Review: Strange Creatures
by Phoebe North
Balzar + Bray (imprint of HarperCollins)
Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Valerie Estelle Frankel
Is Phoebe North’s Strange Creatures a fantasy novel? Well, is Bridge to Terabithia? Both feature children’s imaginary worlds, used as a coping mechanism for everyday struggles. North’s other offerings were spaceship fiction (in fact, on a specifically Jewish generational ship, a delight for readers seeking representation). It’s easier to group an author’s books in the same category, mentally or otherwise. But the fantasy here is deniable in a “maybe the magic was coincidence or a dream” sort of way.
Big brother Jamie and younger sister Annie are devoted to each other. They spend years exuberantly building a magical fantasy world called Gumlea in the woods near their house. After Jamie breaks some of its laws, he vanishes, and Annie struggles being the sister of a public tragedy and a personal devastation. While others come to accept that Jamie's disappearance is permanent, Annie convinces herself that he is lost in Gumlea. Each large section of the book offers a different character’s point of view, with Jamie’s shattered into fantasy images and poetry. A few times, characters and scenes are superimposed, showing his disassociation. Here, the artistry is impressive and evocative, putting readers in Jamie’s shoes. Simply put, it’s magic.
The book is unique in a spectrum of easily quantifiable fantasy and realistic fiction. The struggles of a teen in Annie’s position are certainly rendered very realistically and emotionally for readers. The sibling relationship is very sympathetic, with Jamie as the parents’ golden boy and Annie mostly overlooked. This is made clearest with their B’nai Mitzvot—his glowing photo used for his missing child report after he’s become a scruffy, rebellious teen, and her Bat Mitzvah sparsely attended by few friends and grieving family. The book explores the effect of the disappearance on Annie, and thus normalizes grief, counseling, and other coping methods, and offers a guiding path for traumatized readers and those trying to understand them. The story also offers queer representation, as Annie finds some solace with a girlfriend.
Annie and Jamie are the products of an interfaith marriage: their mother is Jewish and their father is Catholic. Their service attendance and celebrations serve as a gauge for the family’s emotions, as does their father and brother’s turning to Catholicism. As such, this is a valuable and authentic look at a kind of Jewish family and struggle not seen enough in literature. There's a lot of realisitc struggle to unpack here, but the most explored and intriguing themes are not the Jewish ones.
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