Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan 2001)
The Plot (via Goodreads): Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited. She believes she is in for brightly colored macaws, enormous butterflies, and "curtains of sweetly scented orchids trailing from the trees." Her British classmates warn her of man-eating alligators and wild, murderous Indians. Unfortunately, no one cautions Maia about her nasty, xenophobic cousins, who douse the house in bug spray and forbid her from venturing beyond their coiffed compound. Maia, however, is resourceful enough to find herself smack in the middle of more excitement than she ever imagined, from a mysterious "Indian" with an inheritance, to an itinerant actor dreading his impending adolescence, to a remarkable journey down the Amazon in search of the legendary giant sloth.
This school year, I'm planning to read all of the 2012-13 Oregon Battle of the Books with my 4th grader, and this one was at the top of the pile. We read it aloud, and this is what my son had to say about it:
"It's very exquisite. A great adventure, but still realistic (no magic or anything.) I like all of the characters, even the dreaded twins. I loved the plot, especially the times when Clovis (the itinerant actor mentioned above) is at Westwood. The setting is very unique. I learned that the Amazon river is the largest river and that they grow rubber there."For a reluctant reader (and writer) this is high praise. I wondered at the outset how he would do with a historical novel, and with a girl main character, but he was rapt and begged me to read it every spare moment. I think the acting theme had a lot to do with it--he wants to be an actor when he grows up.
Personally, I think this is destined to be a quiet classic.
For readers: Third grade on up. As revealed by my son's comments, this is one for all manner of readers--reluctant and avid--and appeals to both boys and girls.
For writers: Ibbotson's handling of an omniscient narrative is deft and worthy of study.
Author's Bio: Ibbotson died in 2010 at the age of 85. She wrote both adult and children's fiction, and also several books in German. (She was born in Austria.) You can find more information about her life and work in this Wikipedia entry.
Happy Middle Grade Monday, everyone!