Here's a lovely book that isn't fantasy, although it is certainly fantastical--Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool, by Odo Hirsch (Kane Miller, 2010, middle grade, 214 pages). This one's an Australian import, already out there and coming to the US in September.
Darius Bell is the younger son of a proud family that has fallen on hard times. A long ago Bell ancestor did his city such a service that he was given a large land grant, and on that land, the Bell's constructed a vast estate, whose centerpiece was a huge, fantastical house (really huge and really fantastical--I loved it!). There was one requirement of the grant--every twenty five years, the Bells must give a gift, any gift, back to the city (which is now full of edifices of past Bell generosity).
It is almost time for the Bell's to give their gift again. But Darius' father has no money. The house is falling to pieces, and the only way the Bell's manage to stay there at all is through a network of families who work the land and harvest trees and fish the ponds in exchange for tithes. Darius, unlike his older brother Cyrus (who wants to leave the decaying grandeur of home to make a life for himself as an engineer named Robert), loves the Bell estate, and would do anything to save it. So when it becomes clear that his father is in deep denial viz gift giving (too proud of the family name to admit to poverty, too impractical to come up with a "worthy" gift), Darius sets out to find the perfect thing himself.
When an earthquake opens the way to an underground lake, a place of extraordinary beauty, Darius thinks he might have found the answer to his family's problems...but gifts, especially those with lots of legal strings attached, are tricky things.
The quality of Hirsch's writing is just lovely. It's full of description--the residents of the Bell estate, and the place itself, come to magical life. Those who love children's books about old, decaying houses full of endless rooms and follies will love this one. And all the description is merged beautifully with the story, so that my eyes never bounced of off unread adjectives in their haste to see what happened next.
Darius is a most lovable character--determined and plucky, despite being squashed somewhat by his older brother. I was firmly on his side from the get go, and he is one of my favorite fictional boys of the year. (Can't say the same, though, for his somewhat annoying proverb-mangling friend). Cyrus (aka Robert) grew on me considerably, and Darius' parents, even though they might seem ineffective (needing, as they do in Darius' mind at least), a lot of help, are not without dignity. And it is this dignity that comes to the fore toward the end of the book, when the author explores what really constitutes a good Gift (there's a fine lesson here, not made into a Moral with a capital M, but still very much present).
This is a wonderful book for the grown-up aficionado of middle grade children's literature- but I think there is more than enough scheming and exploring and imagining to enthral the young reader too.
added bonus 1: an interesting geology lesson
added bonus 2: lots of good things to eat
Here's another review from Australian Women Online that echoes my sentiments exactly.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher at ALA in DC this summer, and now I have to decide whether to pass it on to the library as planned or selfishly keep it because I enjoyed it so very much. But since the book is so focused on giving, it would be hard to do the later...I don't think I could meet its eyes on my own shelves, as it were.