Erin Entrada Kelly’s second middle grade novel, The Land of Forgotten Girls, will not be easily forgotten by her readers. Once again, Kelly plows into the heart of a twelve year old protagonist and takes us on a journey of adolescent survival and self-discovery.
When Soledad Madrid was age seven, her middle sister Amelia tragically drowned. A year later, her mother died. Her father remarried Vea and moved the family from the Philippines to America. A few years later, Dad travels back to the Philippines for his father’s funeral and never returns, leaving Sol and her six-year-old sister Ming living in a low-income apartment building with “evil stepmother” Vea, who cruelly takes her anger and bitterness out on the two sisters.
The book is set in the blazing heat of a Louisiana summer, right after school lets out. Sol and her best friend Manny spend their days stealing bomb pops from Tippet’s Grocery Store, exploring a forbidden junk yard, and taunting an albino girl who goes to the private school and lives on the wealthy side of town. Despite their socio-economic differences and an accurately thrown acorn which results in stitches on Caroline’s face, the three become friends.
Sol blames herself for sister Amelia’s death. As the older sister, Sol also feels responsible for Ming’s health and happiness. She longs to make Ming’s life better, so she does what her mother always did back home in the Philippines. Sol tells Ming stories. Sol’s mother taught her that, with enough imagination, she could do anything. Sol recites the tales told to her by their mother of their fantastical Auntie Jovelyn, who “was raised way up, up in the enchanted jungle, where magical things happen. She was raised by one-eyed giants and three-headed snakes, but she was never afraid because she was a friend to all.”
. . . Jovelyn, who rides elephants and goes on adventures in the Sahara Desert and travels to faraway places like India and Macedonia. She has a blond streak in her hair from the time she was blessed by fairies. She climbs mountains and flies airplanes. She’s the most beautiful woman in the room, any room, and the cleverest, too.
Sol also tells Ming the story of the Land of Forgotten Girls, where Hush Mother loves all the unloved girls in the world. “She doesn’t tell people what to do or boss them around. She just watches, to make sure no one breaks an arm or starves or something.” The stories are told in order to give the girls exactly what they need – Hope. The sisters use their vivid imaginations as an escape from their despair. Sol ponders, The best thing about having a mind is that it’s invisible – you can think whatever you want, even if it’s childish, and it doesn’t matter. Your thoughts belong to you, and only you.
Hope also comes in the form of a neighbor named Mrs. Yueng. She’s Chinese and speaks very little, but she hears and sees everything. When the sisters desperately need a true friend, indeed a “mother,” Mrs. Yueng is there to rescue them.
Sol struggles with the disappointment and hopelessness of her life, but she’s strong and willful. She’s learned the hard way that “sometimes what you expect and what you want are two very different things.” Sometimes at night, the ghost of Amelia comes to Sol and comforts her.
When Sol worries that the lines between Ming’s truth and make-believe have become too blurred and Ming will be devastated when Auntie Jove doesn’t show up to take them away, Amelia assures Sol that sometimes there’s an in-between. “It’s good to hide in the in-between sometimes. Isn’t it?” says Amelia.
This story addresses the importance of family, especially sisterhood, diversity in friendships, the gift of forgiveness, perseverance through difficult circumstances, and the need for hope.
Things I know to be true. Erin Entrada Kelly is a formidable middle grade author. And The Land of Forgotten Girls will be as big a bestseller as her first book, Blackbird Fly. Available March 1, 2016.