Juniper Berry, by M.P. Kozlowsky (Walden Pond Press, 2011, middle grade, 240 pages)
Juniper used to have a happy life, before her parents became famous, before they moved to the splendid isolation of a mansion behind locked gates. And now her parents have no time for Juniper, or even any interest in her...
"Juniper just never thought she would be kept out as well. But indeed, everything was at a distance. The world outside might as well have been the moon or Mars or the event horizon of the blackest of black holes. She had, by now, grown accustomed to her isolation, carrying her binoculars everywhere, spying from afar, searching for what she was missing. There was a telescope on a tripod in her bedroom, a monocular of some age that she always kept tucked away in a convenient pocket, goggles for underwater adventuring, a microscope and magnifying glass for that world even smaller than hers. Discovery and exploration were her salvation; if she couldn’t go out into the world, she could bring the world to her: the stars, the insects, the unsuspecting distance. Everything but her parents." (pp 2-3)
More sinister than just her parents neglect are the strange physical manifestations of wrongness they are exhibiting. When Juniper makes her first friend, a boy named Giles from a neighboring mansion, and learns that the same sort of thing is happening to his parents, she's determined to solve the mystery and set things right.
The two children venture through a doorway in an old and sinister tree, and there they find both terror and temptation. They, like their parents, are offered the dearest wishes of their hearts by the hideous denizen of the tree...but the price is one that no-one can pay...at least, if they want to keep their souls.
This is a story that evokes fairy tales and myths--the descent into the dark other realm, the temptation by the evil being, the dangers of wishes coming true. And it's a gripping story, especially in the first half when the exact nature of what's happening is still a mystery, and the suspense grows most delightfully. It's clear that something is afoot, but it's still very much a lonely child story, and getting to know Juniper in this part of the story was my favorite part of the book!
The actual mechanism through which wishes are granted, and the sinister set-up under the tree, didn't work as well for me-- too much suspension of disbelief was required, a few too many questions left unanswered, and I felt the bad guy talked too much. In short, the whole under-tree world didn't coalesce for me into scarily wondrous evil of great emotional punch.
Still, there is an appealing dreamlike quality to this, not happy day dreams but darker ones, where the fears of childhood come true. And this quality serves the book well, and should win it friends.
Other reviews at The Book Yurt, The First Daughter, The Book Smugglers, and The HappyNappyBookseller
NB: Walden Media is celebrating the release of Juniper Berry with a really nifty writing contest for kids, with a July 1 deadline. Details here.