Last year, Kathi Appelt won a Newbery Honor for her dark and magical novel, The Underneath. Given that Appelt is also the author of stunning nonfiction (Down Cut Shin Creek) and many picture books (I am partial to Bubba and Beau), I was curious to see what she would try next. Turns out, Keeper has many of the same elements of last year’s stunner for junior high and high schoolers, but with a completely different feel. Both books rely on magical elements and old stories, but Keeper, with its 10-year-old main character, is more suitable for younger children, despite its length.
The main character, Keeper, is having a terrible day. Everything she touches, from a very special bowl to her mother’s gumbo pot to a neighbor’s ukulele, is ruined. Keeper longs to make things right.
When she was only three years old, Keeper was abandoned by her mother, Meggie Marie, and her memories of that day are shaky and fading. She has been cared for since that time by young Signe, who loves and protects her with a ferocious love. Never speaking ill of Meggie Marie, Signe allows Keeper to remember her mother as a mermaid, assuming that one day Keeper will stop believing in magic. But Keeper loves all things magical and marine; she knows all about selkies, mermaids and sirens. Keeper decides she has no other choice but to try to make one horrible day better with the aid of her mermaid mother, whom she believes will show herself, with the aid of the magical moon.
Keeper sneaks out, taking only her dog, well after Signe is asleep. She has a plan in her heart and the sure knowledge of a girl in search of a mother who has been gone for seven years—and for Keeper, seven is a magical number. All the action takes place in one day, but flashbacks and Keeper’s own memory allow the reader to take in the whole story. Magic, history, geography and a special dog and seagull come together on one scary night when everything goes wrong . . . and right.
Appelt's seamlessly woven story slowly draws the reader from a small boat on a tidal stream of a blue moon and into the heart of one little girl whose hopes and wishes bring her everything she is meant to have. This landscape is rich in everything a reader wants: romance, setting and secondary characters who are both magical and realistic.
How does Appelt do it all? As Signe would say, that’s a question for the universe. I am just glad she did.