Angel Morgan and her little brother Bernie have been dumped on their great-grandmother in rural Vermont. Their father is in jail, their mother is too irresponsible to care for them, and Grandma's not thrilled to have them. Angel feels alone. Ever the optimist, though, she tells Bernie they are in a make-your-own-adventure. You find yourself someplace weird and you, well, you just look around and decide what to do next. Then what you decide leads you into a big adventure. It's one of Katherine Paterson's favorite themes: children finding their way in a difficult world.
Failed by the adults in her life so far, Angel is used to being the responsible one. She takes care of herself, Bernie, and now Grandma. Yet she feels alone, an insignificant speck in a large universe. Though her own parents are ineffectual, she does find mentors. From Miss Liza, the librarian, she gets books, poetry and a model of a bent-over old woman who knows how to stand tall. From Ray Morgan, the mysterious stranger who, on clear nights, teaches Angel about the sparkling galaxy above them, she learns that we are small, but not insignificant; we are made from the same stuff as the stars.
By the end of the story, Angel no longer feels small and insignificant. She feels part of the grander scheme of the universe. Just as adults became her guides, so do the stars, and she feels that maybe she, too, might take her lead from those beaming celestial bodies. No matter what other people did or failed to do, you could try yourself to be something like Polaris, shining strong and bright and fixed in a swirling world of darkness. Two-time winner of the Newbery Medal, Katherine Paterson, author of the young adult classic Bridge to Terabithia, is in top form here with one of the best books of the year. For ages 10-14, this one's a winner. Dean Schneider teaches English to seventh and eighth graders in Nashville.