Illustrations by Yana Bogatch
Roaring Brook Press, 2019. Hardcover Middle-grade Fantasy, 288 pp.
Kallie lives a STEM-based existence. With her mother aka The Writer gone, hers is an orderly household under her father’s watchful eye. Kallie’s grandfather is the only one prone to the fanciful, and it’s her grandfather that takes her to the community festival where she encounters a disturbing figure who gifts her a box. It’s a puzzle box with bone die inside.
Kallie can’t resist a good puzzle, but she’ll regret having ever opened it…or will she? The box will unlock an important mystery that seems to haunt Kallie—even though she is not unhappy. It’s just that the box causes her to start noticing things, looking for things. She’s missing something. She’s missing a few things: like the importance of works of fiction, the fantastical in particular.
Kallie’s aversion to her English class and that teacher is unusual in juvenile fiction—a bit unsettling to my lit-bent soul. They read Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Narnia) in English class and she is hating it. It’s kind of beautiful actually. Kallie is a wonderfully unusual protagonist, because Kallie is normally the character taunting the usual protagonist. She’s not the popular mean girl, but that someone who dismisses the validity of the hero’s perspective because she finds it useless and unnecessary. Other characters in A Box of Bones, Anna or Liah, or even the late-appearing Kaliope, are characters more familiar, but those characters don’t work in story that wants to interrogate the power of storytelling, the reason we tell stories to begin with,—and whether we believe them to be lies or no. Kallie will question everything.
The bone die turn out to be story cubes. Each image rolled will anticipate an important occurrence in sequence; which Kallie will try to explain away. But the bone die traces elements of two stories: the ‘realistic fiction’ (Kallie’s) and a ‘fantasy’ (Liah’s). The box’s presence, of course, bleeds the fantastic into Kallie’s reality.
One story is a magical adventure with an evil empress. The other has the mystery of a missing mother, presumed drowned, and the challenge of a new friendship. The transitions, as well as key moments, will be helped along by really lovely images by Yana Bogatch. It’s a smart inclusion, besides being a really nice one.
For fantasy readers: Liah, a foundling and bone carver’s apprentice, will prove a fascination. It’s written like a classic tale, filled with a delicious dose of the macabre, and horror, and sadness, and it closes with a clever game of wits. Cohen will weave it in alongside Kallie’s use of the bone die. You’ll just have to read the novel to see how Cohen artfully crafts it into the larger narrative there at the end.
In Kallie’s world, there is the introduction of a new friend to her two-person friend group. Anna is new and full of whimsy and mystery and she wins over Pole (Napoleon) so that Kallie has to now find a way to put up with her. Kallie’s treatment of Anna will be painfully familiar to those narratives where Anna would be the protagonist. It’s Anna who will have a story that will challenge Kallie’s belief in the need for fiction. This challenge will help Kallie navigate another important fiction told to her regarding her mother. We have reasons for telling stories. Cohen leaves the judgment regarding the right or wrong of it to the reader; she will only occupy a seat of compassion here.
The reasons for telling stories aren’t always to only prevaricate, but to hold and reveal an important truth in a way we can live with those truths. Or maybe the story holds the truth until we’re ready to confront it; like a box waiting to be opened and deciphered. And sometimes it’s scary. A Box of Bones yields moments of dread and confusion appropriate to the journey at hand. It’s exciting.
As things move beyond either hero’s control in the novel, Cohen is building important tension. Kallie and Liah have to find a way to make things right, first by confronting the reality of what those final die mean. Cohen writes a good mystery unraveling around Kallie’s mother; and Liah’s plotline had me leaning in, interested, curious.
But the true mystery of A Box of Bones, the arc, is: to what conclusion will Kallie arrive? Her growth is central to the novel and I think readers will be satisfied where Cohen takes her. Cohen doesn’t compromise her protagonist, but Kallie will become a more empathetic one; which may be fiction’s greatest gift.
I was really taken with Cohen tale-telling ability, but I know fans of science writing will enjoy A Box of Bones. I can easily recommend this one for fans of Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by McAnulty and The Thing About Jellyfish by Benjamin.
Marina Cohen grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, where she spent far too much time asking herself what if. . . . In elementary school, her favorite author was Edgar Allan Poe. She loved “The Tell-Tale Heart” and aspired to write similar stories. She has a love of the fantastical, the bizarre, and all things creepy. Her books include Chasing the White Witch, Mind Gap, and Ghost Ride.