by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
This phenomenal book, T.J. Klune's fantasy novel The House in the Cerulean Sea, was one of my favorite reads from 2020. I was thrilled to see that this one also just won an Alex Award as one of the ten best adult books that appeal to teen audiences with the Youth Media Awards from the American Library Association.
Linus Baker lives a quiet, routine-oriented life with only his curmudgeonly cat, Calliope, for company. As a low-level worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, Linus finds himself going through the motions of his life and feels a bit like a cog in the machine. He feels that he has accepted his life as it is.
"If one were to ask if Linus Baker was lonely, he would have scrunched up his face in surprise. The thought would be foreign, almost shocking. And though the smallest of lies hurt his head and made his stomach twist, there was a chance he would still say no, even though he was, and almost desperately so. And maybe part of him would believe it. He’d accepted long ago that some people, no matter how good their heart was or how much love they had to give, would always be alone."
But when Linus gets called up to Extremely Upper Management and is given a super secretive assignment on a faraway island, his life drastically changes. He and Calliope reluctantly pack up their things and go on an adventure that will change what he knows about himself and the world. I love Linus in this book and the way that he takes everything in stride. He is quirky and reticent, and yet he is perfected suited for the task at hand—evaluating the nature of the orphanage on the island that houses a number of unusual, potentially dangerous magical children and a mysterious caretaker. Linus's ability to handle tumultuous situations with an awkward ease and with dry humor makes him so very lovable.
I love the children at the house and the way that they take care of each other. Each one of them, so fascinating and so richly drawn, could be the center of their own book, and together, they form an unlikely band of misfits who support and lift up each other. And Arthur Parnassus, the primary caretaker at the house on the island, is one of my most favorite characters ever. His quiet strength, steady disposition, and charismatic character enrich the lives of everyone he encounters, and he fearlessly cares for these problematic children who have been cast out by the rest of society.
Though never overt, this is a richly quotable book with lots of great encouragement and advice for the children in it, such as this thought that Linus shares:
"It’s not fair...The way some people can be. But as long as you remember to be just and kind like I know you are, what those people think won’t matter in the long run. Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard. You might not ever be able to change their minds, but so long as you remember you’re not alone, you will overcome."
I love what this book shows about how society treats those who are different and the way Klune pursues other ways of exploring and accepting difference. It's also a book about the grit we can find within ourselves and how our broken places are also our greatest strength. And most importantly, the message that home can be found wherever you belong is such a powerful message that resonates in this book. (I'm not sure if there are any Douglas Adams fans here, but I thought there were some lovely echos of Arthur Dent's character in Linus's personality, and I also was reminded of Adams's quirky, dry humor throughout this novel.)
As I shared in my Favorites from 2020 post, this was definitely one of my favorite reads of the year, and it's one I look forward to rereading in the future. (Please let there be more books about these phenomenal characters! There's no sign of this, but I will hold out hope.) I'll also be checking out T.J. Klune's backlist and his latest work, the YA debut The Extraordinaries.
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