This is one of the sweetest stories I’ve ever read. It’s about difference, exclusion, prejudice, unconventional families, the magic of love and inclusion, which all sounds lovely and perhaps a bit cliché. The thing is, author TJ Klune writes about these topics in a way that is sometimes surprising and always effective. Klune has created a world in which magic and “monsters” exist, and those children who show signs of having magic are separated from the rest of society and put in orphanages run by a government entity known as DICOMY (Department in Charge of Magical Youth). Main character Linus Baker, a single forty-year-old man, is a case manager for DICOMY selected for an unusual and highly secretive investigation which takes him to a remote home on an island with six “dangerous” children and an orphanage master named Arthur Parnassus. Linus’s month on the island could have a profound impact on its inhabitants, himself and perhaps the world beyond.
Linus and his journeys, both geographic and personal, are the heart of the novel. He lives alone with his cat in a dark, rainy city. Linus has been a case manager at DICOMY for 17 years and is very good at his job evaluating orphanages. He is a thorough, by-the-book case manager, who does not hesitate to recommend the closure of an orphanage if it does not meet DICOMY standards. Linus cares deeply about the children he meets in the orphanages and wants what is best for them. He is a kind man if somewhat lacking in imagination or curiosity. Once he has recommended the closure of an orphanage, he has no idea what happens to the children but assumes that those who rank above him are doing their jobs and taking care of them. It is Linus’ dedication to the rules and lack of inquisitiveness that gets the attention of DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management. They tap Linus, much to the surprise of everyone who knows him, to undertake a very sensitive and important job — to evaluate the state of Arthur Parnassus’ orphanage and determine whether it ought to be shut down.
Given the highly sensitive nature of this investigation, Extremely Upper Management provide Linus with very little information about the orphanage or its inhabitants until he is on site. And what a site it is! The long train trip takes Linus far from the dreary, cold city to a land where the sun shines, it’s warm and the air has the scent of sea salt about it. It is the stuff of Linus’ dreams but the case files he receives are the stuff of nightmares. One of the children, Lucy (aka Lucifer), is the son of Satan, which is why he was placed on this remote island. The others include a tree sprite (Phee), a gnome (Talia), a wyvern (Timothy), a young man named Sal who transforms into a dog when frightened, and Chauncey. No one is sure what Chauncey is; he is a bit of a blob with tentacles and eyes on stems. He has always been called a monster, but his greatest desire is to become a bellhop. Linus is terrified when he learns whom he will be observing. He does his best to hide his terror but the children of course see right through him and have some fun at his expense. Yet they also understand that Linus has the power to take them off the island and away from Arthur, who is a true father figure to them all. Arthur and Zoe, an adult sprite who technically owns the island, have created a safe home for these children. Over the weeks, as Linus observes and writes his reports, he sees the beautiful bond these people have created and finds himself becoming less of a professional case worker for the government and more of a part of this unconventional family. The budding relationship between Linus and Arthur is one of my favorite parts of this story. It’s lovely.
While Linus is developing these personal relationships, he is also trying to manage potential conflict with both Extremely Upper Management and the citizens of the resort town closest to the island. Management wants gritty detail in Linus’ reports; they are clearly looking for a reason to shut down the orphanage but they are also keeping information back from Linus. Linus, meanwhile, thinks the children should have opportunities to leave the island and have excursions in the beach resort town. Both Arthur and some residents of that town have reservations about that. Linus will find some unexpected allies in his quest to change perceptions about the children and make the world a better place for them.
Linus’ personal journey delighted me. Much like the magical children who internalize the negative perceptions that the world holds about them, Linus has internalized the negative opinion that most people in his life have had about him — that he is boring, unexceptional, nothing special, too fat, etc. Being with the children and Arthur helps Linus begin to look at himself differently and have the courage to do what is good for himself and for them, even if it doesn’t strictly follow the rules.
I highly recommend this book to adults, even if it is a YA novel. Too many grown ups become like Linus, beaten down and believing that they aren’t enough. This book reminded me of the beautiful messages children get from Mr. Rogers and that we all need to be reminded of from time to to. There is beauty and magic in ordinary things and people.