Pencilvania. Stephanie Watson. 2021. [August] 384 pages. [Source: Review copy]
First sentence: Ever since she first learned to hold a crayon, Zora loved to draw.
Premise/plot: Pencilvania is Stephanie Watson's newest middle grade (fantasy) novel. Zora, our heroine, loves, loves, loves to draw--always has. But does that mean she always will? Her mom has a special word, VOOM, for describing when her daughter is in the zone and FEELING the art. Her mom appreciates her daughter's talent--some of Zora's drawings have become part of her mom's permanent collection. Frankie, her younger sister, also loves Zora's art. Especially when Zora draws horses for her. (Frankie loves, loves, loves horses).
But after her mom dies--of leukemia--Zora loses her voom. Every time she tries to draw, she ends up having a panic attack. On her sister's birthday, Zora tries one more time--for her sister--to draw. But that leads to a burst of anger leading to...well...the start of the adventure.
Pencilvania is the fantasy land our characters find themselves in. It is a land created--quite unintentionally in many, many ways--by Zora. EVERY drawing Zora has ever done--EVER, EVER--comes alive and lives in Pencilvania. From the earliest scribbles--the eeks--to the latest (a traced horse done the day of her sister's birthday) all are there. But all is not well in Pencilvania. TROUBLE is afoot.
Can Zora find a way to save the day?
My thoughts: While it isn't all that unusual for middle grade novels to handle grief in one way or another, I found the fantasy world of Pencilvania to be entirely unique. (Well, mostly). I love the premise! It's cute, adorable, relatable. I also thought it was clever. I loved the world-building! I loved that there was a SEVEN LEGGED HORSE, and that this horse is one of the central characters. I also loved, loved, loved the eeks--the earliest drawings, her stick figures, if you will. I loved the HAMSTERS IN PAJAMAS. There were plenty of little details that come together to create such a perfect fantasy world. (Like the thousands of baby lakes. Or how EVERY sun that she ever drew exists in this world so everything is always sunny!)
I liked the conflict as well. Everything just seems OH SO RIGHT about this novel.
I personally loved, loved, loved it. I did. I loved everything about it. I loved the relationship between Frankie and Zora. I loved the emotional journey--highs and lows. I loved how imaginative and creative it was. It balances a super fun premise with authentic feelings of grief. This book has plenty of heart. But it isn't a heavy, heavy novel.
- “We gather here today,” said the hamster, “like every day, to celebrate our creator. To offer our gratitude for the magnificent world she has made!” All of the hamsters raised their balloon strings high, like torches.
- “Well,” Airrol said, “as you looked at us, we looked back at you. Yours was the first face any of us ever saw. Everyone knows you created them, and they adore you for it.” In her mind’s eye, Zora saw the angry protesters by the Zoracle. “Not everybody adores me.” “True,” Airrol said. “But most of us do. And why wouldn’t we? You drew the whole of Pencilvania. Every creature, every blade of grass…” He looked up at the uneven puffs of white drifting overhead. “You drew the clouds, probably when you were just figuring out how make circles.
- “Everything you draw gets to decide what it’s going to be and do in Pencilvania. When a drawing arrives, first they pick a name. To make it official, they tell the Zoracle. Then they get on with the business of being themselves.” “Wait, you named yourself?” Zora asked. “Naturally,” Airrol said. “It’s my name. I have to answer to it. Shouldn’t I pick it?”
© 2021 Becky Laney of Young Readers