The Otherwoods

Bloomsbury. Sept. 2023. 288p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781547612543.
Gr 4-7–Reluctant seer River Rydell is haunted by spirits, grotesque monsters, and unexpected portals to The Otherwoods: an eerie, spectral forest that seems bent on luring them into its depths. A naturally anxious person, River is overwhelmed by everyday tween fears like talking to their crush, Avery, or standing up to their cruel teacher, Mrs. Deery, who insists on deadnaming them. In comparison, facing Charles—the drooling insectoid monster who lives under their bed—seems impossible, and so River suffers through the constant stream of ghosts, beasts, and portals the only way they can: by actively ignoring them. When Avery is dragged away by a monster into The Otherwoods, River must gather all their strength and their cat, Mr. Fluffy Pancakes, and venture through a dark portal for the first time to bring her back. River’s very human struggles with facing fears, learning to trust in allies, and being truthful about themself will resonate with many tweens, even the non-magical kind. Mr. Fluffy Pancakes, River’s heroic sidekick, leaps off the page with humorous body language and expressions that speak louder than actual words. Although the monsters and spirits are very one-dimensional throughout the story, the author sticks the landing with a big, final reveal, adding some complexity to their general scariness and leaving the window open just a crack for a possible sequel. River is nonbinary and described as having light skin, while Avery is pansexual and Mexican American.
VERDICT A first purchase for middle school libraries, this underdog hero fantasy is recommended for fans of Tae Keller’s work and Roshani Chokshi’s “Aru Shah” series.

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