Review: The Girl from Earth's End - Tara Dairman
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Published: Candlewick Press, March 2023
My Rating: 5/5 stars
Look, I’ve done the whole “I’m not crying, you are- gag” a few times with these middle-grade books that unexpectedly get me in the feelings… This time I’m not even apologizing: I was full-on in tears by the end, and I’m not even ashamed of it.
I read and review quite a wide range of genres: from high-brow literary fiction to horror, from medical memoirs to 800+ page-fantasy epics. And yet middle-grade fiction can be a league of its own, and a craft I respect to my core. There’s this saying that if you can’t explain something to a 12-year-old, you don’t understand it well enough. Books like this exemplify that saying; they boil a story and an emotional journey down to the core, and distill it for a 12-year-old to understand (without patronizing or talking down to them!) in a way that many a literary fiction author fails to do in double the page count.
Our story begins on the titular island of Earth’s End, the smallest of the Gardenia Archipelago. So small in fact that it only has three inhabitants; twelve year old Henna and her two papa’s. As a family, they act as caretakers of the island and its lush variety of plants and gardens. That all changes, when one of Henna’s papas falls seriously ill. When Henna learns of the existence of a legendary, near-extinct plant with miraculous healing powers that used to grow on the Gardenia’s, she is determined to find the last seed to save her papa. To do so, she must apply to the St. Basil’s Conservatory; a botanical boarding school on the main isle which is rumoured to own the last seed. Along her journey, she is helped by her two roommates: genderfluid, quick-witted P, who’s nose for schemes and adventure proves more than helpful, and Lora; the self-reliant and resourceful daughter of one of the richest businessmen of the area. Will they succeed their quest before it’s too late.
In short: this book has everything I love. On the surface: it has gardening, botany and the love of nature. On a deeper level, it covers big emotions such as grief, including the specific kind of anticipated grief that comes from the illness of a loved-one, that many children’s fiction shies away from. In contrast, it’s packed to the brim with love, tender friendships, adventure and found family to keep the story from becoming too heavy.
There’s a wide range of representation; from Henna’s two-dad-family-system, to her two friends (one of which identifies as non-binary, and the other uses a wheelchair), to the staff and students at school who each come from different ethnic and financial backgrounds. All these themes are appropriately depicted and discussed in a way that’s natural and never preachy. It’s clear the author wanted readers to see themselves in these characters, rather than “be taught about them”. This is what true representation is all about. As far as the representation I can personally speak to (disability/wheelchair use, grief and loss of parent and the inequal opportunities in schools/academia): I 100% recommend this to readers of all ages 12-and-up. Especially great for fans of Ali Standish and Lisette Auton. As for me, I’m happy to count this as the newest addition to my middle-grade favourite shelf.
You can find this book here on Goodreads.