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.

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