Monsters, glittery flying ponies, ninja bunnies and other fantastical creatures inhabit the pages of The Girl Who Could Not Dream, Sarah Beth Durst’s enchanting new middle grade fantasy adventure novel. Sophie’s parents own a secretive dream shop, where you can buy bottled dreams or ― if you prefer more frightening adventures ― nightmares. (It’s like reading a Stephen King novel, only more immersive.) Her family uses woven dreamcatchers to capture other peoples’ dreams, and then her parents distill the dreams into liquid form, bottle them and sell them to customers.
Because Sophie has never had a dream of her own, when she was six years old her curiosity led her to swipe a dream bottle off the shelf and drink it. She was immediately plunged into a dream where she was sitting in a pink-ruffled bed, watching a furry black tentacled monster, with three rows of sharp teeth, scuttling around the bed. Instead of cowering in terror, Sophie promptly befriended the dream monster, and when she awoke from her dream he was cuddled up beside her like a rather large housecat. After a bit of fast talking, she convinced her alarmed parents to let her keep Monster, who becomes a fantastically loyal and protective friend to Sophie.
Tentacles out, Monster sailed through the air and slammed into Sophie’s chest. She staggered back as Monster wrapped two tentacles around her neck. “Oof! Hi, Monster.”
“You’re upset. Who upset you?” Monster demanded. “Tell me, and I’ll bite him.”
“No biting,” Sophie and Mom said at the same time.
“No,” they said.
Sophie, now twelve, has no real friends other than Monster, but she talks to a few kids at school who have frequent nightmares. Sophie lends them dreamcatchers, which help to minimize the effects of their nightmares, and trades them new dreamcatchers for used ones every few days, giving her parents the used dreamcatchers so they can distill and sell the nightmares. But when two of Sophie’s nightmare-ridden acquaintances suddenly disappear, along with Sophie’s parents and their dream-distilling machine, Sophie finds she needs to not only summon up the courage to try to fix a problem she has inadvertently helped to create, but also rely on the help of others, like Monster and her new friend Ethan, which isn’t easy for a girl with loner tendencies to do. Sophie and her friends learn some useful lessons about not judging others by their appearance, facing their fears, and having loyalty to others.
The Girl Who Could Not Dream has a briskly paced plot, spiced with frequent humor and sly allusions to other fantasy novels and tropes. The dream distilling machine, with its viewer, is reminiscent of the Pensieve in the HARRY POTTER series that holds memories for viewing by others. And the unicorn-horned pegasus, who sheds glitter with every toss of his mane and demands the admiration of everyone around him, was a humorous reminder of My Little Pony, with the added charm of his rainbow-farting ability. Even ninja bunnies make an appearance, and show that they’re much more capable than their pink, fluffy appearance might lead one to believe.
Life lessons go down easy when they’re packaged with an exciting adventure and laugh-out-loud humor, and The Girl Who Could Not Dream has both in abundance. The jokes and humor, particularly Monster’s sarcastic commentary and sense of humor, is a highlight of The Girl Who Could Not Dream, helping to make it one of the rare middle grade books that I think will be enjoyable by adults as well as children. Monster’s wise-cracking also includes some insightful commentary:
“This is your dream now,” Monster said. “You are dreaming, Sophie, no matter where the dream came from. Your mind is here. Your heart is here. And Sophie… whether I am in the world or not, I will always be with you, in your mind and in your heart. It’s where I’m meant to be — where I choose to be.”
I highly recommend The Girl Who Could Not Dream, especially for readers in the 8-14 age range, but I found it completely delightful and captivating even as an adult. So if I go missing in the next few days, I’m probably off looking for a dream distiller to create my very own Monster.