Erin Entrada Kelly’s books have been on my “to read” list for a while. So, I was thrilled when she came out with a new middle grade fiction this fall, Lalani of the Distant Sea (2019).
“Imagine a place where the binty sing. An island far in the north, where they raise their heads like majestic gods and bring forth the most beautiful birdsong you’ve ever heard. You don’t think birds can sing, do you? It sounds foolish, I know. They Don’t sing in Salangita, that’s true…. In the north, they have lost nothing. In the north, on Mount Isa, the binty are beautiful. I don’t know what makes them sing, and I have never heard it. So, I imagine.”
Inspired by Filipino folklore, Lalani of the Distant Sea follows the epic journey of a twelve-year-old girl, Lalani Sarita, who lives on a fictional island called Salangita where the birds do not sing.
No living soul can remember why. However, fate has been unkind to Salangita: rain has stopped coming, crops are withering in the drought, and even the fish are escaping the nets. Under the draconian rule of the menyoro, the villagers have no choice but to continue as they always have. They say benediction to Mount Kahna to stave off its wrath and send their best men to set sail across the Veiled Sea in the hopes of reaching an island called Isa, which is rumored to be bountiful. Yet, in all these years, no one has ever returned.
Only one girl, Ziva, has ever attempted to sail in the history of Salangita. Moreover, Ziva was thrown into the sea not by waves but by the hands of men who believed her to be bad luck. Even though the odds are not in her favor, Lalani decides to cross the Veiled Sea herself when her mother is stricken with a mysterious disease that takes away the lives of menders. Certainly, I could not help but root for Lalani, whose courage comes from her empathy, not just for humans but also for mythical creatures she encounters. Yet, the book is not just about her. Other young characters, such as Veyda, Hetsbi, and Cade, who are left on the island, must also find courage to fight the everyday evil of patriarchy.
Also weaved throughout the stories of all these children are vignettes about mythical creatures that are beautiful, dark, and melancholic. These creatures have all experienced a loss at one point or another like the Salangitans. However, some choose to make peace with it while others seek vengeance, even if it means that innocents suffer along the way. Accompanied by illustrations and told in second person, these vignettes invite the readers to delve deeper into the fantastical world crafted by Kelly. While Lalani of the Distant Sea was much darker than I expected, I loved that it presented a captivating view of the world, in which the good and the evil are often intertwined.