Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
In Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green, Madeline’s father Jim Wade is a famous ornithologist who is working at Lava Bird Volcano when he suddenly goes incommunicado. Disturbed by events, Madeline and Ruby (along with their mother) fly down to see if they can bring him back. When they arrive at the volcano, they are drawn into the world of La Lava, the super posh resort spa that hired Dad to find the presumed-extinct Lava Throated Volcano Trogan bird.
Mad and Roo meet a cast of characters (some good, some bad) as they work to discover what is wrong with their father, and what La Lava wants the Lava-Throated Bird for. When they find out the horrible truth, Mad, Roo, and their new friend Kyle must race against time to find a living specimen of the bird in the jungle and reveal La Lava’s trickery to the world.
The story emphasizes the role of the three children as they explore a magical, tropical place, which is described with such affection and enthusiasm (both from the characters and the author) that I really wanted it all to be real.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
This book is an environmental tale, but it is also very much about family. Mad and Roo are close, and their relationship to their mother Sylvia is both loving and realistic. This family is stressed by the long absence of Jim, even before they think he has gone missing or has had something terrible happen to him. They go down to the Volcano to bring him back and reunite the family; there’s never a question of doing otherwise. Mad and Roo sometimes bicker, but it’s clear that they are best friends.
Kyle’s relationship with his paternal grandparents, the Villaloboses (usually shortened to Señor and Señora V), is equally strong. He is an American, but since his father is from this unnamed country, he visits the volcano every summer. Being half-Hispanic, he speaks fluent Spanish, and he loves his family here, as well as the environment itself, from the volcano to the birds in the jungle.
Interestingly, the villains are both portrayed as really isolated. Minor antagonist Ken/Neth has a business school bluster that apparently conceals loneliness and doubt—he’s portrayed as having no one to talk to besides Mad’s family. And the Big Bad is a beautiful but solitary woman, driven only by the desire to make a ton of money.
This book is unabashedly green. The main characters all believe in the virtue of saving the planet, and in particular endangered species like the Lava Throated Volcano Bird (a fictional species, so it could stand for any real one). The corporation that is La Lava is portrayed as evil for its willingness to kill an endangered species to make money. It wants to “save” the bird only so it can breed the species in captivity, and birds must be killed to get the skin treatment the spa is famous for. The workers are shown as very willing to do that. Mad’s father is horrified when he learns his employer’s real intentions. However, the tone is not hippie-ish. No one comments on, say, the ecological footprint of flying down to Central America to get a facial, or the impact the spa has on the local environment (other than the villain commenting on how “green” the spa is. But it sure isn’t described as having green practices in general, which may be intentional.
Mad is twelve, and Kyle is thirteen or fourteen, and they have a very tame romance. She thinks he’s cute right away, and he eventually admits that he likes her, giving her a very brief, sort of awkward kiss at the end of the book. The “romance” is mostly confined to Mad wondering if Kyle notices her pretty dress at the Gala, or just wondering if he thinks about her in general— exactly what 12-year-old girls do. The relationship felt real, and the author avoids sappiness because the characters are so quirky (Kyle once tells Mad that she looks like a tree frog in her party dress, and she is overjoyed).
On the adult side, Sylvia is shown to be anxious about her missing husband, and to be genuinely in love with him. It’s only after she gets brainwashed via some special “yoga” session that she gets spacey and seems to care a little less about what’s happening. Mad also notices the behavior of Ken/Neth, the family’s official shepherd (and watchdog). He often compliments Sylvia, and occasionally does little things that make Mad uncomfortable (such as touch her mother’s shoulder), because if their Dad were around, no other man would do that. Ken, however, mostly comes off as a goofball who maybe doesn’t understand boundaries, rather than a cold-hearted creep.
The setting of the book is an unnamed (but very Costa Rican-like) Central American country. However, the main characters are all Americans. The villains are also American and/or British. Only two supporting characters, Kyle’s grandparents, are local. They are mysterious to start with, and they act very much as fairy godparents: they offer advice, tell the history and lore of the volcano, and give the kids nearly-magical meals whenever they’re tired or depressed. It is the American kids who go off in search of the endangered bird, and the American kids who expose the evil actions of the La Lava Spa (with some help from a fictional famous American actress). Since the audience for the book is presumably mostly American readers, this makes sense, but it was still a bit disappointing that in spite of a fantastic setting which placed so much emphasis on the local biodiversity, there wasn’t a bit more exposure to the cultural diversity of a new country besides grasshopper tacos and fried plantains. Granted, that’s not the theme of the book, and the setting is very much confined to a tourist area and the unpopulated jungle surrounding it, but still.
A word about languages. It’s stated in the very beginning that Mad has been studying Spanish for three years. Yet she knows virtually nothing of the language. She doesn’t know tengo sed. She doesn’t know the difference between ser and estar. Her inability to learn even the most basic elements of a foreign language struck me as a) strange, and b) annoying, particularly as Mad loves writing and poetry. Her little sister Roo has been taking Spanish for a year, and seems to absorb it like a sponge, able to converse extremely well with Kyle’s grandparents, Señor and Señora V. I get that Roo is being portrayed as gifted in a lot of ways, but the way Mad acts, it’s like she’s never even heard of Dora the Explorer. It’s not like she knows some Spanish but is embarrassed by her slowness or her accent. She can’t learn it. To be fair, Mad is frustrated by her ineptitude, but never to the point that she overcomes it. I also patently couldn’t accept that someone with three years of Spanish didn’t know that quatro was four. Hello, Sesame Street?
Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green is overall an enjoyable and good-hearted story. While it follows a mostly conventional mystery/adventure plot, the strong focus on the characters and the exuberant descriptions of the natural world make the book stand out. The overt ecological moral is optimistic rather than doom-y, which I appreciated. If you are looking for a story that stresses an environmental message without getting apocalyptic, this is it. I’d say any kid 9 or up should have no problem. A younger person who has an interest in ecology and has good reading skills could handle it too. While the two main characters are girls, there is also a boy protagonist to follow, and the story is more of an outdoor adventure that should appeal to anyone.
Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green by Helen Phillips
Published November 2012 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
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