I don’t find authenticity matters that much in fiction. If the author has done enough research to create the illusion of an illusion of reality, then that’s good enough for me – but I still like it when I know the author went the extra mile and really knows their subject matter. If I happen to know a little about that subject matter too and recognize the author’s knowledge, that’s an even nicer bonus. Such is the case with Beth Winkour’s The Willing Stone, the first book in The Adventures of Abby and Sofia series. The Willing Stone is a children’s chapter book, for third, fourth, and fifth grade. I am not a child, or the parent of a child, but I did work in a middle school English class. I’m no expert, but I have some idea about what kids would like, and I can say that The Willing Stone would be a big hit in any school library.
The story is about Abby, a fourth-grade girl who moves from California to a town in the Washington coast. Before her first day of school, she encounters a mermaid in a nearby tide pool who asks her to find a girl named Sofia. Abby discovers Sofia is in her class and the two strike up a friendship. Abby quickly discovers that the mermaid – really a shape-shifter – has a freaky troll friend and the two are scheming to steal a particular stone owned by Sofia. Luckily, Abby’s grandfather has told her stories about The Folk, as he calls them, in the woods, though the two are quite unprepared for the eldritch powers moving against them.
Winkour does a great job writing a story that is perfect for early readers. The words are never too complex to stump a reader and ruin the flow, which hampers a lot of kids. The story moves quickly, has cool supernatural imagery, and there’s even charming illustrations that will help keep young readers interested. I worked with teaching literacy and I can imagine even Middle School students who need reading practice, such as English Language Learners, would find this book appropriate and exciting. Winkour also clearly knows children and education. When the teacher at Abby’s new school uses the call and response ‘class, class!’ ‘yes, yes!’ as a way to get the kids’ attention, I had to smile – that’s the exact same attention getter my teacher used. She later mentions a young boy playing with a miniature finger skateboard – a Tech Deck. I would originally consider it a dated reference – I remember being jealous of kids busting out kick flips on Tech Decks when I was in Fourth Grade, back in the ancient past the Nineties – if I hadn’t seen a Sixth Grader get in trouble for finger skateboarding in class while I was doing a classroom observation just a few weeks ago. Evidently, Tech Decks are back in style and Winkour knows this. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that she works in a school.
She also knows the often cruel ways that kids act toward each other. Sofia, who enjoys rock collecting and examining insects, is called the ‘Bug Girl’ by her classmates and ostracized. At first, Abby is afraid that she’ll be ostracized too if she hangs out with her. It’s a sad truth that I’ve seen happen all the time – kids being branded as uncool for having odd interests and becoming outcasts. Abby learns to stick with her new friend, which I think is a great message for any student.
Other great messages include handy tips about dealing with Fairies. The Folk that Abby and Sofia encounter are far from Tinkerbell. They’re much more like the creatures depicted in William Allingham’s poem “The Fairies,” Neil Gaiman’s Coraline , Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrel or Hellboy – capricious, callous creatures who don’t care at all about human lives. The Willing Stone even includes some good survival tips for dealing with Fairies, like not eating the food if you’re trapped in their land. That’s information every child needs to know.
Thanks to a great style, a good message, and fast-paced eldritch action, The Willing Stone ended up being a great read. If you’re a parent or teacher, I urge you to pick it up.