Book review: “LightLand” by H. L. McCutchen

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by H. L. McCutchen
Recommended Ages: 11+

I don’t know anything about the author of this book except that her first name is Heather, and that Scholastic (the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter series) believes in her. Now that I’ve read this book, I believe in her too. I hope she will continue to write books as interesting and touching as this.

It begins with two quirky kids, best friends since they were babies, each the only child of a single parent. Lottie Cook lives with her kind, slightly magical, widowed father Eldon in a sprawling, home-made home full of points of interest like a room that spins around until you get dizzy and fall down, and a giant room full of furniture that makes you feel doll-sized. Since the first day of first grade, she has worn pajamas and slippers to school every day, out of protest against having to go to school at all. Lewis Weaver, meanwhile, has never spoken a word to anyone except Lottie—including his mother Lucille, who is still angry at his father for disappearing when Lewis was three years old.

Now the two kids are starting sixth grade, and they have a new teacher named Ms. d’Avignon, who challenges her students to write an essay describing everything they know. Lottie and Lewis are both excited and worried. Both are excited, because for the first time they have a teacher who is at least as clever as themselves. But Lewis is worried because, while he can write factual answers in an exam, the closest he can come to expressing himself in writing is a notebook full of cryptic symbols and abstract images. And Lottie is worried because she used to be the keeper of all her family’s memories, but now she can’t remember any of them.

Luckily, Lottie’s dad made her a special box out of the wood of a lightning-struck cherry tree, a tree loaded with their family’s memories. When Lottie opens this long-neglected StoryBox, all her forgotten memories rush out. But then something even more unexpected, more magical, happens. Lottie falls in. Or rather, she falls through the box, into a world made of memory, a world called LightLand. In this world, anything or anyone that is remembered may live, at least for a little while. Some people who live there are quite solid and permanent, as long as they have their own memories. But an evil magician who calls himself the NightKing has been gathering power by stealing the memories of anyone he finds asleep during the night. And once they lose their memory, they cease to exist…

Lottie and Lewis have an important connection to LightLand. It seems to be Lottie’s destiny to save this world, where remembering is life and forgetting is death. Why? Because remembering things is her special gift. As for Lewis, his connection to LightLand is much darker and more painful. He shares several eerily distinctive traits with the NightKing, such as only being able to sleep with his eyes open, and never having any dreams. And though the NightKing is rumored to have no memory of his own, he remembers Lewis—and Lottie too—and is expecting them, even before they cotton to the awful truth of who he is.

The magic of this book is greater than the magic it describes. Lottie, Lewis, and other characters in it seem alive and real and strangely familiar, even while their goofy weirdness makes you laugh. The breathing, worrying, hoping truth of them makes their pains and troubles, fears and dangers that much more real to you. The evil they face is shocking. The friends they make are quaint yet noble. The love that unites them is catching. And the way the story toys with the dual idea of memory and forgetfulness creates a texture that lingers, like a well savored memory, some time after the last page is turned.