Those on the lookout for good American rural fantasy should immediately get their hands on The Storm Makers, by Jennifer E. Smith (Little, Brown, 2012, middle grade, 384 pages, illustrated by Brett Helquist). It's the story of two twelve year-old twins, Ruby and Simon, relocated from the suburbs to ten acres of midwest farm land by their idealistic (and quite possibly over-optimistic) parents. Ruby and Simon had always been very close, but in their new home, they began to go their separate ways, much to Ruby's regret, and she wonders if "maybe they'd never really been inseparable so much as they hadn't ever had room to separate" (page 10). For Ruby (from whose perspective the story is told), books, and science, and helping her dad with the invention that will bring the family some much needed money are most important; for Simon, its baseball and his new friends.
Now the first year of school has passed, and the long, hot summer stretches away from them--no rain has fallen, and the wheat is in danger. Ruby almost wants it to fail, so the family is forced to go back "home;" Simon is so moody that Ruby doesn't know if he feels the same.
But then the weather starts acting up--strange twists of wind, leading to a massive storm that seems linked to Simon's sudden fever. And a stranger, a tall lanky man named Otis, appears in the barn...bringing the news that Simon is a Storm Maker, one of an elite cabral that can actually control the weather.
Though the Storm Makers have traditionally been more along the lines of storm alleviators, working to help gentle severe weather, the new official leader, Rupert London, has a different agenda. According to Otis, London wants to let the weather take its toll on the people who are destroying the planet. Otis, however, isn't telling the kids the whole truth--one that is even darker and more destructive. A plan that involves setting up the long draught...setting the stage for an epic disaster.
If Simon can learn to control his powers, and if Otis can convince him to work against London, there might be chance to stop it. But Simon has no clue how to get the weather to obey him, and Ruby, though she can understand the weather intellectually, lacks his raw, magical talent.... I found this a nice twist--Ruby isn't the Special One, and so is in a rather complicated position that's unusual in middle grade fantasy.
The story builds slowly to faster and ever more gripping events, as Ruby and Simon struggle to decide who they should believe...and what, if anything, two twelve year old kids can do. The distance between them lessens as they realize that, when working in harmony, magic and science can work wonders.
This is a great one for the younger end of the middle grade set (the nine to ten year olds), and even upper elementary kids of eight or so. It has some powerful emotional weight to it (the back story between Otis and London has some darkness to it), but not of a profoundly disturbing nature. The kid who appreciates a good, powerful summer storm should, in particular, enjoy this one!
I myself appreciated the carefully-written changes happing in Ruby and Simon's relationship as the sometimes painful process of growing-up threatens their closeness. It was very pleasing that in the end, although they're still on different paths, they are once more a team. The workings of the Storm Makers, with their myriad intriguing gadgets and devices (mostly created from the love of creating small, not necessarily useful, weatherish contraptions) are fascinating.
I also appreciated that there is nuance to the story--London has clearly gone of the deep end, but he's not a one dimensional egomaniacal nutcase. Smith doesn't use her story as an opportunity to preach one way or the other about global warming, but she does leave the reader pondering the relationship between people and weather.
And the midwest setting--flat and beautiful and huge and kind of scary in the way that hope depends on the weather, is brought vividly to life.
In sort, it's a fine read for the grown-up--not one that will necessarily knock the socks of the adult reader, but still a good one, and a most excellent one for its target audience!
(It's also a very attractive book, with raised detailing on the cover, and black and white illustrations that enhance the story. At least, for those who chose to take time away from reading to look at illustrations, which, in a case like this one where I am engrossed in the story, isn't me).
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.
Edited to add: A commenter asked if this book was similar to Savvy, by Ingrid Low--short answer, not so much. Savvy, and its sequel, Scumble, are very much books that take place within families. The threats and dangers are mostly inside those families, and to overcome them requires dealing with real world issues. They have a folksy, real-world feel to them. The Storm Makers is much more traditional in its enemy--the bad guy who threatens the world, and so it has a more epic fantasy flavor to it, with the children having to confront that external, magically powerful threat directly. Which isn't to say that The Storm Makers goes all out epic--it's firmly rooted in our world, which I appreciated.