by Leah Cook
Let me tell you what’s really cool about this series:
1. It’s written for young adults (the kid characters are ages 11-13 so far), and the kids feel *real* to that age. They don’t magically understand things and they struggle with their emotions and frustrations and they leap and whoop with their excitements. Sometimes they think the solutions are simple, and sometimes they’re right, but not always.
My niece and nephews (ages 8-12 now) *love* these books. Some kids who read the books dressed up as two of the main characters for Halloween, and made their own costumes right down to the details described in the books.
2. It’s about the complex, challenging, important work of finding the ways of peace without violence, and it’s not some flakey version of that that’s all sunshine and roses. The stories of Ari Ara, a shepherd girl, learning about this show both the natural instincts we have to mediate conflict resolution, and the discipline that’s required to be creative if we want to find solutions that will work without falling back into stubborn win-lose dynamics.
It takes ideas like Aikido and Capoeira and finds ways to embody them in the Way Between, which is both a way to fight without trying to inflict harm, and a way to think about how to find peace between people. Some parts of it are easy for Ari Ara, and some she really struggles with. As she learns, we do too.
3. It takes place in lands where pain exists. The histories of the kingdoms include war and distrust, and things done that were wrong on both sides. The people in the stories have experienced searing personal pain, or the loss and pain of being alone on the outskirts of belonging, and these books have a place for that in a young adult’s world.
For children who may not have words for things they have experienced or who may not realize what the adults around them have been hurt by, the characters are shown in their own lives and histories without wounding the reader. It gives place for the existence of real pain and hurt in a story world where it is safely treated and safe for the kid (or adult) to read. You’ll have to read for yourself to understand what I mean, but it’s an important feature of the books (to me). It teaches compassion, both for others and for one’s self.
4. There is an unforgettable scene in the first book, The Way Between, where the most revered Warrior in the Riverlands is seen literally fighting his ghosts. It is searing and agonizing to read, and is a surprising and devastating portrait of PTSD and the legacy of violence that goes beyond an acronym and the news. It shows the toll and the exhausting cost of the battles that this Warrior has to fight privately every day of his life, long after the events that started it.
Again, it is a powerful scene, but will not harm the reader. The character is inspired by one of our own Warriors in the US who helped found Veterans for Peace, opening a nuanced conversation about war and what it does to those who fight it.
5. Ari Ara’s friends are diverse and their own people. They aren’t tag-alongs on the hero’s journey. They’re their own people, with their own desires, impulses, and lives. They’re interesting, from Minli, the crippled monk’s assistant, to Rill, the Urchin Queen in the capital city of Mariana. None of them *need* Ari Ara, let alone need saving by her. They are *friends* to *each other*. That kind of friendship and relationship to each other is a healthy, good thing for kids or us to see.
6. Ari Ara is not good at everything. She doesn’t magically become effortless at everything at any point in the books. She struggles with some things, excels at others, and covers up what she doesn’t know at different times. She hides her weaknesses out of insecurity, and she gets hurt and frustrated with the only adults who expect her to meet her capabilities. Feels true to me, I don’t know about you.
7. They are stories about identity and family–the longing to know who you are, to belong, to be loved, and what a tumultuous thing it is to learn new pieces of your own story and have to adapt what you tell yourself your story is. They are about learning to open your mind and your heart to hear who the people are in your story and what they felt and feel, not just your own pounding heartbeat. They’re also stories about honoring yourself *and* the people you come from, and how that’s not always an easy thing.
8. In these worlds, there are so many ways of giving meaning and words to things. In the second book, a desert woman shares a rite of passage ceremony with Ari Ara when she gets her menses. In the first book, the Fanten grandmothers’ whole lives are tied to a seasonal cycle. The urchins of the capital city make meaning from the scraps of cloth they are ‘paid’ with for their work, and it becomes a way of reclaiming agency and dignity instead of just being indigent. The Mariana city people use coded languages of fashion to send political messages. The desert people must import their words with truth and the *nature of the thing they speak* in order to actually be speaking their language.
These books offer young readers (and older) entirely new modes of meaning and ritual and language. In an increasingly multicultural, non-monotheistic society and country, this introduces something very important for any person. Churches used to (and still do) provide this for their parishioners. These books offer many ways for readers to think about observing important moments in their lives or imparting meaning in what they do.
And lastly, 9. They’re just damn good stories. Magic, real emotions, ups and downs, conflicts and exhilaration, brand new worlds with new cultures to learn, growing up… they’ve got them all. They’re just good reads.
So, if you haven’t checked them out, I highly recommend them! Check ’em out.