Some children just know they are different. Isabelle Bean is one of them. It’s not just because she prefers to wear bright red pointy-toed boots or speak in riddles. Or because she has no real friends and is always lost in daydreams. Or because she thinks fairies are quite real. Sixth-grader Isabelle feels herself to be so fundamentally different from everyone that she may not even be of this world.
The themes of otherworldliness and belonging underpin Frances O’Roark Dowell’s latest novel. A unique twist on some fairy tale conventions, FALLING IN follows Isabelle as she “falls in” to another world and discovers some truths about herself and her family --- and has a mighty adventure along the way.
Ever distracted by the buzzing sound she hears at school, Isabelle finally discovers its source one day when merely opening a door takes her down into another world. This world seems older and far more rustic than what she leaves behind, and at once she is caught up in the cyclical drama wherein the children of the Five Villages must flee the wicked witch who preys on them and eats them in retaliation for a crime of long ago. But Isabelle is drawn to the story and bravely makes her way, along with a new companion, Hen, toward the witch, where she finds instead a gentle and lonely healer named Grete. Grete opens her home to Hen and Isabelle, and begins to teach them herbal lore. Isabelle is enthralled by Grete and the magic that seems to surround her, and is happy to have found a friend in Hen. And, when she learns Grete’s true identity, she sets out on a mission to save her life.
It turns out that Isabelle may just be of another world, at least partially. Could her mother be the child the witch mourned? Could Grete really be the fabled and feared witch herself? And could Isabelle find a home with Grete forever? Perhaps her journey is one meant to bring her home with a sense of self, a newfound strength and an identity for both her and her orphaned mother.
FALLING IN is charming and wise, quirky and fun, with just enough darkness to keep it from being saccharine. Isabelle is a wonderful guide through the enchanted world she discovers. She is at once skeptical and totally open-minded, as only children of a certain age and disposition are. Dowell's story is fun and interesting, but her storytelling is simply wonderful: her descriptions are clear, her characters compelling, her setting fantastic yet believable, and her breaks in the narrative wall humorous and thoughtful. This is a book to be savored by young readers and enjoyed as a read-aloud.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 2, 2010