One of my favorite books growing up was “Best Friend,” by Shirley Simon >> The story explores the concept of friendship from the point of view of a young girl. Making friends, losing friends, what today we’d call “friend drama,” and finding friends in unexpected places.
So I was looking forward to reading Sisterland, a fantasy with tween friendship at its core. I had given “Best Friend” to my 9 year old niece to read, but I think she found it boring. Sisterland might appeal more to a modern audience that perhaps has come to expect magic elements in most stories.
I liked it at first. Beautifully translated from Finnish, it is really a girl-hero-quest. Drawing on elements from traditional fairy tales and fantasy stories, it is both an exploration of friendship and a journey through a magical land. There is a dash of Phantom Tollbooth (another favorite of mine), a pinch of Land of Oz, and a whole lot of generic quest tropes folded into the mix. Readers raised on the classics might find Sisterland too much of a hodgepodge of these elements, but young readers will probably enjoy it.
In Alice’s country, the snow came early that year. Which was nice at first, but when it kept coming it wasn’t so nice. Snow, ice, and freezing temperatures changed how everyone lived. Some families had to be evacuated, others did the best they could but it was getting more difficult to survive as the climate became harsher with each day that passed.
One day, Alice noticed something strange. A dragonfly next to a snow drift. A dragonfly in winter? How odd. Soon after, Alice noticed something else…large, dog paw prints in the snow, starting from nowhere and going into the forest. Alice follows….and then things get really weird.
Our modern Alice falls down a snow bank, not a rabbit hole, but she lands in a place just as strange as Wonderland. Alice has entered Sisterland, and soon arrives in The Garden of Secrets where she meets Marissa. Marissa is also from a land covered in snow. When Alice asks how Marissa got to Sisterland, the answer matches Alice’s experience.
“I saw a dragonfly and followed it. Then I fell through the snow and into this world.”
Alice and Marissa meet singing roses and rhyming fairies. Dreamweavers and flowers who ask silly questions, trolls and other many other creatures. Their friendship grows as they learn about this strange world together.
But is all happy and good in the Garden? Alice has foreboding; something not quite right…but it’s such a lovely, magical place she soon forgets to worry. But that’s just the problem…Alice and Marissa are forgetting not just worries, but their homes away from The Garden of Secrets…soon they can barely remember their own families.
The girls learn that the evil Queen Lili, who rules over Sisterland, is causing the blizzards back in their home world. So they embark on a mission to confront and defeat the queen, drawing strength from each other throughout the journey.
Shape shifters, dragons, an abandoned amusement park, icelisks, snow-blowers, islands that sink and reappear…the story keeps fantasy elements coming hard and fast. But as the girls learn, not all that is magical and pretty is helpful, and many times the beauty masks something destructive.
The allegories are pretty heavy handed; “It can’t be winter without summer, and there can’t be light without shadow!” cries Alice. “No one wants to live in a dream all the time!” The fantasy elements are haphazard, without internal logic. It drove me crazy. But young girls will most likely enjoy the magic and mystery, and root for Alice and Marissa to not only save the world, but remain best friends for ever.