Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is author Helen Phillips' stand-out debut novel. And, while this is not strictly a work of fantasy, this book is filled with magic. There are so many out of the ordinary things about this wonderful novel that I almost don't know where to start, but I think that sisters Madeline and Ruby (Mad and Roo) are a good place to begin. I have read a lot of books since I started this blog, and I one trend that I noticed is the predominant presence of a boy and a girl as the main characters, as if authors want to cover all the bases and make sure their book appeals to the widest audience. And I completely understand this - if I wrote a book I would do everything I could to make sure it is read. In light of that, I always admire a book immensely when the author has the courage to write main characters who are the same gender, especially two girls. Everyone knows that girls will read "boy" books (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) but that boys will never read a book with girls as the main characters (The Penderwicks.) And, while there is a great boy character in this book, as I said above, this story is really about the sisters and Phillips does a fantastic job creating the characters of Mad and Roo and giving depth to them and their relationship. The other amazingly wonderful, out of the ordinary aspect of Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is the jungle where the story takes place, but I'll get to that in a minute. The fantastic cover art was created by Jennifer Bricking and the title was hand lettered by Sarah Hoy.
When we first meet our narrator, Madeline, almost thirteen, is on a small plane headed into the jungles of Central America with her little sister Ruby, her mom and the annoying, odd Kenneth Candy, referred to as Ken/Neth by Mad who refuses to go along with his presence in their lives. Seven months earlier, their father, the renowned bird watcher Dr James Wade, was invited by La Lava Resort and Spa, a green, environmentally friendly vacation spot for the rich and famous, to track and help preserve the habitats of the birds around them. As the months pass and the trip keeps getting extended, the girls and their mother hear less and less often from him and when they do his conversations are odd and his letters are strange and unlike the father they know. When Ken Candy shows up in Denver to treat Dr Wade's family to what seem increasingly like diversionary activities more than perks of Dr Wade's job, Madeline grows increasingly suspicious and openly rude to Ken/Neth, especially since it seems like he is moving in on her mother. One aspect of Here Where the Sunbeams are Green that I think Phillips handles so well as an author is the delicate development of Madeline's personality. She is on the cusp of being a teenager, too old to be cute and get the cuddles that Ruby does and just worldly enough to know that there is something not right about Ken Candy's goofy jokes, shoulder rubs and pockets filled with mini-Snickers. She is also just old enough to notice the golden eyes of a boy and think vaguely romantic thoughts about him. I usually flinch when romance comes into a middle grade novel. I feel like it opens up a can of worms that are better left for teen books. However, I am the first to admit that girls think about boys and I always admire when an author can write innocently about relationships of this nature, which Phillips does remarkably well. Madeline's observations about Kyle, the teenage boy in the story are chaste and thoughtful enough that I think I would feel comfortable with a certain ten-year-old I know reading this book.
Mad and Roo are not polar opposites, but they are different and Madeline is aware enough and comfortable enough with this that she knows when to step back and let Roo have the stage. She also knows when to turn to Roo. Madeline is cautious and thoughtful and has taken up the project of writing one poem every night before bed. She observes the world around her and knows that something is definitely not right and is especially sensitive to the changes she sees in both of her parents over the course of the story, referring to it in her impeccably tween way as "The Weirdness." Ruby is boisterous, brave and always moving forward and, while she doesn't see the world the way Mad does, she has her own ideas about things not being right and pores over the last letter from her father, convinced there is a hidden message in it. Madeline refers to this letter as "The Very Strange and Incredibly Creepy Letter" and refuses to look at it because it is so unlike her father that it upsets her just to see it. Madeline fluctuates between being just a little bit jealous of Ruby, who, miraculously has picked up Spanish so much faster and more fluently than Mad, is suspicious of no one and makes friends instantly, and being grateful that Ruby is who she is. Together the two make a great team.
Add to this team Kyle Nelson Villalobos, native of Ohio who spends the summers at his grandparents' lodge. Kyle is also an avid bird watcher and fan of Dr Wade's. A bit warily at first, he and Madeline establish a friendship with Roo as their bond. Like Kyle, Roo is a bird watcher, learning everything she knows from outings with her dad. Once in the jungle, the story unfolds quickly with the girls learning that the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon, a species declared extinct four years earlier, is actually a Lazarus species - one that seems to have come back from the dead. Dr Wade is tracking the bird but, as the girls learn about the history of the bird and the volcano that it is named for, they soon suspect that their father might be doing something illegal for La Lava, or even worse, maybe La Lava is forcing him to do something illegal be threatening his wife and children. What was meant to be a relaxing vacation and visit with their father quickly becomes a race against time to save their father, the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon and the people living at the base of the volcano, as well as all the visitors to the sumptuous La Lava. Phillips' writing about the jungle is magical and she creates a vivid picture with her words. As I mentioned above, this really isn't a work of fantasy, but Phillips's weaves magical aspects into her story, mostly in the form of the flora and fauna of the jungle. One of my favorite scenes finds Roo waking up one morning after having been on a secret trek through the forest, with delicate yellow flowers growing from her toes. Even better, these flowers prove to be more than decorative as Roo instinctively uses them at a crucial moment in the story. Phillips also creates a believable local folk tale surrounding the volcano, the birds and the villagers, that plays out in a somewhat magical way in Here Where the Sunbeams are Green. Phillips also invents (I'm assuming these were inventions) magical flowers that, when plucked just the right way, inflate and act as umbrellas as well as an orange flower that blooms and wilts almost instantly only after La Lluvia, the torrential rain that happens at almost the same time every day.
As I said at the start of this review, Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is a stand-out novel for many reasons. If nothing else, I honestly can't think of another middle grade novel I have read in the last four years that is like Here Where the Sunbeams are Green. However, there are a few books I can think of that have elements that are similar to Phillips' wonderful debut novel.
Mystery and suspense on the Amazon, set in 1910.