coming of age, fairy tales, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read: The Counterclockwise Heart

The Counterclockwise Heart (Algonquin Young Readers)
Written by Brian Farrey

While I am not the biggest fan of fantasy literature, I always enjoy a thought-provoking book, especially one where children are encouraged to think outside the boundaries they’ve had set around them. Most popular kids’ lit I see seems to pander, and it makes sense that children would be pulled toward familiar brands and names. However, I think this book is well worth your effort to present as a read-aloud or for those voracious readers who can’t get enough. 

The Counterclockwise Heart concerns three characters: Alphonsus is a prince who was found by one of the royal couple. He has a clock where his heart should be, and no one quite knows how or why. Esme has been sent by the Hierophants, masters of magic, to kill the Nachtfrau, an evil witch living in the Hexen Woods. But when she meets Nachtfrau, everything the girl thought was true crumbles. And then there’s Guntram. He spent his youth speaking to the Onyx Maiden, a massive stone statue that magically appeared in his town one day. By talking to the frozen woman, he’s helped his community avoid the plagues & disasters she brought at first. How these three people’s lives intersect and the things that link them from before they were born will thrill & surprise readers.

This is a coming-of-age story rife with questions & scenarios around ethics. When we are children, we often follow authority figures blindly. However, as we enter adulthood, we learn life is far more complex than it was first presented to us. Esme and Alphonsus work to find their voices as they face life & death scenarios, discovering the dangers that lie outside the places they grew up. Guntram finds himself digging his hole deeper as new lies compound each previous lie. The stakes are the very world they live in, watching the kingdom on the brink of war with threats that the grown-ups don’t fully understand.

While the story elements are grounded in Euro-centric folklore, diversity is present through characters’ skin color, the royals being a same-sex couple, and disabled representation. The book’s themes will be incredibly relevant to any middle-grade reader, especially right now. As adults, we are waking up to the fact that so many of the leaders in the room have no real solutions to the pressing problems of our day. Empowering kids to explore & learn, to be aware of life rather than sleepwalking through it like so many grown-ups do, is an important thing that teachers can do for the future.

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