Phoebe North’s young adult novel Strange Creatures is a dark and enchanting love letter to magic, storytelling, and childhood.
Annie and Jamie are more than sister and brother—not twins, but two halves of one person. They’ve always known it, even if other people don’t understand. Together, they create the magical world of Gumlea in the woods behind their house: a place where they can be anything they want to be, sharing stories about harpies, mermaids, and a colony called the Island of Feral Children. Jamie is the storyteller; Annie is the archivist and mapmaker.
As Annie and Jamie grow older, Gumlea is an escape from the problems of the real world: A baby brother, crushes on girls, and parents who don’t understand. But Jamie finds new friends and interests as the siblings approach middle school and high school, while Annie can’t understand why he no longer wants to go to Gumlea. Then, Jamie goes missing. Shaken by the disappearance of her brother, Annie can’t help feeling that he’s gone someplace only she can follow: Gumlea.
Strange Creatures is hand-delivered for all current and former “weird kids” who have ever escaped to the magic of fictional worlds. Unusually for a young adult novel, the book spans the full childhood and adolescence of Jamie and Annie, beginning shortly after Annie’s birth and ending when she is in college. The narration is shared by three characters: Annie, Jamie, and Vidya, the girl they both come to love. Vidya was Jamie’s girlfriend before his disappearance, but she’s also the one Annie turns to when she has an idea to get him back. As they struggle to understand each other and grow closer, the two girls realize that Jamie had secrets from both of them. Jamie’s own sections of the book are essentially free-form poetry—North is a poet as well as a novelist—as he struggles to return home and to face the trauma he has experienced. (The book contains non-graphic descriptions of sexual assault.) In other chapters, the book tells the stories of Gumlea and Annie and Jamie’s other lives—sometimes inviting the reader to question which part of the book is the “true” one and which one is only a story.
Most of us believed in magic as kids. North writes beautifully about the desire to keep believing in that magic, even when it seems to have deserted you. Strange Creatures, like growing up, is often dark, messy, and difficult, but it’s wonderfully crafted, and I hope it finds an audience who will cherish it.
Strange Creatures by Phoebe North was published on June 1, 2021.