The Shelterlings, by Sarah Beth Durst

Sarah Beth Durst is one of my favorite middle grade fantasy authors, and her new book, The Shelterlings (June 21, 2022, Clarion Books) is one of her best!  I loved it.

The Shelterlings of the title are rejected familiars, creatures that made the trek to the mountain pool that awakens magic in those who bath in it.  Wizards evaluate the magic that's sparked in each aspirant, keeping those whose new gifts are deemed useful, and dismissing the others to a home for the useless.  Holly, a squirrel, is one of the later animals.  The wizards laughed at her when she conjured pastries, and though the sting and disappointment (she longed to go on useful and exciting magical quests with a wizard partner) are still fresh in her mind, the Shelter for Rejected Familiars has become home, and it's misfit mélange of creatures, with strange and wonky powers, are her family.

Then Charlie, a rejected beaver who conjures flowers, shares his plan to redo the magic spell that gave the pool its magic, so that this time around it would give them proper gifts such as familiars should have.  He needs help from the other creatures to collect the various ingredients, and so Holly and the other animals set out on genuine quests.  Not only do their quirky magical talents turn out to be essential for the success of the various missions, but Holly starts to realize that there was nothing keeping them from venturing out any time they wanted to; quests can happen without wizards (and, it turns out, talking animals can hop on trains no questions asked to travel in search of adventure....the world is their oyster!)

After a very satisfying recounting of questing adventures and the powers deemed useless being used to great effect (I loved this part of the book especially!), things become darker.  There is betrayal, and grave danger to the Shelterlings...but then a happy ending.  

Obviously there's a message at the heart of the book, that you don't have to believe it if you are told you aren't valuable and that your gifts are worthless, and that "useless" gifts can be precious.  I also appreciated that the down side of being used by those in power, as the wizard familiars are, is presented (one of the chosen familiars quits and comes to live with the rejected).  I saw this message coming almost immediately, but that's because I'm an old and experienced reader, who loves stories in which minor magic is creatively used to save the day.  The target audience might not see the message coming.  It was all very nicely done, and I didn't find it belabored (it's also a nice message to hear, even if you aren't the target audience...self-doubt is an enemy at any age!).

Adventure, friendship/found-family, and magical fun, all described with lovely clarity meant that I read this in just about a single sitting with my mind's eye busily making it all real with no effort at all on my part!  Especially (with just tons of conviction!) recommended for the younger MG set, the 9-10 year olds.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a lovely story. I don't read a lot of fantasy, but your review really captured my interest. I'm putting this one on my list. Thanks for the post.


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