This lovely novel mixes fantasy with science lessons and friendship with quests to create a story that middle grade readers will find both comforting and inspiring. QUINTESSENCE, by Jess Redman, centers on Alma, a recently transplanted 12-year-old, as she navigates her anxiety and works on “growing her light.” The balance of the STEM-based quest Alma finds herself on and the hardships of middle school and changing family relationships works to keep the novel fresh and relatable.
Alma’s family has recently moved to the town of Four Points due to her parents’ careers, and her older brother is now away at college. The changes have brought on panic attacks that Alma soon learns to hide from her parents to avoid disappointing them. Redman’s sympathetic portrayal of Alma’s anxiety is center to the novel, and it reminded me of how Alyson Gerber described ADHD in FOCUSED. Alma’s ability to keep trying, despite emotional and social setbacks, is a testament to how middle school entangles the hope and brightness of pre-adolescence with the conflict and challenges of impending adulthood.
Even though the premise of the novel is fantasy (saving a fallen starling!), the quests and adventures (midnight mountain climbing and spelunking!) are a throwback to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys tales, plus a dash of modern social drama. Readers are allowed to get ahead of the characters when it comes to recognizing connections and anticipating story developments. The developing friendships between an unlikely foursome provide much of the novel’s authenticity. Alma, Shirin, Hugo, and eventually Dustin all have their perceived weaknesses, but they all discover “elements” that bring them together. The developing relationships feel familiar, and the awkward and sometimes aggressive interactions ring true to middle school. Readers will eventually feel sympathy with each character even when they create hurt feelings or harm. The heartwarming growth in each of the adventurers feels honest, with room to continue.
The short chapters ensure that both voracious and reluctant readers will be able to pace themselves for binge-reading or short dips into the story. At times the storyline can feel slow, but there are enough details to maintain interest in the plot and the characters. Not to be pushed aside, the Shopkeeper will definitely pull at some heartstrings as the novel concludes. QUINTESSENCE is a delight.