Friday, April 17, 2020

"Quintessence" - Jess Redman

"Find the Elements. Grow the Light. Save the Starling."

With these words, middle-grade author Jess Redman begins to take us on our journey with 12-year-old Alma, who is more of a hero than she can possibly realize and who instantly becomes a young girl whom you want to follow for the rest of her life.

When her parents bought a small law practice in the town of Four Points, Alma's stable and joy-filled life was upended and the instability she felt emotionally as she struggled to adapt physically and emotionally became expressed as "episodes" of panic, dread, negative self-talk, and increased isolation. After a few weeks, she convinces herself, and mostly her parents, that these episodes are gone.

She knows the truth. Alma is losing her Alma-ness and doesn't know how to get it back.

The fact that I sit here having written that last sentence with a tear in my eye likely gives you some indication of just how emotionally honest I found "Quintessence" to be, a sublimely written emotional and physical adventure that elicits laughter and tears, memories and reflection.

One day, a still struggling Alma ventures into the mysterious shop at the end of Four Points called The Fifth Point, a rambly and shambly junk shop of sorts where the Shop Keeper loans her a kinda sorta telescope, okay it's a quintescope, and through that quintescope she spies late one night a falling star that, upon landing, presents itself as a rather magical looking child who appears lost and searching for home.

Alma understands that feeling.

Man, I'm crying again.

Determined to somehow help this lost Starling, Alma fearfully steps into her school's Astronomy Club where she meets those who will become essential to her journey - a delightful and seemingly always happy Shirin and a smart and seemingly always smart Hugo.

Originally scheduled for a May release, "Quintessence" has been pushed back to July 28, 2020 in a move that, at least hopefully, frees it from the the challenge of being released amidst the anxiety-inducing pandemic currently impacting daily life. It's a move that one hopes will bring the attention deserved to this delightful, intelligent, and incredibly entertaining novel from Jess Redman.

A therapist who returned to her childhood love of writing with her first middle-grade novel "The Miraculous," Redman writes with a perfect weaving together of clinical insight and a child's eye view of the world that surrounds them.

Redman doesn't show her cards early in "Quintessence," instead allowing us to experience the journey of a 12-year-old who has experiences for which she has no words. By not frivolously tossing in clinical language, Redman also allows us to experience the wonderfulness of Alma and the building of the adventure about to unfold. "Quintessence" may tackle a serious subject, but it does so in a way that is childlike and filled with a sense of wonder and awe at the humanity of all of us and the ways in which we are inherently and irrevocably connected.

Alma is a joy, though for much of "Quintessence" she feels more like an "other." She doesn't feel like Alma and Redman wonderfully captures how that feels for a child. She also wonderfully captures Alma's parents, well-meaning but occasionally misguided in their parenting. With tremendous wisdom, Redman doesn't paint a story of a young child who suddenly becomes everything she needs but instead paints a story of a child who suddenly becomes aware that we all need each other.

The same is true for Hugo and Shirin, delightful children with human foibles and little imperfections in their own lives. "Quintessence" captures the brilliance of their strengths and weaknesses and how they become healthier and happier human beings when they work together.

Dustin, as well, is a bit of a mystery in the book. A bully of sorts with conflicted relationships with all three of our main characters, there's little doubt early on where his story arc will go but it's still a joy watching it unfold naturally and honestly.

And so it is.

"Quintessence" is a magical reading experience that possesses the vulnerable humanity of a child and the magic of the world in which these children live. It tackles serious subject matter, but it does so in a way that is developmentally appropriate, accessible, incredibly entertaining, and destined to create opportunities for conversation and reflection. Redman has constructed a world of creativity and vivid imagination, a celebration of humanity, friendship, the universe, and the myriad of ways in which our lives are better when we are together.

Scheduled for a July 28th release, "Quintessence" will be a valuable read for every middle-grade reader and it would be beneficial for adults to read so that they can answer questions and initiate valuable opportunities for honest conversations. Beyond the obvious value of its subject matter, "Quintessence" is simply a truly enjoyable book with characters you will love and appreciate, a story with which it's easy to relate, and an adventure that will inspire.

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