A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Fantasy tale with frequent homage to Narnia series, as kids travel through a portal to another world, one in which animal beings walk upright and speak, preferably in Cree. Story involves the past history and current reality of Canadian First Nations, including government agents forcing children into boarding schools far from their parents and culture, and children snatched from loving parents into a mostly uncaring foster care system. Lots about wilderness lore, Indigenous storytelling, and many words and phrases in the Cree language. An underlying ecological theme addresses balance of nature, how greed can destroy the world for everyone. The death of a character becomes an origin story for a constellation in the sky.
Strong messages of empathy, kindness, teamwork, learning from your mistakes and doing better. Respect for community and culture. "Don't forget about who you are," the parting words of a character's lost mom, are important to the plot and character development.
Positive Role Models
All the protagonists -- kids Morgan and Eli, and animal beings Ochek and Arik -- are complex and nuanced. Morgan, 13, is angry and suspicious of practically everything and everyone as a result of spending her life in foster care, but her quest in the world of Askí opens her eyes and heart to more positive possibilities. Eli, 12, is grief-stricken and lost in the wake of his father's recent death, and Morgan's kind treatment of him leads to a sibling bond between the two foster kids. Ochek (a fisher, a small, carnivorous northern forest animal) has a strong sense of duty as the sole support of his starving village, a skilled hunter, and a good friend. Arik (a squirrel) starts out as would-be lunch but becomes a strong ally with useful skills. In Winnipeg, the kids' foster parents are young, kind, well-meaning, committed to righting past wrongs against Canada's First Nations; they don't always get it right, but they keep working at it. At school, a popular girl befriends Morgan and introduces her to the notion that kindness is normal, regular behavior.
Protagonists Morgan and Eli are Cree, living in a foster home in an affluent neighborhood in Winnipeg, Canada. Eli speaks the language, Morgan doesn't. Their companions on the adventure are animal beings who walk on two legs and talk. The kids' foster parents are young White professionals. A popular White girl at school befriends Morgan. An animal-being character uses the pronoun "they."
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Violence & Scariness
The story pits the four heroes against a villain in a life-and-death struggle to save the world and its people -- and not all of them survive. Stabbing, slashing, attacks by predatory animals bent on devouring their victims. Weapons are used both for hunting and for attacking and killing your enemies. Graphic scene of cauterizing a character's wound. Scary deep canyons and steep cliffs, in which some characters perish and others have narrow escapes. Several relationships begin with one character planning to eat the other (everyone is starving), but they become friends instead. In the past, First Nations people in Canada suffered many atrocities at the hands of the government, and an Indigenous teen character in the foster care system has traumatic memories of being snatched as a toddler from her screaming teenage mom.
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Occasional "dammit," "crap," "you suck," and "oh my God."
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Products & Purchases
Occasional pop-culture references, like Star Wars.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Frequent references to tobacco in context of Indigenous ceremonial gift-giving.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Barren Grounds is the first book in Canadian author David A. Robertson's Misewa Saga, featuring two Cree kids in Winnipeg, Canada, who, with a nod to The Chronicles of Narnia, find a portal to another world in the attic of their foster home -- a world steeped in Indigenous traditions and populated by animal beings, notably a fisher (a small carnivore of the northern forest) and a squirrel; a world in which it's always winter and everyone's starving thanks to a greedy (and summer-stealing) villain. In the cosmic struggle that involves lots of weapons and many perils, not all the protagonists emerge alive. One dies heroically and becomes a constellation in the sky. Past atrocities against Canada's First Nations are important to the story, and one character relives traumatic memories of being ripped from her teen mom and being sent into foster care as a toddler. Family, friendship, teamwork, empathy, and remembering who you really are are strong themes. The story comes to a satisfying, heart-filled conclusion while leaving much to be explored and resolved in future installments.
Is It Any Good?
David A. Robertson's lively fantasy steeped in Indigenous tradition, mythic struggle, and righting wrongs takes two Cree foster kids through a portal to a world where it's always winter. As they navigate The Barren Grounds with forest animal companions, Morgan and Eli form a strong bond and find new strength as they struggle to defeat a villain and restore nature's life-sustaining balance. There's tragedy along the way, and trauma, as characters -- nuanced, imperfect, and mostly doing their best -- recall their past. But the exciting, heart-filled first installment reaches a satisfying conclusion while leaving much to unfold in future books.
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