Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard may not think she's brave. But by the time the last page of this magical book is turned, the reader will discover our heroine is not only brave and daring, she is a true friend.
It's Christmas week and Ophelia, her gloomy sister Alice, and their father have decamped to an unnamed foreign city where it always snows. An international expert on swords, Mr. Whittard has been invited to curate an exhibition in a most unusual museum. Once they arrive, her father is busy and her sister only halfheartedly offers to watch out for Ophelia, a promise made to their mother before her recent death. With her sister easily distracted, off Ophelia goes, exploring rooms filled with teaspoons, telephones, mirrors, and stuffed elephants. Soon she finds herself near the famous Wintertide Clock that ticks "so loudly that people had to stick their fingers in their ears." Despite the warning of the dazzlingly beautiful and sharply manicured museum curator, Miss Kaminski, Ophelia continues to wander alone and curious through the galleries until she happens upon a door. What does she see through the door's keyhole? A large blue-green eye belonging to The Boy.
The boy shares his story within this story and, as bad luck and trickery would have it, he has been a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen for a very long time. If Ophelia chooses to help him, she must find the door's key, his magical sword, and the "One Other, who will know how to wield it."
Despite her scientific skepticism over things that can't be classified, Ophelia accepts the challenge. Spurred on by the whisperings of her mother, a writer who "believed in almost everything … vampires with satin cloaks and shape-shifters that slid through keyholes," Ophelia faces down frozen snow leopards and frightening museum guards to help her new friend.
The novel, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's the Snow Queen, features endpapers with illustrator Yoko Tanaka's guide to the museum as well as dark atmospheric double spreads between each book section. Adding to the appeal and elevating the story to much more than a retold fairy tale is the juxtaposition of old-fashioned language with modern-day images: Super Glue, Ophelia's asthma inhaler, a sister's attraction to eyeliner and blood-red lipstick. Readers who know nothing about the original fairy tale need not worry. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy stands tall on its own.
Australian author Karen Foxlee's novel will be read and loved by youngsters (ages 8-12) who've grown up on fairy tales, graduated to Harry Potter, and appreciate gorgeous writing and complex storytelling. In this story of friendship and yes, even bravery, Ophelia shines as one of the first true heroines of the 2014 crop of fabulous middle-grade novels.
Augusta Scattergood is a Monitor contributor.