There are three things I look for in a story: appealing, well-drawn characters, great prose, and a world I can get lost in. Good books have one or two of these elements. Great books — the ones I shove into the hands of everyone I know, the ones I can’t stop thinking about — have all three.
They’re pretty rare, and like most rare and precious things, you often find them in unexpected places. Greenglass House, the first entry in Kate Milford’s award-winning middle-grade series, is of those treasures. Even if you’re not generally a fan of children’s literature, thinking (erroneously) that you’ve outgrown such things, consider making this book the exception to your rule.
Greenglass House is the story of Milo Pine, a twelve-year-old boy whose adoptive parents own an inn for smugglers in the port city of Nagspeake. When visitors start showing up at Greenglass House just as the inn is closing for winter break, Milo is discombobulated. And with every new arrival, his uneasiness grows, especially when it becomes clear that none of guests are who they claim to be. Aided by Meddy, the cook’s daughter, Milo sets out to unravel the truth and discover the secrets of Greenglass House.
Milo’s questions aren’t just about the odd, secretive people descending on his home, however. He’s also keenly aware that, as a Chinese boy adopted by white parents, his own past is a mystery. Milford handles his concerns — Who were his birth parents? Will learning more about his origins hurt the feelings of his real parents? When will people stop asking where he’s “from?” — deftly, using them as a lens through which Milo views the world. Milo doesn’t feel brave enough to face these questions head-on, much less solve a mystery, but with Meddy’s help, he learns to act brave — and then learns his bravery is no act.
Milford’s writing — a little quirky, a little sly, with a Dickensian flair for names (The Skidwrack River, the villainous Morvengarde, Mrs. Caraway the cook) — excels at creating the perfect atmosphere. It feels like a winter book, all cozy and secretive, with evocatively described snowy forests and lantern lights, biting cold and warm hearths. Her prose is a sheer pleasure to read, especially when she weaves stories within stories, each taking on a distinct flavor.
It’s not just Milo and his sleuthing, or Milford’s ear for language, that make the book so delightful — it’s also the timeless, fascinating world of Nagspeake, filled with noble-hearted smugglers trying to outwit a corrupt customs department, a river that refuses to be mapped, vibrant folklore, and a rich history that reaches into present-day. Greenglass House itself is the sort of place you’d like to be snowed into — hot cocoa and cider and baked goods flow freely, there are hidey-holes galore and toasty fires to read next to, and the attic is full of odds and ends that might actually be treasure.
Greenglass House hits my bookish trifecta, obviously, and it does so with an astonishing amount of warmth and heart. Especially as we face down this last stretch of winter, it’s the perfect read to remind you that stories are powerful magic all on their own.