It is a rare moment you encounter two middle-grade fiction novels that celebrate books and reading, set in Melbourne, and published by the same indie publisher only moments apart. But, the improbable happened with the recent release of The Secret Library of Hummingbird House by Julianne Negri and The Grandest Bookshop in the World by Amelia Mellor.
The first thing to say about these books is that while they share many qualities, they are both distinct. The Secret Library of Hummingbird House is a clever time-slip story – not hardcore time-travel, as such, but rather the rubbing up of two different moments in history that allow characters to encounter things they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. In Library, Hattie Maxwell is trying to make sense of her parent’s divorce and her new reality of two houses, two wardrobes, two sets of everything kept walking distance apart. Hummingbird house and its giant mulberry tree is her refuge: a huge, dilapidated mansion and gardens in Brunswick. The tree in this book really spoke to me: when I was a child, I used to climb the enormous trees in my garden and disappear for hours. I stored things in their branches, wrapped in plastic bags to protect them from the rain. I had a notebook and some cheap binoculars and other colourful bits, kind of like a bower. So, when I met Hattie and climbed that mulberry tree with her, admiring the crochet decorations an elusive artist had left behind, I knew exactly how she felt. The tree was safety, peace, escape, beauty. When the mansion and surrounds are earmarked for demolition Hattie is devastated. She slips from her bed at midnight to visit the house and, in the process, slips back in time, discovering a magical library and a girl who lives there. Together, and across time, Hattie and her new friend embark on a mission to save Hummingbird house.
The Grandest Bookshop in the World is a wonder. Set in Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne (which really existed in the nineteenth century! Google it), it follows siblings Pearl and Valley Cole as they fight to save the bookshop from the dark and dangerous Obscurosmith. The bookshop is their home (literally, they live in the apartment above it) and they cannot fathom moving elsewhere. The staff, the books, the talking parrot, are all part of the extended family. But Pa has unwisely gambled the bookshop for something that cannot be won, despite the Obscurosmith’s promises. Pa’s judgement is clouded by love and grief, and the bookshop is suffering for it. Pearl and Valley decide to take matters into their own hands to defeat the Obscurosmith and win back what truly matters: family, safety, the shop, and the present moment. The Grandest Bookshop has wizardry, absurdism, and magic to boot, and the reader is ushered along a pacey narrative structured by bizarre challenges, puzzles, and ordeals.
Beyond being celebrations of the magic of books, both novels revolve around activism: the importance of speaking up and standing out. They’re about fighting to save what you love, the struggle and the reward of that. They’re also about family and the messy times in life: Hummingbird House tackles divorce, and The Grandest Bookshop in the World deals with grief and loss. I highly recommend both these books for booklovers between 9 and 12.
Reviewed by Charlotte.