but this is not the story. The story is Newfoundland. The story is, in banal terms, a historical fiction set when Guglielmo Marconi comes to Newfoundland and captures a transatlantic wireless transmission on Signal Hill near St. John’s. Well, you think, isn’t that nice! A cool moment in local history, for a local press. Don’t stop there, this is not the story either.

Dor’s family lives close by Signal Hill, and her ancestor actually moved the house to a hill to be far from the risk of St. John’s traumatic fires– but in doing so actually moved it to a fairy mound. Putting it right on their path was a dangerous thing to do, and the consequences resonate for generations, and so it all comes to a crux when Dor’s deeply depressed midwife mother disappears when called out one night– and Dor, not believing she’s dead, sets out to set things right, and, in the process, is right at the heart of Marconi’s work, discovering what he’s up to, as well.

With every breath of the story you feel the high winds, you see the crashing waves, you stumble on rocks, and you hear the Newfoundland voice (even the quick changes as Dor notes that someone switches to proper English when they want to be impressive). There’s the desire for escape to New York, as her friends, a journalist and a singer, set their sights on a greater future, and Dor wants to join them, but, simultaneously, a rootedness by the sea, a feeling all too familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on the Atlantic coast (oh hi, that’d be me).

And, through it all, is the personal whisper: “Who am I? What am I? Am I even ok? Please, someone just see me for me and still care about me.”

Kate Story, really, has created an original, interwoven story, present yet historic, realist yet fantastic, which feels so fractured and whole that it’s resonance with this fractured yet whole Covid-19 day and age will not disappear. This is not a book which will have only a year’s relevance. It feels so rooted in history and present in the soul that I think it has staying power. And I feel so grateful to have read it at a moment like this, when I needed someone to echo my own feelings: “What is this world? Where are we? Is my house talking around my ears?”

Oh! And, if you’re not already sold? There’s a crow. And if you stick with reading, you will hear the crow and even the crow’s name but I’m not telling you more. You’ve got to read it for that.