I am not usually one for stories about parallel universes, but for Frances O’Roark Dowell’s new book, I must make an exception. In Falling In, sixth grader Isabelle Bean, even while dwelling in this world, lives in a world of her own. Raised by her orphaned parents, Isabelle has no relatives and no siblings. And since her father left when she was three, hers is a particularly small family. Isabelle lives in a world of intense imagination and curiosity, and her classmates find her oddly supernatural. She is a listener, observer and wonderer. Though she has no friends and does not fit in, she has not given up hope of finding her place in the world.
It’s not a big surprise to a dreamy person like Isabelle to open a closet door and find herself tumbling into a land that is nothing like the land of school and spelling tests and mean girls. She is greeted in this strange new place with wariness and suspicion by children who wonder if she could be the child-eating witch who is terrorizing their villages. Isabelle listens to their stories of camps filled with fearful children and decides to strike out on her own. Hunger and cold force her into an alliance—and then a friendship with others.
Isabelle’s story is a joy to read, complete with gentle side chats from the author to keep the pace quick. Little by little, the story unfolds of Isabelle’s traveling buddy Hen and the unusual older woman, Grete, who takes them in. The reader is an active participant in the tale, wondering who Grete really is, if she is a danger, if the girls are being lured to their death, and why Hen is not more worried about her little brothers and sisters in the woods. All these questions are mixed with Isabelle’s musings about whether she is a changeling and if Grete might be her real mother.
Dowell weaves a rich, accessible tale that works on many levels. On one hand, it’s an exciting, often humorous adventure about falling into a world of mystery and folklore. Deeper, it’s a mixture of fairy tale (is Grete really the witch from Hansel and Gretel?) and the mythology of fairies, changelings and other magical creatures. Deeper still, it’s the universal story of a girl, trying to find what she is meant to be. Never heavy, filled with humor and insight, Falling In is an enchanting story and a perfect choice for mother-daughter book clubs.
Robin Smith is a second grade teacher in Nashville.