Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Reading as Life Practice

In Forest of Wonders Newbery winner Linda Sue Park gives middle-grade readers an imaginative place for considering moral dilemmas

In her latest novel for middle-grade readers, Newbery Award winner Linda Sue Park explores the border between magic and science—and the line between using your talents for the good of others or for your own ends. Forest of Wonders, the first book in a fantasy trilogy called Wing and Claw, tells the story of twelve-year-old Raffa Santana, a prodigy in the healing art of apothecary. Raffa is eager to experiment, to make his own mistakes, and invent new solutions to the problems of his world. As he develops his conscience and learns to trust it, he must find the balance between having faith in his own instincts and heeding traditional wisdom.

Because of his chubby cheeks, Raffa is accustomed to being mistaken for a younger child, but he is also regarded as wise beyond his years, thanks to his talent with botanicals. Driven by a need to prove himself to his peers and his overprotective father, as well as by the insatiable curiosity that comes with great ability, Raffa leaves his rural settlement of healers and sets off to navigate a world of magical lore, human subjugation, and moral complexity. It’s a world in which the potential both to hurt and to heal is hidden in the properties of every living plant—and also within any human action.

Raffa is training to be a healer in a complex tradition passed on through many generations of his family. When his uncle Ansel and closest cousin, Garith, leave the rural settlement of apothecaries to serve the wealthy ruling class in The Commons, they are hoping to expand the resources and reach of their once-marginalized art, but Mohan, Raffa’s father, warns them about the danger in ambiguous motives: “‘At least promise me this,’ he said. ‘That you will keep your eyes wide and your mind clear, so you might perceive things that are not what they seem.’”

For Linda Sue Park, learning to navigate moral complexity is a key skill that reading can develop in children. In a TEDx talk called “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?,” Park describes how books are the most important teaching tool for life:

Books provided me with practice. Practice at life. Life can be so bewildering for young people … and, most vexing of all, life isn’t fair. We all need practice at facing life’s unfairness with both grace and grit. The books I read showed me how other people faced unfairness in hundreds, thousands, of different ways which did not include pressing buttons to blow things up. Instead through the characters I came to love, I practiced facing unfairness with bitterness and rancor sometimes, but also with hope, righteous anger, and determination. I wasn’t taught these remarkable truths; I learned them by being immersed in stories—not lessons that would be forgotten, but stories that became a part of me.

When the Chancellor of the Commons manipulates Raffa’s family into experimenting with animals using a mysterious red vine that Raffa discovered himself, Raffa must navigate a world that threatens not only his own life but the order and civilization of his homeland. He discovers the hard way that adults aren’t perfect, that he must learn to rely on his own instincts about whom to trust and what actions to take for the good of others.

Forest of Wonders doesn’t indulge Raffa in easy answers or smooth paths out of the complicated binds in which he and his new friends find themselves. Life may not be fair, as Park suggests, but in reading her books, children can practice being fair with the people who share their lives.