Parched, by Melanie Crowder (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013, middle grade), is a moving and absorbing addition to the (admittedly slim) ranks of speculative fiction set in Africa. It takes place in what seems to be southern Africa, in a near future. where rising sea levels have turned fresh water undrinkable, and the cities along the coast have collapsed into chaos and despair. Water is the most precious thing there is...and there is not enough of it.
Sarel watches as desperate men come to their family farm, far from the city in the middle of a desiccated wilderness, and kill her parents. But they do not find her...nor do they find the secret grotto where there is still water to be found. For a while, she may survive, desperately keeping herself and the family dogs alive...and the dogs themselves wonder, in fairly realistic dog bits of narration, what will become of them.
Musa has a gift for dowsing...if there is water to be found, he can find it. But all that's left to find in the crumbling city are the lines of the old sewer pipes...and the gang who owns him, keeping him bound like an animal regardless of the festering wounds on his wrists, are not pleased. So he makes a desperate effort, and escapes...heading out into the dry lands beyond.
And his path takes him, almost dead from thirst, to Sarel. The water in the secret grotto is gone too, and Sarel knows that if she stays in her home, she will die. None of her knowledge about plants and animals can save her, when there is nothing to drink. Musa's coming brings new hope--with his gift they might find the water they need to make a future for themselves.
But the men who owned him will not let him go without a hunt.
Small, precise little details of each kid's life and struggle to survive (and the bits from the dog point of view) build the book into a grim but not hopeless story of grief and desperation. It's a subtle sort of futuristic dystopia--it's so plausible, even today before sea level has really risen all that much, that the true extent of its future consequences seems like it might already have happened. An additional sci fi/fantasy element is Musa's ability to dowse-it goes beyond common dowsing into a more preternatural ability.
Memorable, powerful, sad...it's not for the faint of heart, what with beloved people, and dogs, being shot, brutal child-enslavement, and a horribly depressing near future. But the mater of fact, simple way the story is told keeps it from being emotionally manipulative. It would make a good eye-opener for the kid who's always taken water for granted, or a good one that a fan of kids surviving alone (with nice bits of wild plant foraging, etc).
Final answer--a simple book, but a strong one, that sticks in the mind.
Nominated for the Cybils by Robin.