Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green
By Helen Phillips
(Delacorte Books for Young Readers)
Phillips published her first book in 2011—not that you’d know it from her new book. And Yet They Were Happy was a collection of two-page stories that I once described as “grouped loosely by theme (floods, fights, helens), each of which reads like an entry from a cut-up combination of diary and dream journal… she casually blends realism with surrealism, the workaday with the mythic, evoking Zachary Mason’s Odysseus book, or Philip Pullman’s Jesus one, except the mythology she’s recasting is her own.” But her follow-up potentially reboots her career; Happy isn’t mentioned in the author bio, the publicity materials, the website, or anywhere else. Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green is middle-grade fiction, a page-turning jungle adventure set in an unnamed South American country. (Phillips spent some summers during high school and college in Costa Rica being wowed by the landscape.) But don’t cynically assume that the Ditmas Park-dwelling Brooklyn College lit professor is just cashing in on a lucrative publishing niche: Sunbeams is sensitive, absorbing, and beautifully written, a great book no matter its intended audience.
It feels modeled on Madeleine L’Engle’s Cold War classic A Wrinkle in Time: when the book opens, a father has gone incommunicado in a far-off place, and his children—two daughters, Madeline (!) and Ruby—and wife are on their way to the South American luxury spa where he has been working as a bird expert. A mystery unfolds thanks to the intrepid investigations of his plucky children, involving a thought-extinct species of tropical bird being hunted by vain and greedy villains. (Mom is no help; she’s sucked in by free yoga, which becomes a strange secondary villain—a cult of relaxation-qua-indifference.)
Phillips captures well how memories of the MIA dad loom large in his children’s lives, the little private jokes and customary turns of phrase that, when uttered or remembered, only highlight his absence. Part of growing up of course is distancing yourself from your parents or guardians, and the book is driven by the conflict between being little and growing up, capturing how entwined parents are in our lives at that age while we also seek to establish our independence. Madeline, on the cusp of adolescence, frequently reverts to childishness: she’s easily distracted during high-stakes situations (is that boy looking at me?), and she’s given to bratty sulking, especially when outshone by her younger sister, with whom she has a loving rivalry.
But the main character is really the jungle that surrounds them, a real-world version of the fantastical, otherworldly realms visited in A Wrinkle in Time, accessed through a gate like a C.S. Lewis wardrobe. Unlike such antecedents, though, this story is grounded in the real world: the bad guys are a sinister corporation, the stakes are environmental sustainability; the jungle may be foreign and fantastical, but it is ultimately also earthly. The kids’ task is not easy—plotty, scheme-y chapters are as full of guilt, sadness, shame and fear as any page in the relentlessly despairing Catching Fire—but not impossible: Phillips respects children and their ability to accomplish what needs to be done. But she doesn’t pretend that other adults do, too, at least not until the kids have proven themselves—that is, until they have asserted an identity distinct from their parents’.