I like to characterize trends with great all-encompassing, massive statements that fail to take into account exceptions to the rule. For example, after reading Thresholds by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, my instinct is to throw my hands wide and pronounce to the world, “2010 is the year of young adult authors writing for children and finding that in doing so they acquire a whole new audience and fanbase.” I root this statement in only one other 2010 book (One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia) but one is good enough for me. Nina Kiriki Hoffman has at least twelve YA books under her belt, but until now she has shied away from middle grade fare. With Thresholds she changes her game, offering a fantasy (or is it science fiction?) that taps into the dual early adolescent desires of bonding with something friendly and powerful and befriending the outcasts that prove cooler than everybody else.
You should probably know three things about Maya right from the outset. First off, her best friend Stephanie recently died and Maya’s family has moved so as to help their daughter cope. Second, Stephanie has found herself living next to a house where the denizens come and go in odd fashions, play strange instruments, and speak in tongues she doesn’t always understand. Third, there was a fairy in her room recently. It happened one night when Stephanie probably should have been asleep. No one would think much of it either, were it not for the fact that because of the strange fairy’s scent an odd boy decides that he can trust Maya. Next thing she knows she has a strange magical egg embedded under the skin of her wrist, and her neighbors are the only ones who can help her. Now Maya, like it or not, has gotten caught up in their world. The only question now is what’s in that egg and what will happen when it decides to hatch?
The blurb for this book that caught my eye is “Ingrid Law’s Savvy as seen through the eyes of a young Ray Bradbury.” I love that they had to put that “a young” in there. Old Ray Bradbury would be a whole different ballgame, of course. Mind you, it’s an interesting statement above and beyond the age designation of one of the nation’s greatest science fiction writers. First off, the blurb pairs two different genres together. Savvy is a Newbery Honor winning fantasy about a girl who receives a special power (like the rest of her family) at the age of thirteen. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, is a master of science fiction. Put the two together and you would expect to find a book that appeals to both sci-fi and fantasy fans equally. No mean task. To my mind, I suppose that Thresholds could be characterized as sci-fi. Everything has a logical dimension. Just the same, as a general rule, when you open your first chapter with a girl discovering a fairy, folks are going to label you fantasy whether or not there’s a scientific practicality to that fairy being there.
The real reason I think they decided to compare this book to Ray Bradbury probably has a lot to do with Hoffman’s skill with descriptions. She’s very good at avoiding the usual fantasy/sci-fi tropes, preferring instead to create her own original worlds. Fairies, for example, have a cinnamon/carnation scent and “the wings didn’t look like angels’ or dragonflies’ or bats’ – more like feather dusters.” And when one is describing folks from another dimension Hoffman puts it this way: “Then he was surrounded by tall, narrow people with lemon chiffon-, key lime pie-, and blueberry yogurt-colored skin, their snaky, knobby hair-vines darker colors, their clothes bumpy and strange, with parasols – or something made of webbing stretched over jointed frameworks – moving behind their heads.” That’s luscious. You could practically eat that sentence right up.
I think a lot of the charm of this book makes it into a kind of anti-Twilight tale. Think about it. Here you have an average heroine who moves to a new town. She discovers a family that is different from everyone else. However, unlike the Twilight novels, these kids aren’t super beautiful, superior people but the outcasts of the school that keep to themselves and still end up being incredibly powerful. Our heroine becomes one of them, not entirely by choice, but because she took pity on someone and agreed to do something outside of her realm of experience (mainly, to host an egg in her arm). Her reward is not only friends but also a purpose, a sense of belonging, and a super cool being bent on protecting her for all time. So the tween desire to both become powerful AND to be protected at all times is finely wrought here. It just avoids making that powerful being an overprotective love interest. Well played, Hoffman. Well played indeed.
Characters have to avoid being interchangeable in a middle grade fantasy, and Hoffman does a pretty good job avoiding that trap. But what’s interesting is that the most distinctive person here ends up being one of the supporting characters. Travis is best described as the book’s Jeff Spicoli (Fast Times at Ridgemont High fans, rejoice). He’s a good-natured slacker who actually uses the phrase “cowabunga” in casual conversation and proves to be more valuable than he first appears. He gets the best lines too. Sentences like, “You guys are like the psychos of the homeschool world, aren’t you?” Beautiful.
Every good fantasy (if that’s what you decide that this is) also needs a bit of reality to ground it. In the case of Thresholds, Maya’s best friend Stephanie has died the previous spring. Hoffman has to play this element delicately. For Maya to be a character we care about, she needs to overcome some personal problem in the course of the novel. Simply dealing with a magical wrist egg is not going to cut it. On the other hand, the dead friend card is a difficult one to play. The best way to handle is to do what Hoffman does here. She allows you to fall a little bit in love with the deceased Stephanie, so that the reader understands why Maya is so wrapped up within herself. This storyline has its own little arc and resolution too, but not so much that it overwhelms the more fantastical plot. Hoffman is playing with a light hand. It pays off in the end.
I loved all of that, but I admit that I did find the lack of conflict in the story a bit odd. Generally speaking, I’m a conflict adverse kind of gal, but it struck me as strange that the bad guys in this book do all their work off-stage. They don’t even appear by the book’s end! Even Voldemort showed up as a talkative half head in the first Harry Potter book. In Thresholds, though, the central conflict is between the heroine and herself. Between the two choices presented to her. She makes her decision. End of story. Kids hoping for something a little more exciting will be disappointed. Far worse, to my mind, is that it means that the book doesn’t entirely stand on its own. We know the bad guys are gonna show up at some point. It would have been nice to get at least a glimpse of one of them in our own world.
The lure of Thresholds is the same lure you’ll find in Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey or Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. At its heart, this is about a girl finding something within herself that is strong and bursting forth at an important turning point in her life. It takes very little effort to turn Thresholds into one great big metaphor. All I know is that like Savvy or The Girl With the Silver Eyes, it’s a tale for girls about to take the plunge into adolescence. There is comfort in knowing that the thing inside you that seems so strange and mysterious is there to help you and be your lifelong companion. Hoffman taps into that comfort, and the result is a story with a magical premise that may contain familiar tropes but ends up entirely original in the end. Worth seeking out. Worth waiting for its sequel.
On shelves August 5th.
Source: Galley given by publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Well, to be blunt I’ve been a fan of Joshua Middleton work for years. Ever since I saw him do The Ruby Key by Holly Lisle (which features a sweater that I want more than anything else) I knew he was someone to watch. Until now he’s been doing a lot of epic scenes. Fantastical creatures and the like. The lure of Thresholds is what he doesn’t show. Sure you get to see a hint of the green pattern making its way through Maya’s arm. And sure, her hair is thrown back in a moment of evident wonder. What I’m grateful for, though, is that we’re looking at an illustration of this scene rather than a photograph. Don’t get me wrong, I think photos on book jackets have their place. But once in a while you want to see a jacket illustration you’ve never seen before. And with Thresholds, Middleton delivers. You read a tiny bit about his process here.