Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel

Yeah for reading books that have been sitting around the house, possibly crying in corners, for far too long! Finally I have read Sarah Zettel's Dust Girl (Random House, middle grade/YA, June 2012), and I found it good.  It is good because although the barest bones of the story are familiar--girl finds out she is half fairy,  the opposing sides of the fairy realm fight over her while she figures out how to use her magic--the particulars are very unique indeed.

Callie's mother won't let her go outside the Kansas hotel she runs, in case her skin gets dark and people suspect her father was black.   But then the dust comes (this is the 1930s) and there's almost no-one left in town to care.  Still her mother won't give up and leave, though the food and money are running out, and Callie is choking her life out on dust, because she's waiting for Callie's musician father to come back.

Then Callie plays the piano for the first time.  And her playing awakens the magic in her, and a dust storm like no other comes, blowing her mother away and bringing into town the first (and most truly horrible!) of the magical adversaries Callie must deal with.   (Just to give you a taste--they are grasshopper creatures in human guise, and they are very....hungry).

So Callie, and Jack, the boy she just rescued from the abandoned jail in town, hit the road, first running for their lives (grasshopper creatures sure are fast!), and then running less fast for their lives while searching for the people they have lost. On their journey they encounter madness and mayhem and magic...all the while moving through the blighted landscape of the dust bowl Midwest.

So yes, I liked it lots--although Callie was Special, she also managed to be nicely ordinary, and her motivations and actions all made sense to me.   Callie also had to think considerably about the fact that her father was black--in the racially charged world through which she moves, she can't forget it--yet this aspect of her story was well integrated with the whole, and though sometimes it was underlined, it never felt overly didactic.  And, on top of that, it was a swinging, exciting adventure, with (wait for it!) no Romance front and center, which was rather refreshing--it's nice to read a book in which people are running for their lives without getting distracted by their Feelings for each other.    Callie and Jack will probably hook up in the future, when they're a bit older, and that's fine.

But what I really loved was the historical part of this fantasy--I don't turn to Dust Bowl fiction for my reading pleasure, and so meeting that historical landscape in my favorite genre was a lovely treat.

Here's what I especially appreciated--America is not treated as a fantasy blank slate, just waiting for the immigrants to arrive with their magics.  Instead, the first magical Person Callie meets is Native American, almost certainly Coyote, and this is what he has to say about it:

"Stupid white people.  Stupid yellow people, or stupid brown people.  Bringing in all kinds of ghosts and little spirits.  Can't even tell who's in the game anymore." (p 31). 

And so even though Callie's magical journey doesn't directly involve the native magic of her place, at least there's this acknowledgement that there is an indigenous presence.  The only other fantasies for middle grade/YA readers set in North American that I can think of simply do not have this (The Prairie Thief, by Melissa Wiley, and Patricia Wrede's Frontier Magic series), and I think they are the weaker for it.

Note on cover:  that's the new paperback cover up at the top; it comes out in June.   Some people thought that the cover of the hardback (at right) didn't show Callie  accurately as half black (although since she's been passing as white, or at least, her mother thinks she has, all her life, she has to look at least somewhat ambiguous, and I think the paperback goes a bit too far in the other direction....).  But in any event, it's nice to have the paperback showing a Main Character of Color, and so good on ya, Random House. 

Note on age:  This one is a perfect tween book, great for 11-13 year olds.  As far as I can remember, there's nothing in it that would be Inappropriate for younger readers (which is to say there's no sex, but I'm not sure how well I do at registering curse words, since I am married to someone from Liverpool and have become hardened), but there are issues of racial and religious prejudice (Jack is Jewish), law-breaking and human unhappiness/human evilness that make it a bit strong for a younger kid.

A few other blog reviews, by people who were reading it ages ago:  Bunbury in the Stacks, Someday my Printz will Come, and alibrarymama


  1. Wow. I LOVE the premise! Can't wait to read this one.

  2. I'm super-excited about the new cover! I think it does a better job of highlighting Callie's biracialness, while still making it plausible that she could pass for white.


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