The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap, by H.M. Bouwman (2008, Marshall Cavendish, middle grade).
Take a dash of Joan Aiken--feisty girls in long ago times battling over-the-top bad guys, add a bit of Ursula Le Guin--thoughtful reflection on the power of stories and the experience of culture contact, and combine with magic--not the waving wands around kind, but the kind held deep in the earth, and then set all this in a vividly realized imaginary setting with a generous dollop of historical fact. That is what The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap does, with great success. (The jacket flap draws a comparison with Princess Bride, that I disagree with--sure, both have lots of action, but Lucy and Snowcap aren't at all romantic princessy types destined for luv).
So here's how it starts.
Lucy' s newborn brother is the last child that will ever be born to the Colay Islanders, and with his arrival comes sadness. Twelve-year-old Lucy must take the newborn up to the Lifestone garden, to join the statues already there.
"Everyone said statues. It was the only word they could think of, but it was inaccurate, for statues were chiseled and carved. Sculpted from stone. These were more like rocks that just happened to be in the shapes of people--perfectly formed, without any signs of carving. Statues only if statues could grow themselves, like flowers."
The statues are all that remain of the Colay men and boys, who turned to stone eight months ago, and the new baby boy's feet have already grown cold....
Twelve years ago, in 1775, English ships carrying convicts to Virginia had been wrecked on the islands. The English organized themselves into a colony on the largest, with a decent leader, and life on the outer islands was not much changed. But that Governor and his wife died mysteriously in 1786, and two unscrupulous power hungry villains blamed it on the Colay Islanders. And now those same two are plotting to get rid of Snowcap, the Governor's daughter and heir.
"On the day that the last baby of Sunset was born, the twelve-year-old Child Governor of Tathenn was having a difficult time. To begin with, she was hungry. She had refused her breakfast because Renard, the steward (who had been, among other things, a magician in London), had poisoned it while Sir Markham, the Protector, stood by the door and kept watch for him."
Lucy or Snowcap are not the sort who sit quietly while fate does its thing. They set out on separate journeys that come together in a single quest, the results of which will change the islands forever...and on the way, they rescue a handsome stable boy and the English schoolmaster from savage beasts, while contending with the two English bad guys, for whom murder is a mere nothing, and the anger of the islands themselves.
Neither of the two girls is particularly likable at first (which put me off a bit), but they become much more sympathetic to the reader (and to each other) as the book progresses. By the end, I felt I would be happy to be friends with either of them (and I realize that this might indicate that I am Weak Minded, but in middle grade fiction books I really need to like at least one main character in order to like the book). There's also a very nice horse (Snowcap's), for those who like such things.
And I did like this book, very much. Enough so as to murmer the words "Newbery sleeper" questioningly to myself. But it is not a book that is going to fire up the reader not already addicted to text (and again I murmer, "Newbery"). A lot of adventure stuff happens, but this is not a "fast" book through which the reader gallops at breakneck speed (although the Kirkus Review said it was fast paced. Maybe they mean something different). I think it's too thoughtful for that. It is made slower by being told from three different points of view--those of Lucy and Snowcap, of course, but we also hear a lot from the English School Master. Although anyone interested in the construction of history in English colonies, and the writing process in general (which is to say, me), will be interested in his story, it might leave some kids cold.
In short, I recommend this book enthusiastically to all grown ups, and the kind of kid who loves Joan Aiken. It was published this September, and hasn't gotten much blog buzz yet--I'll be real curious to see what other people think, especially about this whole fast-paced business.
And one final thing--I don't think the cover art is a good fit with the book, and I don't think Lucy and Snowcap would think much of it either. These are two of the most un-girly girls I've read about in ages, and the cover makes them look like dolls.
The Remarkable and Very True Adventures of Lucy and Snowcap has been nominated for the Cybils Awards in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category (link to complete list of other very good books on right--boy, it is going to be a struggle to come up with our shortlists). Thanks, Marshall Cavendish, for sending us panelists review copies!