This 2017 middle grade novel has definite Newbery award potential. It reads like a Newbery; the style, subject matter, and pacing reminded me of Katherine Paterson (Jacob Have I Loved) or Clare Vanderpool (Moon Over Manifest), both Newbery award winning authors. If Beyond the Bright Sea wins the Newbery or even a Newbery honor, it will become a best-seller. However, if it gets passed over for the major children’s book awards, I doubt if children will take it up and make it a popular classic. It’s that kind of book: if you’re required to read it as a child, you might fall in love, but most children won’t pick it up on their own.
The narrator in this story is twelve year old Crow, a foundling who floated in a skiff onto a tiny island, one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, and into an adoptive family. Osh, the man wo rescued her as a baby and raised her, is something of a hermit with a mysterious past. And Miss Maggie is Crow’s teacher and Osh’s neighbor, a protective maiden aunt-type. At age twelve, Crow has questions about her own past and her birth parents, questions that can only be answered with investigation and stepping out into the wider world to find her heritage.
Beyond the Bright Sea is a book about identity and belonging and the meaning and relative significance of family ties of blood and of adoption. I have a friend, adopted, and just now in her early twenties and investigating her own birth family. She would love this book, I think. In fact, many adopted children, especially those of a different racial heritage from their adoptive parents, would probably enjoy this story since Crow is a brown-skinned girl of uncertain parentage whose foster father, Osh, and teacher, Miss Maggie, are both different from her and from each other in terms of racial heritage. Crow is also different and isolated from the community on the island where she lives in other ways. The islanders, many of them, avoid her because they believe she might have inherited a contagious disease. And Osh is not the most sociable of characters, and of course, they live on a small island, isolated from the outside world of the mainland. So, one question or theme in the book is whether or not humans need community and how they can create a network of family and friendships if some tragedy or turn of events has cut them off from human contact.
Adults might “sell” this book to kids with lures of a search for buried treasure, wild storm adventures, and an orphan child’s quest to find her parents and her other family members. Then, stand back and let the thoughtful and the adventurous readers become captured by the toils of a great narrative and winsome characters. I rather hope Beyond the Bright Sea does win some awards so that more kids, and adults, will discover it.