{Review} WILLA OF THE WOOD by Robert Beatty

O P E N I N G   H O O K:

    WILLA CREPT THROUGH THE DARKENED forest, following the faint scent of chimney smoke on the midnight air. The silver strands of the clouds passing in front of the moon cloaked her movements in shadow, and she made little sound stepping across the cold, wet leaves she felt beneath her bare feet. All during the night she'd been moving down the slope of the mountain into the small valley where the homesteaders lives. When she came to the rocky edge of the river, she knew she was getting close to what she'd come for.
(Page 1, US ARC edition)

“Even as she watched the flow of the river, she knew where it would lead her. In all that had happened over the last few days, in all the violence and conflict she had seen, one act of kindness stuck in her mind. She kept thinking about it, the unexpectedness of it. She couldn't get free of it. She didn't want it to be the answer. She didn't want to take that path. It made no sense to her. But the whole time she was sitting there staring into the water, a part of her already knew what she was going to do. All the streams in her heart were leading her back to that one place. That one moment. And it wasn't far. All she had to do was follow the river.” 

Every once in a while, you discover a book so precious and breath-taking, it takes you completely by surprise. 2018's sucker punch for me was the recently released WILLA OF THE WOOD by Robert Beatty. I had never read Beatty's best-selling Serafina series. I bought the first two books digitally when they were on sale and then waited for the third book, thinking it would be the final book. (It's not). Now I own all three and am itching to dive in because I love WILLA so much.

I wasn't expecting it, to be completely honest. I was expecting an interesting book that didn't fall far outside of the ordinary.  I didn't expect to fall into a book hangover upon finishing. I didn't expect to fall so head over heels deeply in love. I didn't anticipate the heavy emotions pouring through me as I came to the last page. I haven't loved a middle-grade novel this much since THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, which went on to win the prestigious Newbery Award. I'm really rooting for the Newbery committee to give WILLA an honor or the big win for this year's releases.

It's so hard to describe this book. It's not fantasy, per say, but it relies on magical realism. It is historical fiction, taking place in the late 1800s. It deals with environmentalism--and actually reminds me a bit of one of my favorite childhood movies, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. It is so moving and powerful and deep, and really hits you in the feels.

The novel centers around a girl named Willa. Girl? Night spirit? She's not quite human, but feels very much so. She has the ability to camouflage herself to match her surroundings and live with her clan. They've always communed with nature and taken care of the Woods and the creatures that reside within them. But now, things are changing. Settlers are moving in and chopping down trees to build homes. Railroads are coming through and needing the space to put down new tracks. The Woods are beginning to dwindle.

The leader of Willa's clan says that the Settlers are rich. That they don't need their coins and goods. That it is okay to steal their valuables as long as you never get caught. If you get caught, you will be killed on sight. That's what happened to Willa's parents and her twin sister. She now lives alone with her grandmother. She's also the best thief in her clan. When she gets caught creeping for valuables in a Settler's house, she thinks it's the end. But rather than kill her, the Settler tries to...help her? Maybe the Settlers aren't as horrible as the clan believes.

Willa also finds out that the leader of her clan is kidnapping the children of Settlers and that he no longer respects nature or the animals they have promised to protect. Everything Willa thought she knew is wrong, and she has to figure out who is telling the truth, who is lying, and what she can do to bring balance back to the Woods she loves so much.

And...it is really hard to talk about this book without spoilers. It is amazing, though. Willa forms unique relationships and has a sense of otherness to her, even as she feels so very human. She straddles two worlds and is pure of heart. Her journey passed in the blink of the eye and I was reading long into the night to find out how her story ended.

While WILLA is technically a middle-grade book, it's also very appropriate for older readers. I would say that readers not yet mature enough to handle years 6 and 7 of the best-selling Harry Potter series are not yet ready for this book. (Also, how cool is it that we as a collective,whether we've read the books or not, can assign a reading maturity level based on this series rather than on age itself? No other series can do that.) WILLA doesn't have romance or language, but it can be violent and cruel and has themes darker than other middle-grade novels aimed at the same age demographic. There is one point where Willa asks Nathaniel, the Settler she forms a tentative friendship with, why he murders trees to build his home. She also doesn't understand why he has to kill and eat animals. In those moments, the book gives me waves of nostalgia for Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and makes me love it even more.

I am so enamored with this novel and have been recommending it far and wide for the past month. I am really rooting for it to win big this coming January during Awards season. These characters and this world still resonate within my soul, and it has been a month since I read it. I am only now coherent enough to even attempt to formulate thoughts to share with you. If you check out one book for the rest of summer or introduce one new book to your classroom library, let it be the brilliant WILLA OF THE WOOD.

Content Ratings: highlight between ( ) for details

Romance: --
Language: G ( No cursing, but there are strong words such as "murder"that may be make it a hard read for younger readers )
Violence: PG ( Characters die, both human and animal. Nothing super graphic, but not as innocent as other depictions of death for this age range. )
Other:  --

C O V E R   D E S I G N:

I already loved that dreamy, smudgy artwork of Millie Liu (Minty Fresh Mangos), but you guys! When you take the jacket off, it gets even better!

Isn't it beautiful? I love seeing hidden surprises beneath the jacket, and this one is especially lovely!

It seriously makes me want to buy the entire Serafina series again in hardcover because they all have hidden tattoos as well! Remind me why I thought it was a good idea to buy them digitally!?

O F F I C I A L   I N F O:

Author: Robert Beatty
Release Date: July 10, 2018
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Received: For Review

Escape into the story of a brave and unusual girl brimming with the ancient powers of the forest. From Robert Beatty, the author of the #1 New York Times best-selling Serafina books, comes a thrilling new series filled with the history, mystery, and magic of the Great Smoky Mountains. Kirkus Reviews described WILLA OF THE WOOD as "A moving, atmospheric journey of hope." 

Move without a sound. Steal without a trace. 

Willa, a young night-spirit, is her clan's best thief. She creeps into the cabins of the day-folk under cover of darkness and takes what they won't miss. It's dangerous work--the day-folk kill whatever they don't understand--but Willa will do anything to win the approval of the padaran, the charismatic leader of the Faeran people. 

When Willa's curiosity leaves her hurt and stranded in the day-folk world, she calls upon the old powers of her beloved grandmother, and the unbreakable bonds of her forest allies, to escape. Only then does she begin to discover the shocking truth: that not all of her day-folk enemies are the same, and that the foundations of her own Faeran society are crumbling. What do you do when you realize that the society you were born and raised in is rife with evil? Do you raise your voice? Do you stand up against it? 

As forces of unfathomable destruction encroach on her forest home, Willa must decide who she truly is, facing deadly force with warmest compassion, sinister corruption with trusted alliance, and finding a home for her longing heart.