In Thresholds, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, we meet Maya. Maya’s best friend Stephanie died of cancer during the school year, so her parents, both school teachers, accept new jobs in a new state to give her a new start. Then, the night before the school year starts, a fairy flies in through her bedroom window and decides that Maya makes an excellent pillow. Maya wakes in the morning to find a pile of fairy dust. Though most people don’t notice anything different about her, the strange kids from the weird apartment building next door, Janus House, adopt her as their own, and a strange boy no one has seen before grabs her after school and pushes what looks to be an egg against her arm, pleading with her to save the creature from dying. Confused about what is going on, Maya is about to refuse when the egg burrows its way painfully into her arm, and fuses with her skin. And that’s when things really start to get strange.
From the brilliant cover art forward, Thresholds envelopes the reader in a world that is both familiar and foreign. Maya is a sympathetic main character, mourning the loss of her best friend, feeling burdened by guilt for uprooting her siblings from their school and friends, aware of the way her parents watch her every reaction for signs as to her emotional wellbeing. Her uneasy friendship with the Janus House kids strikes the right tone of tentative gestures and second-guessing by Maya, who feels like every step forward is a betrayal of her friendship with Stephanie. The emotional war playing out within her is an accurate depiction of the loss of a friend at a young age, and resonates through the story with a melancholy tone.
The other children in the story are also well depicted. Though the friendship with Travis, the bad boy in school, seems a little too convenient, her developing relationships with the children from Janus House seem realistic. The Janus House families are depicted in a way that brings to mind a noisy gypsy clan, with the foreign clothing, language and foods adding to the feeling of difference. One criticism I have is that the adults in this story seem to be entirely peripheral to the action. It always bugs me when parents seem to be so uninvolved in the lives of their children. The Janus House parents know of the danger that Maya has gotten into, and seem to be content to let her work her way out of it. Maya’s parents don’t notice that anything strange is going on with their daughter, even though she suddenly starts eating like a lumberjack. I understand that adults are rarely main characters in YA fiction, but these just seem like unrealistic relationships.
I have a sort of a love-hate relationship with Nina Kiriki Hoffman. I’ve always been able to see the potential in her stories, but haven’t always loved the execution. In this story, however, Hoffman finally starts to live up to all the praise that she has received. My biggest complaint with the story is that it is too short. I literally turned the last page thinking there had to be at least a few more chapters to the tale. Hoffman started a few new plot lines in the last few pages, and then ended without any real conclusion. It was like she got to a happy moment, and ended the book. I’m not sure if it was because of publisher stipulations about story length, or if this was just the story’s natural place to pause, but it was thoroughly irritating to be cruising along with an intriguing story and just have it hit a wall. I actually dropped my rating of the book by half a star because the ending was so abrupt. (Also, and I realize this is nitpicky, just because someone grew up in Northern Idaho doesn’t mean they are going to know French.)
I would recommend Thresholds for all YA readers. Though it probably lacks the emotional heft for most adult readers, I think this is a read worth recommending for middle school aged readers. I will be looking forward to the sequel that must be in the works judging by the inconclusive ending.
Magic Next Door — (2010-2011) Young adult. Publisher: Maya’s family has just moved from Idaho to Spores Ferry, Oregon. She’s nervous about starting middle school and making new friends, but soon that’s the last thing on her mind. First, a fairy flies into her room. Then it turns out that the kids in the apartment building next door do magic, and their basement is full of portals to other worlds. She’s bursting with new experiences and delight… and secrets, because she can’t breathe a word to herfamily, not even when she winds up taking care of an alien! Imagine the family in Ingrid Law’s Savvy seen through the eyes of a young Ray Bradbury. Cross the Threshold!